Date farmers harvest bitter fruits of climate change

In Algeria’s Biskra province, known for centuries for its magnificent date production, small-scale farmers are increasingly battling to cultivate and protect their precious crops.

This second instalment in New Frame’s three-part series on the impact of climate change in northeastern Algeria looks at Biskra province and oasis towns such as Tolga, which boasts 500 000 date palms. The Romans inhabited the area 2 000 years ago, and cultivating and harvesting dates have been the lifeblood of the local economy ever since. But a change in precipitation patterns is affecting the production of dates, and some farmers have decided to abandon the crop that has been grown for generations. 

In Biskra, a gathering of oases on the northeastern cusp of the Algerian Sahara Desert, locals live by the motto “Give to the date palm and she will return the favour”. It is sacrosanct.

For centuries, the indigenous populations of the Ziban mountain range have carefully planted and pollinated their precious date palms. These days, more than 100 cultivars of dates sprout from four million  trees in Biskra, ensuring agriculture remains the lifeblood of the region’s economy. 

More than 200 000 tons of dates were shipped out of Algeria in 2019, amounting to exports worth over $50 million (about R836 million). They are the country’s second most profitable commodity after the hydrocarbon – oil and natural gas – sector.

Part One:

Yet, due to an increase in temperature, shifting precipitation patterns and sustained stress on limited water resources, small-scale date farmers in Biskra are having to permanently change the way they grow, cultivate and harvest their product.

A lifetime of loving dates

“This garden is heaven for me,” says Khoualed, a fellah (farm hand) who lives and works on a wealthy family’s palm grove near Biskra’s airport. “When I wake up in the morning, I drink my coffee and have some cake. Then I am with my friends,” he says, pointing to the date palms that surround him in every direction. “This one here is my friend, this one is my brother and this one is my uncle… What more could a person want?” He gives a wide smile.

For Khoualed, and tens of thousands like him, life revolves around the date palm. Coffee can be made from its roasted pits, the dried-out trunk is used to construct furniture, and the wilted pinnate leaves can be woven into baskets, stepping mats or even straw hats.

The queen of the date palm, however, is the deglet nour (“date of divine light”, also known as the royal date), a cultivar with an elongated, fleshy, velvety fruit that is almost too sweet for consumption. With its delicious taste and versatile use, the divinity of the fruit is never called into question. 

Khoualed recalls how, as a young boy, his father pulled him out of class after a single month of schooling so that he could help to pollinate the trees. Now he is nearing the age of retirement and can attest to a dramatic change in his trade.

“When I was growing up, there was heavy rainfall in the winter and sometimes it even rained in the summer. The land efficiently absorbed water and the wadis [creeks and riverbeds] were full. Farmers came to the rivers and transported the share of water that they needed. They properly irrigated their garden and the harvest bore high-quality fruit.”

10 August 2020: Acres of palm trees flank the main road that enters the city of Biskra. (Photograph by Maher Mezahi)

Temperatures rise while rain stays away

Assuring the production of a high-quality fruit is increasingly challenging owing to changing precipitation patterns. According to several date farmers, the rainfall in 2020 has been less than previous years. As a result, some small-scale farmers have used pesticides to repel spiders and parasites that otherwise would have been washed away by the rain.

Mohamed Kamel Bensalah, a researcher at the Centre for Scientific and Technical Research on Arid Regions in the city of Biskra, says the pollination cycle of some date palms has had to be extended while the cycle of others needed shortening. 

“In some areas, the date palm can be pollinated in February and in others [in] May. At the time of harvest, there can also be a regional staggering of up to 10 days in the cycle,” he says. “Another climate problem that affects the quality of Biskra dates is an increase in temperature. The risk is that the fruit may burn and dry out.” 

According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2019 was the hottest calendar year since 1981. Algerian institutions working in the fields of climatology and climate change corroborated that information, saying July 2019 was especially hot across the country. “It was between 0.2 and 3.3°C warmer than normal average temperatures in all but one province,” reported the National Centre of Climatology.

To protect the bunches of deglet nour from the summer heat, which can average more than 40°C, farmers “bag” dates by hanging plastic or fabric bags over them to provide shade and keep insects and birds away.

8 August 2020: A local well draws water from an underground aquifer under the Sahara Desert in Biskra. (Photograph by Abderazak HadjTahar)

The limitations of artisanal wells

Though Biskra is the door to the world’s largest hot desert, it also sits on the largest freshwater reservoir in the world. The Albian aquifer is almost twice the size of France, and 70% of its 50 000 billion cubic metres of hot water can be found in southeastern Algeria. 

However spectacular the Albian aquifer is as a resource, it is a limited one and thus must be controlled. The Algerian, Libyan and Tunisian governments have put in place multilateral agreements vowing to responsibly draw from the reservoir to avoid its depletion. Unfortunately for small-scale farmers, only the state has permission and the capacity to draw on the water. 

Nevertheless, any date producer who is serious about his trade drills a shallow well in his garden, which can go hundreds of metres into the ground to draw on more accessible overlying reservoirs.

Such is the case for Lamri Bennacer, a 36-year-old date farmer who eagerly shares the plight of his date palms with anyone who will listen. Sitting on 15ha of family land, Bennacer’s 1 200 trees are on life support, having not been properly irrigated since the early 2000s because his artisanal well does not provide him with enough water. He uses drip irrigation, which just about keeps his trees alive.

Bennacer’s well reaches 130m underground. At that depth, he draws fresh water but not enough. “I cannot plant more because my water resources are insufficient for irrigation. If I had a deeper well, I could plant 500 or 600 more trees and have a large harvest. Artisanal wells are useless,” says Bennacer.

It is not abnormal for artisanal or even hydraulic wells to dry up as a result of the multiple wells in close proximity. According to Bennacer, an industrial well that draws water from 500m underground would solve his problem, but the local authorities rarely give authorisation for this.

Solutions remain limited for Khoualed, Bennacer and thousands of other small-scale date farmers in Biskra. With diminishing rainfall, increasing temperatures and depleting water reservoirs, the effects of climate change continue to add hardships to those who can least afford the battle.

9 August 2020: Lamri Bennacer examines his withering palm trees in Lioua. (Photograph by Maher Mezahi)

The research for this article was supported by the Candid Foundation’s journalism grant. 

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