Moroccan officials blame the drought for an expected slump in Morocco's economic growth this year, showing how farming in the kingdom still relies on smallholdings that lie beyond the network of dams and irrigation channels that guarantee water in dry years.
LAGFAF, Morocco -- When 2007 arrived and the winter rains had still not fallen, Morocco's religious leaders led anxious prayers to avert a rural catastrophe, quoting from the Koran:
"And it is he who makes the rains fall after we have despaired, and spreads his grace."
The months passed but clouds scudded over the kingdom's central plains without shedding their load and in the fields near the central Moroccan town of Khouribga, seeds grew into stunted crops.
The harvest is almost over, and farmers gathered for the weekly market in the nearby village of Lagfaf say most of the wheat is good enough only for the animals. Only 100 kg per hectare were harvested, against 2 tonnes in a good year.
The last time things were this bad was 1981, when scarcity of grain caused bread prices to soar and led to bloody riots in Casablanca.
"It was similar back in 1981 but since then we've never had such a tough year as this," said Mohamed Darif, a tall, thin 78-year-old Indochina war veteran wearing thick glasses and a tufty white beard on his bony chin.
Young men who would normally be earning 30 dirhams ($3.57) a day helping with the harvest instead spend their time in cafes, talking about escape to Europe.
"We're here all day just waiting for the evening. We eat, then we sleep," said Tarek Afhuf, 19. "I know my family is here but I must work. I need a future."
Officials in the capital Rabat say climate change has raised temperatures and contributed to a 30 percent decline in rainfall in recent years and fertile acreage is shrinking.
They blame the drought for an expected slump in Morocco's economic growth this year, showing how farming in the kingdom still relies on smallholdings that lie beyond the network of dams and irrigation channels that guarantee water in dry years.
The government has launched measures to protect flocks using water trucks, tax breaks and subsidies on animal feed.
It says many grain farmers have joined an insurance scheme to protect their incomes and are benefiting from advice to help a shift to alternative crops like olives, fruit and chickpeas.
"With global warming, the situation could worsen, but drought is already a structural phenomenon in the country," said an official at Morocco's agriculture ministry who asked not to be named: "Everything is being geared to water economy, diversification of crops and adaptation."
Farmers in Lagfaf say the help is failing to reach them. Their incomes dwindling, some say they would be unable to sow or harvest without money borrowed from relatives who have already moved abroad.
Without help, they are unable to invest in equipment to improve productivity and raise their standard of living. An alternative -- to lease land to a bigger landowner with the financial clout to buy the equipment -- still leaves small farmers at risk.
A group of farmers in Lagfaf said they rented 1,400 hectares to a local official in 2001: he failed to pay them and has blocked government aid to them. A court ruled in their favour but the police have never enforced the ruling, they said.
"Drought is a natural thing, the will of God that we must accept," said Darif. "What we won't accept is that we are deprived of subsidies and our land taken illegally."
Two-thirds of the illegal Moroccan migrants arrested by Spanish authorities in recent years come from the farming and phosphate mining region between Khouribga and the nearby town of Beni Mellal, according to migrant family support group AFVIC.
It says between 300,000 and 400,000 people have left the area in the last decade.
Those who make it to France, Spain and Italy are viewed back home as heroes, encouraging more to leave.
But some have decided to stay behind and pour their energy into making small-scale farming viable.
A dairy cooperative recently established near Lagfaf has quickly grown to 100 members with a total of 600 cows to buy feed in bulk at lower prices and sell milk to Centrale Laitiere, Morocco's biggest milk buyer, controlled by the royal family.
An association trains cooperative members and helps them diversify feed sources and make better use of water.
They hope soon to produce cheese and yoghurt using technology borrowed from an Italian non-governmental organisation.
"People who have not emigrated from here already are thinking about it," said cooperative board member Torri. "But we must not allow our land to fall idle."