Drought in the Fertile Crescent

Drought in the Fertile Crescent

One of the worst droughts in the past decade settled heavily over the Fertile Crescent region of Iraq and Syria in the winter of 2007-2008. Under normal conditions, winter rain and rivers flowing from the mountains of Turkey sustain the rich agricultural land that has fed humanity from the dawn of civilization. But little to no rain fell between October and December during the crucial planting period, and sparse rain fell in the months that followed, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).

Crop analysts at the Foreign Agricultural Service use satellite imagery such as this vegetation image along with field reports to track crop conditions around the world. Made from data collected by France’s SPOT Vegetation satellite in April 2008, this image shows how plants were growing compared to a long-term average. The arc of deep brown that stretches over the Fertile Crescent region indicates that plants were more sparse or less healthy than average in April 2008. Irrigated farmland stands out as bright green spots surrounded by the brown or white that represents rain-fed vegetation. For a closer view of the contrast between irrigated and rain-fed crops, see the MODIS image of northern Syria and Iraq.

The regions most severely affected by the drought are eastern Syrian and northern Iraq, the major grain-growing regions of both countries. Seventy-five percent of Syria’s wheat crop comes from drought-affected regions in the northeast, and a significant portion of Iraq’s farmland suffered, said the FAS. In these regions, more than half of the crops rely on rain for water and so are deeply impacted by drought. Since the seeds require moist soil to germinate, dryness during the planting period caused crops to fail in many cases, and those that did survive will likely have a very low yield when harvested in June and July, said FAS. Many farmers did not plant at all.

Even irrigated crops suffered from a lack of water, since the drought limited the amount of well and river water available for irrigation. The winter’s drought was followed by a hot, dry spring that further damaged crops. As a result, Iraqi farmers were anticipating a harvest as much as 51 percent smaller than the harvest of 2007, said the FAS. Syrian farmers faired a little better, though FAS expected that the Syrian wheat harvest would be 38 percent lower than in 2007. The image shows that the drought also crept east into Iran’s wheat-growing region, where farmers were anticipating their smallest harvest in six years.

Image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided by the United State Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service and processed by Jennifer Small and Assaf Anyamba, NASA GIMMS Group at Goddard Space Flight Center. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

References & Resources