Perspectives 9 - Our Local Agriculture between Extreme Heat Waves and the Art of Coping with Climate Change

Temperature readings taken in Palestine, especially during the last three decades, indicate a clear trend of rising earth temperature.[1] Moreover, Palestine is located in the area subject to desertification, which according to Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) will include North Africa and the countries in the Mediterranean basin, along with vast areas of Asia. The trend of the global climate is not in doubt, and our Arab region is no exception.[2]


Is Global Warming Responsible for the ‘Extreme’ Weather in Palestine?


It is notable that the fertile eastern Arab region, which expands from Iraq (the basin of the Tigris and the Euphrates) to the coastal parts of the Levant (including Palestine), has in recent years suffered from a notable decline in rainfall. In Palestine, the winter of 2013-2014 was the driest in recorded climate history.[3] During the period from the 15th December 2013 until the 9th of March 2014 Palestine saw more than eighty days with almost no rain, this was accompanied by successive and large increases in temperatures well beyond annual averages. During January, February, and the beginning of March the temperature rose several times by ten to thirteen degrees Celsius above the annual average.[4] Furthermore, the days between the 13th and the 20th of February of this year (2016) saw temperatures of nine to twelve degrees Celsius above annual averages.[5]

Despite the fact that he 1960s and the 1970s were also hot decades; one can say that the last twenty years have been the hottest since 1950. This is in keeping with global trends.[6]


However, we should be careful not to attribute every case of extreme weather to global warming. From our knowledge and experience of the Palestinian climate, we know that a sizable number of such extreme and serious weather events occurred earlier than any mention of global warming or global climate change - the highest recorded temperature in Palestine was in 1942.[7]


Yet, the overall conclusion is not changed: yes we have warmer weather, but we still need to prove that this corresponds to the frequency and intensity of extreme weather incidents. When we analyse the weather data since 1950, we do not find a clear increase in the frequency or the intensity of extreme weather incidents. Furthermore, climatic surveys of Palestine and the rest of the Levant indicate that the most severe weather occurred in the nineteenth century.[8] Later in January 1950, snow covered the coastal city of Jaffa, reaching a height of ten centimeters; this incident is still the heaviest case of snow ever recorded in Palestine.[9]


Despite the great advances in meteorological technologies, and innovative, advanced climate models, we still cannot predict future incidents of extreme weather. However, it is estimated that, in time, and by the end of this century, the probability of successive heat waves will be greatly increased. We are already witnessing the beginning of this trend, in length, intensity, and frequency of such dangerous heat waves. For example, August 2015 was the hottest August since records began.[10] This was followed by the hottest September ever recorded in Palestine.[11]


Human acts are not necessarily exclusively responsible for the severe climate fluctuations that we are suffering; as such not all extreme weather can be linked to human caused climate change. Most 'extreme' weather conditions are part of natural changes; although this is not in itself inconsistent with the fact that global temperatures are on the rise, and that humans have played a role in this global warming.


The Suffering of Agriculture


In recent years, Palestinian agriculture has suffered great losses from frequent high heat waves. Expectations are that such losses will continue as temperatures hit record highs.[12] For example, watermelon is highly sensitive to heat, and some watermelon farmers in the Jordan Valley and Jenin have already abandoned their melon fields, while the crop that has survived the drought and the intense heat has been of poor quality.[13]


High temperatures also harm the pollination of fruit, as a result of the reduced mobility of the pollinating bees, hornets, and other insects. Damage has also been very evident in growth rates and the final quality of fruit,[14] as the ripening process suffers from changes in the normal maturation conditions. Drought and high temperatures clearly affect fruit trees, resulting in the early ripening of fruits, decreased sizes, and a shortened on-tree ripening time. Consequently, this has a major effect on marketing, especially as extreme weather conditions increase prices in both local and global markets. The quality and price of fruits and vegetables in our local markets are the main victims of climate change, along with livestock (poultry, sheep, and cows) which have been producing less eggs and milk, and of lower quality.


