Increasingly frequent droughts in North Africa will force governments to import more food, placing their economies under severe strain unless global warming is checked, a senior UN climate expert said.
A dry spell in Morocco has slashed the country's 2007 grain crop to an estimated 2.0 million tonnes from 9.3 million last year and the government is expected to triple soft wheat imports to 3.0 million tonnes.
Rising world temperatures will make such droughts more common, increasing dependence on large-scale, costly food imports in the region, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chairman Rajendra Pachauri told Reuters on Tuesday.
"Grain stocks globally are at a precarious low and if you look at the predicament of regions like this one you really don't have the kind of reserves to draw on if you want to import large quantities," said Pachauri.
"They will have to pay heavily for this and this could disturb the economies of the region."
In May a report by the IPCC, agreed by scientists and officials from more than 100 countries, recommended sweeping cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming in check.
"Droughts and floods are already becoming more frequent and our projections are they will become more so in the future," Pachauri said on the sidelines of a climate conference in the Moroccan city of Casablanca.
"If you look at larger countries China, India and Brazil, clearly with the decline in productivity there would be serious threats of undernourishment and actual famines in certain parts of world."
In the Maghreb, agriculture is dominated by non-irrigated, small-scale farms that successive governments have failed to modernise fast enough to feed growing populations.
More frequent droughts have worsened the situation across the region, where crop yields already swing widely because of cyclical dry seasons.
Officials in Morocco estimate that rainfall has declined by 30 percent in recent years and fertile acreage is shrinking.
"This region is extremely vulnerable in terms of the impact of climate change on agriculture," said Pachauri. "With price changes in grain, some poorer countries would not be able to afford imports of food to feed their populations."
The IPCC said growth of up to 3 degrees Celsius in average world temperatures could boost crop yields in temperate regions like Europe but will lower them in the tropical and sub-tropical regions that are home to most of the world's population.
"Any increase you have in temperate regions is not going to offset the decline in those other regions," said Pachauri. "It's useful for us to start thinking ahead and seeing what new crops and practical answers can be adopted to ensure that the problem does not become larger than today."