By Jan Yumul in Hong Kong

A farmer harvests his crop on a farm in Al-Diriyah city on the northwestern outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 7, 2012. (PHOTO / AP)

Amid rising temperatures threatening living conditions and food security in the Gulf and broader Middle East, a collaborative project aims to beat the heat with a focus on enhancing the production of drought-resilient crops in Saudi Arabia.

Environmentally friendly investment and green initiatives in the region – such as this project between the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced at the end of May – will help create a more sustainable economy, experts said.

The joint initiative with the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture will focus on increasing the productivity of three vital dryland crops — sorghum, pearl millet, and sesame — by up to 20 percent in the regions of Mecca, Jazan, Aseer and Al-Baha

The desert topography and ample coastlines of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar – also offer opportunities to embrace new energy technologies away from fossil fuels, they added.

The three-year ICRISAT-FAO collaboration will support Saudi Arabia’s food production advancement and economic diversification, promote conservation, and empower farmers through digital tools to tackle challenges amid limited water supply.

The joint initiative with the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture will focus on increasing the productivity of three vital dryland crops — sorghum, pearl millet, and sesame — by up to 20 percent in the regions of Mecca, Jazan, Aseer and Al-Baha.

These regions collectively produce 170,000 tons of sorghum, 4,800 tons of pearl millet, and 4,000 tons of sesame across 70,000 hectares currently, and they are expected to expand production with the new initiative, according to ICRISAT.

ICRISAT Project Coordinator Ashok Kumar said that the crop varieties were selected based on crop utilization, growing season, environmental conditions, and pest and disease prevalence, as well as thorough consultation with farmers, extension workers, scientists, and on-site visits.

“Sesame is primarily used for oil extraction, while sorghum and millet serve both as grain and forage. The grains are used for making traditional flatbreads and porridge, while green forage and dry stover are important sources of animal feed. Farmers take multiple cuts of green forage from a single crop to feed their cattle, sheep, and camels,” said Kumar. Dry stover refers to the leftover leaves and stalks following a grain harvest.

In March, the UN warned of accelerating food insecurity in the Arab region due to global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. A UN report said that an estimated 53.9 million people suffered from severe food insecurity in the region in 2021, accounting for a 55 percent increase since 2010.

In addition, the UN noted that more than half the population in the Arab states, or 162.7 million people, could not afford a healthy diet in 2020. The cost of a healthy diet in the region increased each year since 2017, reaching $3.47 per person per day in 2020, the report said.

The Arab states comprise Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen.

Salman Zafar, founder of EcoMENA, an environmental think tank in Doha, Qatar, said that sustainability “involves the creation of healthier, economically stable, and socially viable livelihoods” for current and future generations.

“The spike in sustainability-related investment will help in creating a more sustainable economy in the region that is not reliant on finite fossil fuels, but on renewable sources.

“In recent years, regional governments and regulators have launched a host of sustainability projects to reverse environmental degradation, and corporate and the masses have been urged to take the lead. However, there’s a long way to go,” Zafar said.

Meanwhile, a recent study published in the Nature Sustainability journal, titled “Quantifying the human cost of global warming”, found that countries across the Gulf and the wider Middle East are highly vulnerable to rising extreme heat.

It looked at how countries will be exposed to “unprecedented heat”, defined as mean annual temperatures of 29 C or higher, by 2070. 

Qatar’s whole population will be exposed to extreme heat, closely followed by the UAE and Bahrain with almost their whole populations exposed. Kuwait and Oman will have more than 80 percent of their populations exposed, followed by Saudi Arabia with more than 60 percent and Yemen.

Dalal AlGhawas, founder and CEO of SWAPAC, an agrifood consultancy and trading company focused on food security in the GCC and Asia-Pacific, noted that the GCC nations, as prominent members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, are in a unique position when it comes to climate action.

With looming carbon taxes and countries around the world embracing renewable and nuclear energy, the GCC members have to find new ways to diversify their economies and ensure their food security needs as most of them import 80 to 90 percent of their food, she said.

“The GCC has a desert topography and ample access to coastlines, demonstrating opportunities to embrace new technologies such as solar energy and offshore farming,” AlGhawas said.

“Low energy costs from fossil fuels combined with solar power can offer solutions for sufficient energy needs for agriculture and desalination efforts to protect natural aquifers in the region.”

She pointed out that climate action startups have emerged within the GCC to tackle soil salinity and enhance food security. These include the Manhat from the UAE, using floating offshore farming techniques to utilize evaporated water without brine rejection and Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Farms that combine the internet of things, analytics and biotechnology to enhance seed cultivar climate resilience.

“With the approaching COP28 summit in the UAE this year, it is expected that many more technologies will be highlighted in GCC,” said AlGhawas, referring to the global climate change meeting that will be held in Dubai in November.

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