Moroccans on Friday held the first nationwide prayers for rain since 2007, when drought slashed output of staple cereals to less than a quarter of the country's needs, although experts say the current crop year will probably be far less disastrous.
The prayers were held in mid-morning throughout Moroccan mosques and prayer areas "in accordance with the instructions of HM King Mohammed, the Commander of the Faithful", the Islamic affairs ministry said.
The prayers aim to "implore the Almighty to spread useful rain on earth in mercy for His creatures", it added.
Agriculture in Morocco, one of the world's biggest cereal importers, relies heavily on rain due mostly to the predominance of subsistence and rudimentary farming. The agriculture ministry estimates that 5.3 million hectares of land are farmed by some 1.4 million Moroccans.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's attache in Morocco said in a report the current planting season "had a late start", with the first significant rainfalls arriving the week of October 24.
Rainfall from September to mid-October period was 74 percent lower than normal levels and down 89 percent compared with the same time period last year, the report said.
"Heavy rainfall resumed in most of the grain production areas, in the Gharb, Doukkala and Saiss regions, through the first week of November," the attache added. "Despite the delay of planting, agricultural experts remain hopeful for a good grain harvest".
Agriculture employs close to 40 percent of Morocco's 11 million workforce. A bad crop season increases imports, weakening an already fragile balance of payments, and encourages farmers to search for job prospects in cities, swelling an urban populace with many people living in precarious conditions.
MARCH IS KEY
Ahmed Ouayach, who chairs the Moroccan Confederation of Agriculture, said rain may prove crucial over the next seven to 10 days.
"As of today, nothing is lost ... What's important is the March rain: That will be the real deal breaker. Nevertheless, a totally dry January will not bode well for cereals," he said.
"The shortage in rainfall during October means that we will probably be closer to 8 million tonnes than we will be to 10 million tonnes," he added.
Morocco's record was a harvest of 10 million tonnes in 2009.
In drought-hit 2007, output was only 2 million tonnes, which compares with Morocco's annual consumption of 8 million tonnes of wheat alone.
"We need the rain. There is a shortage in rainfall, and we had a delay at the start of the campaign and now. There may be a delay in the growth, especially amid the current cold spell. But we are very far from a repeat of the 2007 scenario," Ouayach told Reuters.
He noted that drought, which plagued Morocco repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s, has become less frequent since 2000.
In the crop year that ended in June 2011, Morocco produced 8.36 million tonnes of cereals, 12 percent above the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That included 4.17 million tonnes of soft wheat and 1.85 million tonnes of durum wheat, 28 percent and 13 percent above the previous year, respectively. Barley output fell 9 percent to 2.34 million tonnes.
"The drought cycle has become more favourable for us. We had far less droughts since 2000," Ouayach said.