Winter fruits and vegetables also suffer from similar problems. In dry winters, fruit prices soar, especially for citruses and lettuce which cannot endure high temperatures, resulting in early blooming and bitter leaves.[15]


Current Palestinian Agricultural Policies and Approaches


Since the Israeli occupation of 1967, a big divergence in food production has occurred in Palestinian society (in the West Bank and in Gaza): from varied and self-sufficient food production patterns in rural Palestine, which are distinctive, and generate little waste, to economic and food dependency on Israel accompanied by high levels of waste that is neither reused nor recycled. As a result of the increasing number of Palestinians employed as salaried workers in Israel and other economies, and the accompanying abandonment of  agricultural lands, Palestine has been transformed into a consumerist society  - one that buys most of its commodities from Israel and abroad. As a result of all this, there has been little or no accumulation of local capital, capital which could have been reinvested in agricultural and industrial production.[16] From an environmental perspective, this has meant a great squandering of local capital and natural wealth, alongside an increased consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore a definite increase in carbon emissions.


The knowledge of traditional agricultural practices has been eroded among our youth. At the same time, chemical monoculture and high external inputs, as well as alien seeds (or hybrid seeds) which have replaced the local baladi seeds, has led to the destruction of the previous modes of production based on diversified and integrated farming. This has resulted in the disruption of the natural biological and ecological control mechanisms over pests and diseases, and lead to attacks from new and multi-plant pests that were unknown a few years ago. This has lead in turn to the intensified use of agrochemicals in areas like Jenin, Tulkarem, the Jordan Valley, and Gaza,[17]  where there is now an almost complete absence of successful natural, traditional methods of soil fertilization.


The huge increase in the use of nitrogenous chemical fertilizers, which contaminate groundwater and destroy the soil through the depletion of organic matter, has also caused an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.[18] In addition to the fact that these fertilizers have contributed to the killing of what had remained of the microorganisms living in the desertified soil - organisms that are considered fundamental to the soil and pivotal to decomposition of  the inner organic matter; the soil's ability to absorb water is receding, purging what is left of its fertility, and increasing its vulnerability to diseases.[19]


Decades ago, the traditional agricultural production patterns were diversified and integrated, which meant a beneficial relationship between the different elements of the agricultural production unit. It also meant minimal external inputs and minimal unused waste. In those good old days, countryside people would use crop remnants to feed animals, and use animal manure, made into compost, to fertilize their fields.[20] Furthermore, many farmers allowed shepherds to graze their cattle in the harvested fields, hence fertilizing the soil. Additionally, it was very common to practice crop rotation and symbiotic integration in the same plot of land, especially in lands directly surrounding the house. Another common practice was varying crop planting to accommodate for various local climates, different soil types, and crop species, in a coherent and integrated manner, thus significantly reducing the likelihood of loss, and also ensuring income and increasing food security for the farmers.[21] In addition, farms did not produce pollution, because all or at least most of the farm’s waste products were recycled within the same farm.


Despite the scarcity of rain and the droughts, which we suffered in the past few years, there has so far been no serious change in climatic patterns in our region.  Rather what has changed are the people, their lifestyles, and their modes of consumption; affecting the agricultural policies that are now being followed. For example, in recent years, there has been an almost annually repeated phenomenon of damage to some crops because of frost, even in agricultural greenhouses. However, if we inspect the nature of these crops we find that these are primarily summer crops that are being grown in winter, i.e. off-season.[22] Why, are so many of us are surprised when summer produce is damaged in winter? Why do cucumbers and tomatoes, artificially grown in winter, by using toxic nitrogenous fertilizers, get affected by frost while cauliflower, cabbage, and garlic don’t (or if at all then to a much lesser degree)? The latter are protected by the nature's wisdom: a wrap of foliage for the cauliflower, multi-layer leaves for cabbages, and several peels for the garlic, to shield them against frost. The same applies to grains that can endure frost and extreme colds, such as lentils, wheat, and barley.[23]


