Already struggling with limited water resources and land degradation, farmers in Lebanon are likely to face additional challenges coping with the effects of climate change.
This could include repeats of the unprecedented winter storm that hit the country in January, destroying millions of dollars worth of crops and killing valuable livestock.
In the aftermath of the storm, farmers sounded the alarm over the future conditions of this vulnerable sector.
The storm was a manifestation of extreme weather conditions that are projected to increase in the coming years.
According to a 2011 Environment Ministry report, rainfall could decrease 20 percent by 2040, while temperatures could rise 2 percent; a combination that would reduce soil moisture, increase aridity and in turn lessen the overall yield of crops.
Climate change  is expected to cause a decrease in productivity for most of the crops and fruit trees as well as increased instances of fungi infestation and bacterial diseases.
Perhaps surprisingly, officials in Lebanon have actually begun to plan for potential harmful weather patterns in the future, and have worked with the International Fund for Agricultural Development  to formulate a plan to help farmers – particularly smallholders – to adapt to climate change
In 2012 Lebanon was given a $7.8 million grant from IFAD – a United Nations agency and an international financial institution – from the organization’s adaptation fund to finance a project titled, “Climate Smart Agriculture: Enhancing Adaptive Capacity of the Rural Communities in Lebanon.”
Describing it as a large sum for a small country such as Lebanon, IFAD’s Regional Climate and Environment Specialist Rami Abu Salman told The Daily Star that it was the right moment to focus on smallholder farmers – those owning less than 50 hectares – given the impact of climate change and growing instability.
“Overall, the program is looking into the impact of climate change on farmers in Lebanon and we’re trying to introduce adaptation options and solutions for smallholder farmers,” he said at IFAD’s headquarters in Rome.
The program aims primarily to increase the availability and efficient use of water through harvesting and irrigation technologies and help adaptation to climate change, both for crop production as well as for shepherds. It is expected to start in 2013 and run until 2017.
The program introduces several adaptation techniques, including technologies for harvesting and rangeland management and new greenhouses .
“We’re trying to introduce new generation greenhouses that don’t get heated by increasing temperatures,” Abu Salman said.
“They are higher and flatter so they can capture the water in a better way for storage and irrigation.”
As part of the grant, he said, IFAD was attempting to pilot a new insurance program for farmers in a bid to involve the private sector in agriculture-related programs.
“It’s extremely interesting because it’s similar to buying insurance for your car but this is for your crop, produce or anything you choose, and it will be against a certain index depending on how the agriculture sector is performing,” he said.
The insurance policy has been successfully implemented in African and Asian countries, he added.
One of the major effects of climate change on farmers is the shifting of the cropping season. Farmers need information on when to plant and harvest and what type of crop to use that can tolerate changes in climate.
“Early warning systems can tell you if you’re going to have a flood or drought or a bad year for agriculture,” Abu Salman said.
The grant focuses on poverty pockets in the northern region of Akkar, the eastern part of Hermel and South Lebanon, where agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of the local gross domestic product.
According to the project’s proposal, these areas already face land degradation for many reasons including drought, water erosion, flash floods, improper water management, overgrazing, unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation, poverty, forest fires and pesticide use.
“Adaptation to climate change is vital not only to support the livelihood of rural populations and to sustain the viability of the agriculture sector, but also to maintain an acceptable level of food security,” the proposal noted.
Abu Salman said it was time to develop small-holder farmers and transform them into businesspeople and organize them so they could work together in order to have a better chance of market access.
Small-holder farmers constitute 70 percent of landowners in the country and their development is critical to the overall progress of the sector, Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan told The Daily Star.
“The importance of the agriculture sector  for the national economy in Lebanon is that 20 percent of the population is involved in it while it contributes only 6 percent of the gross domestic product,” he said.
The grant was in addition to a larger project by IFAD titled “Hilly Areas Sustainable Agricultural Development Project,” which was approved in 2010 but only went into early implementation stages in April last year.
The delay was partly due to the Cabinet’s inability to convene during the months following its endorsement and the ministry’s request for additional funding.
The Lebanon program officer at IFAD, Tamara Nicodeme, said the goal of HASAD was poverty alleviation and helping farmers improve their production by having better access to water and extension services as well as the markets.
“We believe that Lebanon has a lot of products with good potential to expand to export markets and local ones,” Nicodeme said at the agency’s Rome headquarters.
It is estimated that some 14,540 rural households would benefit from the plan.
Hajj Hasan said the pilot program of HASAD developed three reservoirs: in Hermel, east Lebanon; in Dinnieh in the north; and in Bint Jbeil in the south.
“The executive boards of IFAD in December of 2012 approved supplementary financing [at the government’s request] to expand the outreach and scope of [the] project by financing more hilly lakes and five service centers,” Nicodeme said.
With supplementary financing, the total cost of the HASAD project amounts to $36.6 million. It is financed by IFAD, the Fund for International Development at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the Spanish Trust Fund, as well as the Lebanese government, municipalities and direct beneficiaries.
HASAD seeks to open a number of Farmers’ Service Centers that would provide farmers with the necessary agriculture guidance and education. The project aims to reach 1,500 smallholder farmers.
Overall, Lebanon’s agriculture sector seemed to be heading for a new phase of development after 20 years of what analysts say was little progress in comparison to real estate or other services sectors.
But with growing instability in Lebanon and its surroundings, one can only wonder about the fate of such ambitious projects.
Abu Salman appeared confident that IFAD would not suspend or withdraw its projects from Lebanon in times of uncertainty, saying “that’s actually when the poor need us the most.”
“[Instability] does affect the projects but not the implementation ... farmers could not get market access or have product consumption in times of conflict” which affects the process of turning them into independent business people, he said.
“If IFAD withdraws from a country every time there is conflict, then it [had] better not work there at all,” he added.