23 February 2023

Beirut time

Expert Group Meeting

Unlocking the potential of rainfed agriculture

Contact information

Rainfed agriculture is vital to sustain rural livelihood in the Arab region. It requires low investments to achieve higher yields. However, the potential of rainfed agriculture remains largely untapped and its systems inadequate, despite the availability of adapted and well-known technologies and practices that could help boost it.

This meeting discusses the key aspects of a background report on unlocking the potential of rainfed agriculture. The report assesses the state of rainfed systems in the Arab Region and outlines ways to improve them. The meeting brings together officials from member countries, experts from national and regional institutions, civil society, research hubs and academia as well as partner United Nations agencies working in the region.

Outcome document

  • In the Arab region, rainfed agriculture plays an important role in providing food and generating livelihoods, especially in poor rural communities;
  • However, rainfed systems are characterized by low yields due to unfavorable precipitation and land degradation as well as low efficiency of resources management and use;
  • There is limited potential for their expansion while climate change might affect it due to a reduction in precipitation and higher temperature;
  • Increasing the productivity of rainfed systems in the region requires strategic change in risk management associated with water scarcity, which will include better water management at the field and watershed levels together with a better use of other agricultural inputs;
  • Enhancing rainwater productivity requires new cropping patterns to maximize returns, which will include the adoption of climate-smart rainfed production systems;
  • It requires substantial investment to alleviate the production risks and upgrade the system;
  • Technologies and practices to unlock rainfed systems’ potential are already available, but a good enabling environment to adopt and implement these solutions is still lacking;
  • It requires efforts involving institutional capacities, policy frameworks, knowledge generation, and finance;
  • Supplemental irrigation is a key practice to unlock rainfed yield potential and improving water and land productivities though it is underused in the region;
  • Supplemental irrigation could build on rainwater harvesting to reduce the risks associated with drought to achieve substantial productivity gains;
  • With better water management the use of other inputs such as fertilizers, high yield crops varieties and other practices would prove even more beneficial through increased productivity increases;
  • Soil and water conservation practices, which constitute major investment focus in rainfed agriculture could also become more profitable;
  • Policies need to be re-adapted to focus more on rainfed systems and to use groundwater more strategically to improve productivity in rainfed systems notably to overcome period of droughts;
  • Monitoring and collecting data on various indicators in rainfed agriculture is necessary to improve the system in an informed manner, which would require disaggregating data on rainfed and irrigated systems in terms of yields, production, cropped areas, farm income and others such as crop water use, soil moisture changes, and drought spells which are currently only available in research stations.

Presentation 1: Overviewed overall trends and other characteristics as related to outputs and inputs of the agricultural sector of the Arab region. It highlighted trends in agriculture value added, employment in agriculture, natural resources availability, land and water, and public investments in agriculture.

Presentation 2: Reviewed the vulnerabilities and challenges facing rainfed systems in the Arab region. Drought and soil moisture levels are amongst the main vulnerabilities affecting rainfed systems notably as annual rainfall is expected to be reduced by 15-25% with more significant variability and extreme events with climate change. The state of rainfed systems is poor. However, it has a largely untapped potential due to limited investments and adoption of improved practices, which are both critically slow. Several strategies are suggested to unlock the potential of rainfed systems including raising the institutional priority regarding investments in this domain and the adoption of already available practices such as supplemental irrigation, rainwater harvesting and conservation, agronomic practices and other genetic enhancement.

Briefings were provided on the prevailing agricultural practices situation based on experts’ research and experiences within regional research and academic centers. Each highlighted critical indicators showing the level of depletion in rainfed agriculture application in the region as well a succinct overview on case studies and experiences tackling rainfed agriculture successful results such as in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt.

  • The discussions highlighted the need to invest more in rainfed agriculture to increase productivity and achieve sustainable agricultural development;
  • Cereals and wheat in the Arab region are not drought tolerant, therefore, there should be improvement in the physiological characteristics for drought tolerance improvement;
  • Physiological characteristics of crops should be taken into consideration to enhance water productivity;
  • A consistent follow up on strategies and available data is required to close the gap between potential and actual production;
  • Countries should invest to enhance their technical skills through better funding of rainfed systems including through donor support;
  • New sanitary standards for irrigating crops should be set and respected, especially that the region is falling short on export markets since sanitary issues are not addressed;
  • Countries should work to protect and improve agricultural lands and to develop adequate rainfed systems. Several million hectares of arable lands exist in the Arab region though less than 50% of this land is used for agriculture production and usually with low productivity;
  • Focus should be given to good agricultural practices to improve quality and standards;
  • Data on crop water use, soil moisture changes and drought spells along with developed data for rainfed system should be assessed regularly to better adapt to climatic changes and improve rainfed systems.
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