We often hear that marketing is the biggest problem. This is not accurate, as the output surplus applies to only a few monocrops, while we suffer gross shortages in most of our varied agricultural needs, and so have to import these products from Israel or from abroad.[24] Don't we import most of our strategic crops such as wheat, grains, fodders and other foods? The problem then lies in what and how we plant. We grow strategic and fundamental crops in only limited quantities, while at the same time we grow a narrow selection of monocrops that are overloaded with agrochemicals, and in huge, unneeded quantities, especially given the low export assurances exacerbated by our lack of control of crossings and borders. [25]


Looking Ahead

Up until now, and due to wrong-headed environmental and developmental priorities and strategies, no real action has been taken to address the negative effects of climate change at a Palestinian level.  Of course one must take into account the context of budgetary constraints and a general chaos of powers.


The continuing indifference of Palestinian officials, and people more generally, to climate change, along with the effects of the Israeli occupation, will cost the Palestinian environment and the economy dearly. The economic consequences resulting from the absence of requisite preventive efforts, may well run into hundreds of millions of dollars by 2020.[26] The main underlying causes of these losses will be in the worsening of water resources due to increased Israeli looting, while we experience floods and various similar phenomena along the shores of Gaza, and the further deterioration of agricultural conditions.


Farmers coping with Climate Change

What can we do for Palestinian agriculture, on both individual and collective levels, to mitigate the effects of global warming and cope with climate change? We can summarize the most important environmental practices that contribute to the mitigation of global warming and/or to coping with and adapting to climate change, as follows:


First: focus on the cultivation, purchase, and consumption of baladi (local) and organic foods. It's worth noting that organic and baladi farming does not use nitrogen fertilizers that lead to high rates of methane in the atmosphere. It also does not use chemical pesticides that pollute the soil, groundwater, and the air, and which are harmful to public health.[27]


Second: maintain healthy and fertile soil of good conformation, since a fertile and balanced soil is the front line of defense in the face of soil’s pests and diseases; healthy soil is the basis of strong and healthy produce. Moreover, it's necessary to use natural and organic fertilizers and manures, as well as compost, since these fertilizers enrich the soil with nutrients which are essential for plant growth, strongly decrease water consumption, and improve the quality and conformation of the soil. In addition, these fertilizers improve the aerial and hydro systems within the soil.[28] Furthermore, their contribution to the greenhouse effect is marginal.

It's also important to reuse, rather than burn, crop remnants and dry weeds, by adding them to compost piles or using them in fermenting baladi manure, especially dried grass and weeds. They can also be used to cover the soil surface around the crops, in what is known as biological mulch.[29]


Third: Use naturally flowing water as much as possible, much of which is currently lost in vain. This can be achieved by numerous wells, and erecting soil dams to harvest as much rainwater as possible. Such collected waters can be used for domestic or agricultural purposes, in addition to taking advantage of the water springs scattered around the West Bank. It's also necessary to encourage rain fed farming and to plant crops that do not need a lot of irrigation.[30] Furthermore, it's important to recycle wastewater for agricultural usage, in order to increase irrigation supplies and decrease environmental and groundwater pollution.


Fourth: focus on diversified farming which plays a pivotal role in pest control, as well as prolonging the production period as far as is possible. This means the availability of fresh produce in different seasons, and at the same time, the lessening of the economic risks of relying on one type of crop. Furthermore, it's common knowledge that the intensive monoculture system causes the proliferation and spread of pests that are often hard to control.[31] Companion planting, as well as mixed cropping, are considered a fundamental part of diversified and integrated farming. This technique helps in deterring and impeding pests, through cultivating a variety of different plants, trees, and vegetables together, in an integrated manner, so that they serve and reinforce each other in different ways, symbiotically, and without any competition between them. Some examples of companion planting are: tomatoes with mint which is an insect repellent; onions and garlic with potatoes and cabbage, since onions and garlic release materials that combat blast fungus which attacks potatoes, and Ascochyta fungus which attacks cabbage; beans with thyme or chamomile or mint or sage; and zucchini, squash, and pumpkin with corn.[32]


