Mohamad Ali Harissi

Agence France Presse

BEIRUT: As Europe shivers under freezing temperatures, unusually balmy weather and a lack of rain or snow have spelled disaster for Lebanon’s farmers and ski resorts.

“The delayed rainfall is threatening some of our major springs, in which water is becoming increasingly scarce,” said Fouad Hashwa, the dean of the School of Science at the Lebanese American University. “If this situation continues, we could be facing disaster and major crises in some areas,” Hashwa told AFP.

Lebanon has had 51.2 millimeters (2.05 inches) of rain since September, drastically down from 214.8 millimeters during the same period last year, according to the meteorology bureau.

Experts estimate Lebanon annually has an average 2.1 billion cubic meters (73.5 billion cubic feet) of renewable hydraulic resources, more than half of which is dumped into the Mediterranean for lack of any strategic planning.

Complicating matters even more this year are record high temperatures – 28 Celsius (82.4 Fahrenheit) Thursday – that have people still flocking to the beach.

The last rainfall was more than a month ago leading to a severe water shortage that has forced citizens to purchase water on a daily basis. This, in a country that has long been the envy of its neighbors for its abundance of water resources.

“The heatwave and delayed rain is not normal, but it is also not unheard of,” said Mark Whaybeh, head of the meteorological department at Beirut international airport.

“What is new, however, is that the heatwaves and drought have become significantly more protracted,” Whaybeh told AFP.

The Agriculture Ministry has warned the drought would affect Lebanon’s wheat crops, a key source of food and income for many farmers.

“We can easily say that wheat season is in danger,” said Ali Yassin, director general of the ministry.

“Usually, the land is irrigated in the month of November which makes it easier to grow wheat, but so far this has not yet happened,” Yassin told AFP.

“And one of our biggest concerns is that recurrent drought year after year … can lead to desertification. The drought has not spared neighboring Syria, where many rural communities abandoned the country’s bread basket in the northeast in search of employment in the city. The World Food Program has also begun to deliver food aid there.

In nearby Jordan, the Religious Affairs Ministry has called on people to gather Thursday to hold special Salat al-Istisqa prayers for rain in the parched kingdom.

Hani Safieddin, head of the farmers union in southern Lebanon, a rich agricultural area, said he fears the same fate for farmers in his country who are purchasing water to irrigate their land.

“We can hear the warning bells,” Safieddin told AFP.

The drought also has ski resorts on edge. Jad Khalil, who runs a resort in the popular ski town of Kfardebian, northeast of Beirut, says he expects the ski season to be the worst ever.

He has begun to offer clients discounts in a desperate attempt to lure them in.

“Last winter we lost a month and a half of our work because of the delayed snow, and this year we are still waiting for client reservations,” Khalil told AFP.

The unseasonable weather also poses a threat to the iconic cedars and a series of forest fires have ravaged mountain areas in recent weeks.

“The risk of drought is deadly for small cedars trees, especially those that measure one meter or less,” said agricultural engineer Charbel Lahoud.

With meteorologists predicting clear skies through mid-December, Muslim religious leaders are banking on divine intervention and have called for special prayers this Friday for rain, a call echoed by the Christian clergy.

A group of young Lebanese are also set to gather in the upscale central district of Beirut on Friday to perform a traditional rain dance.