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The 1998-99 drought in the Mashriq countries had severe effects on the sheep population and their owners - many herders were forced to sell their flocks at cheap prices for want of grazing

Source: UNEP, Topham Picturepoint

Rainfall appears to be declining in some countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Over the past 100 years, precipitation has decreased by more than 5 per cent over much of the land bordering the Mediterranean with a few exceptions such as Libya and Tunisia (IPCC 1996). The region suffered droughts during the 1930s, 1960s and the 1990s. In the winters of 1991-92 and 1992-93, snowfall was rare in many areas of the eastern Mediterranean (WMO and UNEP 1994). Cycles of drought have become intense and more frequent. The 1998-99 drought affected many countries and Syria was the worst hit, suffering its worst drought in 25 years (FAO 1999).

The most direct effects of the drought were crop failures and a decline in cereal and livestock production. In Iraq, for example, cereal production declined by 20 per cent compared to the previous year and by 40 per cent compared to the average production for the previous five years (FAO 1999). A report by a FAO/WFP mission to Syria stated that a large proportion of the nomadic herders were facing 'financial ruin', with 4 700 households seriously vulnerable to food shortages and in urgent need of food assistance. Cereal production was also seriously affected. Barley harvest was estimated to be only 380 000 tonnes - less than half the 1998 total and down 72 per cent from the previous five-year average. Local needs had to be satisfied through imports. Reduction in wheat production was less severe (28 per cent below average) because 40 per cent of Syria's wheat fields are irrigated. Jordan was also adversely affected by the drought, which reduced the country's wheat and barley production in 1999 by 88 per cent (WFP 2001).

A few of the 600 oil wells deliberately ignited during the second Gulf War in January 1999

Source: UNEP, Sandro Pintras, Topham Picturepoint

Drought results in economic, social and environmental problems. Economic hardships during drought intensify and can lead to social conflict between land users, especially in the Mashriq countries and in Yemen where an agricultural economy prevails. Drought is also a major limiting factor to the region's economic development, affecting the development of agricultural and water schemes, and ultimately food production.

Forage and fodder become scarce in rangelands during droughts. In addition, the decline in cereal production and the limited availability of crop residues worsen the impact of drought on the sheep population and consequently on human well-being. Loss of sheep and the high price of supplementary feed led to a significant drop in farmers' incomes and many families were forced to sell off their animals and other assets at low prices (FAO 1999).

Land degradation, mostly in the form of desertification, is one of the region's most serious problems. Although desertification is often attributed to poor land use practices, drought deepens the effect and extends the area prone to desertification to encompass areas normally not at risk. Decreases in plant cover due to drought may also increase erosion and lead to a nearly irreversible loss of productive potential and subsequently desertification (Le Houérou 1993, Parton and others 1993).

Nations have responded to drought by improving national efforts to combat desertification and joining international ones with the same aim such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Under the auspices of this international treaty, national action programmes have been developed and a subregional action programme to combat desertification and drought was adopted in 2000 (UNCCD 2001).

At the national level, actions and measures include modification of agricultural and water policies and giving priority to drought-affected areas.