Fifth: pay due regard to tillage and its role in maintaining the soil. Because of our arid and semi-arid climate we can perform tillage twice a year: the first is a deep plowing in the autumn aimed at preparing the soil to receive the largest possible amounts of rainfall; while the second is surface plowing in the spring in order to eliminate weeds and retain soil moisture.[33]


Sixth: use baladi seeds,[34] since plants growing from hybrid or industrial seeds cause continued erosions of the soil fertility, and they need lots of water; whereas baladi seeds grow very well with baladi manure or compost, and they are resistant to pests and need little water. As such baladi seeds preserve the fertile and nutrient-rich soil structure.[35]


Seventh: encourage the cultivation of drought-tolerant plant varieties, especially those that can adapt to the local environment, and bear fruits early, before the beginning of the dry season with its negative effects on crops. Examples of crops that require little water are certain kinds of apricots, peaches, and various kinds of almonds.[36]


Eighth: some crops tolerate high temperatures, so in order to face the consecutive heat and drought waves, we have been encouraged to quickly develop new strains of wheat and barley that are more drought resistant. However, it's also important to work on encouraging the cultivation of traditional crops, or new ones that tolerate heat and require little care while accomplishing real economic, health and environmental benefits for farmers. In addition, such traditionally grown crops are in high demand whether locally or globally, and can be grown organically. Some examples are: cactus, carob, dates, sesame seeds, and medicinal and other kinds of herbs.[37]


Ninth: avoid the off-season artificial planting of crops. Only then we will stop witnessing the phenomenon of summer crops, grown in winter, and damaged by cold and frost.[38]


Tenth: it is necessary to possess knowledge that allows us to predict the potential effects of climate change in our region, and therefore get ready to cope with them. Agriculture will not suffer primarily because of this change itself, but because of the lack of appropriate readiness to cope with the change.[39] Farmers who know that there is a high probability of heat waves, should take precautions, and follow defensive strategies, producing (or buying) the kinds of crops that are drought-tolerant. Vegetables that are resistant to heat are extremely important, and the more resistant they are the more widely they can be grown in increasingly harsh climatic conditions.[40]


Summary and Conclusion

The phenomenon of global warming will turn into a climate disaster if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air continues to rise, as well as methane and nitric oxide, let alone the synthetic gases of Chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs). In recent decades, there has been a tremendous escalation of emissions caused by human industry and transportation, especially those emitted from burning fossil fuels, such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas.

Scientific estimates say that if the earth surface temperature rises more than two degrees Celsius, serious climatic changes will occur. Despite this, it's expected that by the end of this century the impact of the global warming will lead to a rise in temperature on the earth's surface of five degrees Celsius. This will result in massive evaporation of freshwater resources, and serious water shortages.[41] Furthermore, severe drought will spread widely, while in some regions inundations of tremendous amounts of rainwater will destroy agricultural processes.[42] We have been witnessing the beginnings of the effects of these phenomenon in our Arab region in recent years.  


In Palestine the principal issue remains our immense use of externally produced products that raise the level of carbon monoxides and carbon dioxides, and increases the consumption of fossil fuels - which are totally controlled by the Israeli occupation. Therefore, reducing our dependency on external agricultural products through reusing and recycling, and effectively managing farm resources, equipment, and energy, will lead to better preservation and improvement in the quality of the environment and to the protection of our national resources.[43]


Currently, what is required from the relevant official, governmental, and civil stakeholders is to promptly develop a clear and systematic strategy to confront the climate crisis. It's also necessary for Palestinians to equip themselves with the necessary tools and procedures to enable the assessment and measurement of atmospheric and air pollution. This will enable Palestinians to develop plans, policies, and measures that are able to address air pollution, and mitigate the potential consequences of climate change.


