(Bloomberg) -- Wheat is wilting, and cities are planning to ration water, as stretches of North Africa’s grain belt suffer the worst drought in 30 years.

Rain is scant in Morocco this growing season, with the amount of moisture since September at its lowest in at least three decades. Parts of Algeria and Tunisia also are dry, running the risk of smaller harvests that may boost reliance on foreign supply at a time of near-record food costs. 

March and April remain critical months for crops, leaving time for a rebound if showers arrive soon. For now, near-term forecasts show little relief, and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI called for nationwide Islamic prayers for rain to aid an industry employing one in three workers.

“We are trying to save what can be saved, spare the minimum of water we have,” said Rachid Benali, vice president of the Morocco farmers’ lobby group Comader. “It is a particularly complex situation, quite unprecedented.”

The region is the world’s second-largest wheat importer, and harvests can swing substantially from year to year. Egypt’s production tends to be more stable because it primarily grows wheat under irrigation. Even when crops are bountiful, countries rely on grain from abroad to supplement output and help produce the bread and couscous that are staples of local diets.

Any shortfalls could necessitate higher-than-usual spending. A United Nations index of food prices is at the highest in a decade due to tight global supplies, and local officials are struggling to shield citizens, many of whom rely on subsidized food. Benchmark Chicago wheat futures posted a fifth straight gain last year, and a lower North African harvest could bolster demand.

“It’s already a very tense situation and could be even worse the next marketing year,” said David Gasc, coordinator of the Mediterranean Agricultural Market Information Network. 

Morocco faces an acute drought every two to three years, compared with every seven to 10 years in the 1990s, Benali said, attributing the higher frequency to climate change. Farmers want authorities to subsidize animal feed to offset dry pastures and rising international grain prices, he said.

Agriculture Minister Mohammed Sadiki said he had “extreme concern” about the dryness, and he predicted Morocco’s worst farm output in decades. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the drought “exceptional.”

Authorities in tourist hub Marrakesh and the northeastern city of Oujda announced plans to ration water, a particularly unusual step in the winter rainy season.

Little moisture is expected the next two weeks, curbing yields in three-quarters of North Africa’s wheat belt, according to Commodity Weather Group. 

“It’s too early to be very, very pessimistic,” said Severine Omnes-Maisons, an analyst at France-based consultant Strategie Grains. “But dryness is a concern.”

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