The olive harvest in Gaza is normally a time of celebration.
The crop is not just a staple of Palestinian cooking, it is a source of income for many families and farmers. So the harvest is an occasion for relatives to work together.
This year, however, like last, the yield is set to be exceptionally low.
So low, in fact, that farmers in Gaza expect the harvest season, which normally lasts through fall to December, to come to an end within the next few weeks.
Experts say climate change causing warmer winter temperatures is to blame for what Gaza’s ministry of agriculture projects to be a 65 percent reduction in yield compared to previous years.
Muhammad Abu Mustafa used to employ 10 people during the olive harvest. A farm contractor, Abu Mustafa was in mid-October hard at work harvesting olives in Abasan al-Kabira, in the southern Gaza Strip.
On that day, he was working only with his two sons, Ahmad and Mustafa.
“Last year I was able to produce 180 liters of olive oil. This season, I would expect only 25,” Abu Mustafa told The Electronic Intifada.
Abu Mustafa works the same land – which belongs to the Abu Hammad family – every year for the olive season in return for a third of the yield so he knows the terrain well.
His lament about the low yield is echoed by others in this small rural town not far from the boundary with Israel
According to Gaza’s ministry of agriculture, olive trees in Abasan al-Kabira cover some 10 square kilometers, constituting about a third of the olive farmland across the entire Gaza Strip.
Olives are an important source of income in the local area where families now worry that scarcity will push prices out of reach of consumers.
“Last year, three tons of olives produced about 130 liters of oil. But this season, my orchard produced only 150 kilograms,” said Ibrahim al-Shawaf, an engineer with the local municipality whose family has grown olives for generations here.
Al-Shawaf worries that – due to the low harvest – prices will soar.
Last year, he said, a gallon – 4.5 liters – would sell for about $85. But this year he fears the price will soar to $140 or more, making it impossible to sell in a local market in which the vast majority of people live in poverty.
The father of 13 is worried.
“I look after a big family, including three married, unemployed sons. I have some children enrolled at local universities.”
At the Abassan al-Kabira olive extraction facility in the town, a group of farmers are lined up with their harvest.
All told tales of reduced production and fears for much needed income.
“I have 30 olive trees. Last year, these produced over 25 liters of olive oil,” said Anas Abu Salah, a local farmer. “But this season, they only produced four. Normally, I can make a small profit and cover my costs. Not this year. I have lost this season.”
Ziyad Mosabeh, the engineer in charge of the extraction facility, told The Electronic Intifada, that production was running at 20 percent capacity compared with the six years the facility has been operating.
“That is not normal at all. This season cannot be compared with the last six seasons.”
He pointed to large boxes normally used by farmers when they extract oil.
“Normally, we have so many farmers here, they fight over these boxes. This year, nothing. No crowds.”
Traders also complain over what they describe as the worst-ever olive season in the territory.
“Local customers have been affected badly this season. They cannot afford prices that go to $150 per gallon [4.5 liters],” said Khamis Dwedar, who has been in the wholesale olive business for 10 years. “This is extremely difficult for people.”
The worst affected orchards are those in the south, according to the ministry of agriculture, where the Shimali type of olive is widely planted.
The Gaza Strip grows mainly three types of olives, K18, Souri and Shimali.
The winter was simply too warm, explained the agriculture ministry’s Husam Abu Saada.
“This season, the winter was warm and the spring was also warm. This has significantly decreased the number of flowers and therefore, the number of olives,” Abu Seda, the ministry official in charge of the southern Khan Younis area, told The Electronic Intifada.
Climate change in the Gaza Strip, has not only impacted olive production. According to Ahmad Helles, a professor of environmental studies at al-Azhar University, rainfall in Gaza dramatically decreased this year compared to last year.
“The change was caused mainly by global warming, affecting both flowers and fruits in the Gaza Strip,” Helles told The Electronic Intifada.
“Also, the soil has turned drier than ever, due to less water, while farmers are unable to import appropriate fertilizers and pesticides due to Israel’s blockade.”
Helles also suggested that the high rate of salt and nitrates in Gaza’s water supply is part of the problem. According to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor and the Switzerland-based Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health, 97 percent of Gaza’s groundwater is undrinkable.
A poor olive harvest is the last thing Gaza needs. Under a draconian Israeli siege for some 15 years that has cost Gaza’s economy nearly $17 billion, poverty rates have soared to more than 50 percent and the unemployment rate is one of the worst in the world.
More than 80 percent of the population rely on food aid provided by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
“Olives and olive oil constitute 13 percent of Gaza’s agricultural exports,” said Muhammad Abu Jayab, an economic analyst. “They contribute to other related industries, like soap and cleaning products. The olive sector directly contributes to the incomes of almost 100,000 families, across the Palestinian territories.”
“This is a pretty big problem.”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist based in Gaza.