[1] Kurzom, G.  ‘Aathaar Intihaakaat al-Ihtilaal al-Isra'eeli lil Bee'a wa al-Mawaared at-Tabee'iyya al-Falasteeniyya 'ala at-Taghayyor al-Manaakhi’ [The Impact of the Israeli Occupation's Violations of the Environment and Palestinian Natural Resources on Climate Change]. In Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, [Prospects of Environment and Development] no. 16, July 2009 (in Arabic) 

[2]  Kurzom ,G. ‘Mawjaat al-Haraara al-Mutatarrifa allati Darabat Mantiqatana Satatafaaqam …"’ [Extreme Heat Waves that Hit Our Region Will Worsen]. In Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, no. 78, Oct 2015 (in Arabic)

[3] Kurzom ,G. ‘Filasteen wa Sa'er al-Mantiqa al-'Arabiyya Satazdaadu Sukhoonatan wa Jaffaafan wa Tasahhuran fee thil Mashhad Geosiyaasi Qaatem’ [Palestine and the rest of the Arab Region will become Warmer and Drier and more Desertified under the Grim Geopolitical Scene]. Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, no. 73,  April 2015 (in Arabic)

[4]  Ibid.

[5] Personal observations of George Kurzom

[6] Kurzom ,G. ‘Hal al-Ihtiraar al-'Alami Mas'oolun 'an at-Taghayyuraat al-Mutatarrifa fee Ahwaal at-Taqs al-Filasteeni?’ [Is Global Warming Responsible for the Radical Changes in the Palestinian Weather Conditions?]. In Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, no. 80, December 2015 (in Arabic)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kurzom, G. 2012 Taghayyur al-Manakhi fi al-Watan al-Arabi: Aaliyyaat ad-Diffa' wa al-Muwaajaha – al-Haala al-Falasteeniyya [Climate Change in the Arab Countries:  Defense and Confrontation Mechanisms – The Palestinian Case]. Ramallah: Ma'an Development Center. [in Arabic] p.13

[13] Lobell, D et al. 2010 Climate Change and Food Security. New York: Springer. p.63

[14] Ibid

[15] Kurzom, G. 2012

[16] Kurzom, G. ‘al-Mutasaaqitat fee Filasteen lam Tataghayyar Taqreeban khilaal as-Sanawaat at-Tis'een al-Akheera …’ [Precipitations in Palestine almost Unchanged over the Last Ninety Years]. In Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, no. 74, May 2015(in Arabic)

[17] Kurzom, G. 2015 , as-Siyaada al-Wataniyya 'ala al-Githaa' [The National Food sovereignty]. Ramallah: Ma'an Development Center. p.33

[18] Ibid: 45

[19] Ibid: 48

[20] Ibid: 48-49

[21] Ibid: 49

[22] Kurzom, G. 2012: 12

[23] Ibid

[24] Kurzom, G. 2015: 58-59

[25]  Ibid: 59

[26] Kurzom, G. Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, no. 16

[27] Kurzom, G. ‘Fann Muwaajahet at-Taghayyur al-Manaakhi fee Zira'atina al-Mahalliyya’ [The Art of Coping with Climate Change in Our Local Agriculture]. In Afaaq al-Bee'a wa at-Tanmiya, no. 53, April 2013 (in Arabic)

[28]  Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31]  Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Baladi seeds are local non industrialized seeds that have grown and evolved within the local genetic context.  They are an essential component in seasonal and rain-fed local Palestinian agriculture which is acclimatized to the local ecosystem.  Their consumption of external inputs is low. They are characterized by greater resistance to diseases and pests than hybrid –industrialized seeds, and can be re-produced from the same seeds; and thus re-grown with each new season.


[35]Kurzom, G. 2013

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] Adger,W. N. et al. 2010, Adapting to Climate Change. UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 42-52

[42] Ibid

[43] Kurzom, G. 2015: 67