When fierce rains wet West Bank lands last winter, the precipitation fed the hopes of many farmers for a fruitful harvest. But just five days after the season began this week, some farmers were already declaring they were done.
“Some people have already finished the harvest because there are no olives, none at all this season,” Mustafa Kochesh, a farmer from the town of Deir Istiya, said at the cooperative press factory he manages.
These cases are not isolated. Across the West Bank, as in Israel, olive growers are mentioning the destructive effect of this year’s extreme heat.
Olive experts and climatologists who spoke with Haaretz tie the low yields to the heat and dryness, which are expected to become more common as global warming continues. This trend poses a growing threat to an agriculture sector that greatly symbolizes the local landscape.
Kochesh is among Deir Istiya’s farmers worried about their livelihood. Imad al-Khatib, 53, for whom olive oil is his main source of income, says his plot yielded 40 jerricans 15 years ago but now only five. He says the main culprit is the severe heat that lasted 10 days in May, just when the trees were blooming.
“It simply dried out the tree,” Khatib said while bending a branch to show how dry it was. “We’re still seeing it.”
Experts back up the farmers with long-term data. “Olives are most sensitive while blooming, around in April and May,” said Arnon Dag of the Volcani agricultural research center, who specializes in olive growing.
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“Heat waves combined with dryness make the flowers fall off. The longer the wave lasts, the stronger the impact.”
Dag says heat waves hurt flowers and tiny fruit at the beginning of the ripening process for all trees. “When it’s very dry the tree gets stressed and can’t cool itself,” he said.
The May heat wave did more damage in the West Bank than in Israel because the overwhelming majority of West Bank olive trees rely on rain rather than irrigation. While only a quarter of olive trees in Israel are irrigated, they account for two-thirds of the oil.
One olive expert, Uri Yogev, said Israeli farmers also expected a bumper crop, but “because of the hot winds we only got 10 to 20 percent of the normal production for the year.”
And it’s not just the heat. “There are also trend changes in precipitation,” said Hadas Saaroni, a Tel Aviv University climatologist who researched the issue with the Open University’s Baruch Ziv.
“If you look at the annual average for rain, the changes aren’t very big, but ... you can see a shorter season,” Saaroni said.
This change is particularly significant for farmers who don’t irrigate. If the rain ends early, the tree has to hold out longer without being watered.
Mark Perl, an agrometeorologist at the Agriculture Ministry, adds another variable – rain distribution. “We see too much dryness punctuated by stronger rains,” he said.
Stronger rains make it harder for the water to penetrate the soil, reducing the amount of water available for the trees to soak up, and increasing the risk of flooding.
Dag adds, “One measurement that farmers look at in late winter is the depth of soaking.” Still, the researchers noted that local olive tree strains are more resilient to dryness than imported ones.
Israel’s plant council says a simple way to prevent stress is to water olive trees, but Palestinian growers have little choice in the matter. The Oslo Accords grant Israel control over water in the area and 80 percent of the mountain aquifer, leaving Palestinians only 20 percent.
The shortage drives Palestinians to dig wells, but without Israeli approval they get demolished. Thus, many Palestinians are forced to buy water at exorbitant prices and haul it in containers to their plots.
“Some people bring water from their homes to water a few young trees,” said Kochesh, the farmer from Deir Istiya. Ayoub Abu Hijala, an olive grower working for the Economic and Social Development Center of Palestine, adds that Palestinians prune their trees more than in the past to reduce water consumption.
Meanwhile, the water problem threatens to worsen. The Israel Meteorological Service expects extreme heat waves outside summer to become more common. Palestinian farmers thus are among the first to suffer from climate change.
These challenges could join other hurdles for olive growers, like the separation barrier preventing access to land, and settlers who uproot olive trees. Abu Hijala notes that many Palestinians have abandoned agriculture over the years.
UN figures show that 45 percent of West Bank agricultural land is home to around 12 million olive trees, 90 percent of which are used for olive oil. The rest go for soap and products like pickled olives.
According to the United Nations, the oil industry is a major income source for 100,000 families. Non-irrigation farming, which stands at the heart of the industry, often has a romantic image, and farmers say there is nothing like the taste of such oil.
But lack of choice is even more of an incentive. Many would prefer more lucrative crops, but it’s settlers who have access to generous amounts of water.
Fares Gabi, a former head of the Tul Karm and Salfit district at the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry and a former head of the Palestinian Olive Council, says he first noticed a reduction in yields in 2008.
“It was supposed to be a bumper crop, but relatively little rain fell in February and it turned into a down year,” he said.
Many fruit trees, among them olives, alternate between good years and bad. Gabi, now an adviser to the European Union on olives, says such changes have become much less noticeable since 2010. The yields have been similar, save for a bumper crop in 2019.
Gabi says the data the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics is collecting probably doesn’t precisely reflect the lower yields because the size of olive groves has increased. Either way, young trees are more vulnerable.
“The Palestinian Agriculture Ministry has managed a project over the past 20 years to plant olive trees across the West Bank, and over 50 percent of the saplings have died of water deprivation,” he said.