Mauritania Table of Contents
Figure 8. Grain Production, 1973-85
Although it is a large country, most of Mauritania is desert. In the late 1980s, arable land was scarce, and, except for some oases, crop production was limited to a narrow band along the southern borders with Senegal and Mali. Farmers practiced four types of agriculture: rain-fed dryland cropping, called dieri; flood recession cropping along the Senegal River and its seasonal tributaries, called oualo; oasis cultivation, the least important; and modern irrigated agriculture.
The most important methods, dieri and oualo, were entirely dependent on limited and erratic rainfall and on the annual flooding of the Senegal River and its only perennial tributary in Mauritania, the Gorgol River. Dieri cultivation occurred during the rainy season, from June-July to September-October, in areas receiving sufficient precipitation (400 to 450 millimeters annually) to grow millet and peas. Oualo plantings occurred during the cold dry season from November to March, to take advantage of ground moisture as the flood waters of the Senegal and Gorgol rivers receded. Sorghum was the major crop for this season. Oasis cultivation drew its water from subterranean sources and so was not dependent on rains. Indeed, areas where oases were located might not experience any significant rainfall for years. Modern irrigated agriculture was only partially dependent on annual rainfall. It depended primarily on dams to retain water from the annual rise on the rivers resulting from rains falling upriver. For the Senegal River, these rains fell principally in the headwaters in eastern Mali and Guinea.
The two major droughts of the African Sahel were prolonged in Mauritania by intermittent dry spells. The result was a serious decline in overall agricultural production. In the 1960s, Mauritania had produced about one-half of its grain needs. By the 1983-85 period, grain harvests had fallen to a level that met only about 3 to 8 percent of the country's grain needs. The cereal deficits have been filled through a combination of commercial imports and international food aid, of which the United States has been the principal donor. During the most serious drought years, from 1983 to 1985, food aid accounted for over 61 percent of Mauritania's available supply of grain, commercial imports of rice by the government covered approximately 20 percent, and imports of flour by private traders provided another 13 percent. Local production was able to cover only 5 percent of need. In the following three years, local production recovered sufficiently to meet about one-third of the annual grain need, estimated in 1986 at 260,000 tons. In that year, local production covered 35 percent of need, government imports supplied 30 percent, and food aid met 35 percent.
Although accurate data were lacking, production of all grains in the recovery years from 1985 to 1987 rose to between 68,000 and 120,000 tons, a large increase over the record low of approximately 20,000 tons in 1984 (see fig. 8). Thus, gross production between 1985 and 1987 attained levels not matched since the mid-1960s. Rising population in the interim meant that, despite this significant recovery, the country remained dependent on imported grains to satisfy its needs.
Data as of June 1988