By Kieran Cooke, Climate News NetworkThis piece first appeared at Climate News Network.

THE ARARAT VALLEY, ARMENIA — It happened as Tigran Gasparian and his family were having lunch. A massive black cloud turned day to night in minutes. Then the hail hammered on the roof.

“It was deafening”, says Tigran. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The winds swirled around – like a tornado. It went on for 45 minutes. At the end the hail was falling in big pieces like bits of broken glass. We knew all our crops had been destroyed.”

Farmers here have heard talk of climate change: many say the summers – when temperatures can reach near to 40C – are becoming hotter while winters are getting colder.

“Maybe the climate is changing” says Anoosh, Gasparian’s wife. “Or maybe the hail was sent by God as punishment for the way our country is chopping down its forests and destroying its landscape.”

Armenia, a small country in the South Caucasus region with a population of a little over three million, is highly dependent on its agriculture and is famous for its fruits and herbs. Agriculture accounts for about 20% of gross domestic product.

Cut to shreds

Most of the country’s 340,000 farms are relatively small with plots of one hectare or less: there is little spare cash to fall back on when crops fail.

“Our apricots, peaches, watermelons, and tomatoes were cut to shreds ” says Tigran. “Usually we’d harvest about 35 tonnes of grapes – this year we’ll be lucky if we have 50 kilos.”

The Gasparian land is in the Ararat Valley, about an hour and a half’s drive from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. Sitting under the shade of cherry trees – a cuckoo calling in the distance and the snow capped peak of Mount Ararat in Turkey on the horizon – it is, in many ways, a perfect pastoral scene.

But life here is tough. Produce has to be taken along badly potholed roads to the capital. Armenia, till 1991, was part of the old Soviet Union. For many farmers, adjusting to a market economy has not been easy. Many are leaving the land: both the Gasparian’s sons – now in their twenties – are going soon to jobs in Russia.

“With our crops destroyed, there is nothing for us here” says one.Changing weather

There are often hailstorms in Armenia and throughout the rugged and mountainous Caucasus region but the ferocity of this one – happening in mid May when crops were just coming to life – was highly unusual.

Armenia is a mountainous country with a generally arid climate and is judged to be particularly vulnerable to changes in climate. Zaruhi Petrosyan is a meteorologist at Armenia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations.

“Usually hailstorms last for only five or seven minutes” she says. “This was a very strange meteorological phenomenon. There are changing weather patterns in some regions but just how significant these are is difficult to estimate.”

Mrs Petrosyan says while calculations are changing all the time, Armenia is likely to see temperatures rise by between one and four degrees centigrade by century’s end though average rainfall is likely to drop by six per cent.

But international bodies predict a far greater degree of change.

A report in 2009 by the Stockholm Environment Institute together with the United Nations Development Programme talked of “enormous” changes in Armenia’s climate over the next century, with likely increases in temperatures of 4.5 C in the lowlands and 7C in the highlands by 2100.

Water supplies – already a serious problem in many areas – are likely to come under increased strain as rainfall decreases, said the report, causing agricultural production to fall by nearly 10%.

Money to Survive

Vardan Hambardzumyan is president of the Armenian Federation of Agricultural Associations.

“We are fully aware how climate change will affect agriculture” he says. “We have to safeguard our water and land resources: we have to protect our forests. Armenia plays a very small role in the problem of climate change – but that doesn’t mean we should be ignorant of its impacts.”

Hambardzumyan says there’s a need to develop new seeds to resist rising temperatures and to use cattle better able to withstand the heat.

“We also need innovative technology – and help from international organisations.”

Meanwhile the farmers in the Ararat Valley who lost their crops due to the freak hailstorm are insisting that the government gives them financial support.

“We don’t live in luxury” says one farmer. “All we’re asking for is money to survive through the year.”

Another farmer points to one of his prize cherry trees: “Usually I’d get a hundred kilos from this tree. My cherries were famous. People would queue up for them. This year I’ll maybe get a couple of buckets. The rest go to the pigs – and even they are fed up and don’t eat them.”

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