NICOSIA — Israeli firefighters are battling a deadly forest fire as unseasonably warm weather blankets a tinder dry Middle East, and some countries are even organising prayers for rain.
Thousands of Israeli firemen and rescuers fought to put out the fire on the second day running, as international help poured in to battle the country's worst ever inferno that has killed at least 41 people.
The blaze, driven by high winds, was threatening the northern port of Haifa a day after it incinerated more than 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of land in the Carmel mountains.
Israel's Meteorological Service said temperatures would remain hot and dry well into the evening. In Haifa, the mercury was at 31 degrees Celsius (87 Fahrenheit) for the second day.
Drought has plagued Israel and the Palestinian territories for several weeks and rainfall over the past five years has been under average levels.
A mere 7 millimetres (0.27 inches) of rain fell on Jerusalem in November, compared to an average of 60 mm in the past few years.
Parched conditions in the Holy Land have prompted Christians, Jews and Muslims to join ranks to pray for divine intervention.
In the desert kingdom of Jordan, residents gathered on Thursday to recite the special prayer known as Salat al-Istisqa -- a ritual practised since the time of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
The ministry of religious affairs encouraged the special prayers across the kingdom -- one of the 10 most water-impoverished countries in the world.
The ministry even asked people to fast for three days ahead of Thursday prayers, and step up devotion and charity work.
Jordan, where 92 percent of the land is desert, depends mainly on rain to meet its needs.
But five successive years of below-average rainfall has created a shortfall of 500 million cubic metres (17.7 billion cubic feet) a year -- nearly a third of its water needs, according to the water ministry.
Lebanon too is suffering from drought, with only 51.2 millimetres (2.05 inches) of rain since September, drastically down from 214.8 millimetres during the same period last year, the meteorology bureau says.
The last rainfall in Lebanon was more than a month ago, leading to a severe water shortage that has forced citizens to purchase water on a daily basis.
Muslim religious leaders are also banking on divine intervention and have called on the Lebanese to pray on Friday for rain -- in a country blessed with abundant water resources that are the envy of its neighbours.
A group of young people planned on gathering in a central district of Beirut on Friday to perform a traditional rain dance; other Lebanese chose another day at the beach.
"The delayed rainfall is threatening some of our major springs, in which water is becoming increasingly scarce," said Fouad Hashweh, dean of the Faculty of Science at the Lebanese American University.
The agriculture ministry said wheat crops were at risk. "And one of our biggest concerns is that recurrent drought year after year... can lead to desertification," said the Lebanese ministry's director general, Ali Yassin.
The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus too is basking in unusually warm daytime temperatures for December of around 28 degrees Celsius while rainfall in November had been virtually zero.
November saw inland and coastal temperatures between five and seven degrees above normal while at higher altitudes they were up to 10 degrees higher, officials said.
"What concerns us is that the days with high temperatures are continuous," Marios Theofilou of the meteorology service told the Cyprus Mail.
A report by the European Environment Agency has predicted longer-lasting droughts that will eventually lead to the desertification of Cyprus.
Across the sea in Syria, the authorities adopted as far back as June emergency measures for the drought-hit northeast of the country.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »