Drought hits rice, wheat staples

Jabir Mohan Abdullah used to hire hundreds of workers during the rice harvest season. This year, however, with more than three-quarters of his land affected by drought, only 10 workers will be hired.



"I used to plant my entire 400-acre [160-hectare] farm with rice but this year we are using only 50 acres [20 hectares] due to severe water shortages for the fourth consecutive year," said 78-year-old Abdullah from Iraq's southern province of Najaf.



Abdullah's plight is a result of reduced rainfall and the falling levels of Iraq's two main rivers - the Tigris and Euphrates.



Large tracts of once fertile agricultural land are becoming semi-desert, and sandstorms are becoming increasingly common as soil-binding plants shrivel up. At least 20 sandstorms have occurred in Iraq since the beginning of 2009, causing deaths and respiratory problems, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry.



Turkey and Iran, through which these rivers flow before reaching Iraq, have been blamed by Iraqis for dam-building and diverting water.



Earlier this month Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country would release more water from its dams. The quantity of water reaching Iraq was less than 500 cubic metres per second - the amount the country needs for its agriculture and industries, Iraqi Water Resources Ministry officials say.





Photo: Karl Musser
A map showing the passages of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates through Iraq

Euphrates flow rates



Aoun Thiab Abdullah, director-general of the Ministry's National Water Resources Centre, said there had been a "minor improvement" in flow rates but that these were insufficient to meet "minimum needs".



As of 24 August, the flow rate in the Euphrates was 440 cubic metres a second (cu. m/sec), up from 400 cu. m/sec on 23 August, and 360 cu. m/sec on 22 August, Abdullah told IRIN. The flow rate in the Tigris was 100-160 cu. m/sec, he added.



"It is a good thing, but this increase has come too late as we are at the end of the paddy season. If the released amount does not meet our minimum needs we will have problems in securing the last irrigation for the paddy due for the first week of October, and the first irrigation for wheat and barley in November," he said.



Reduced area under cultivation



Rice is mainly grown in four provinces in central and southern Iraq. However, the area under cultivation has been diminishing rapidly due to water shortages and higher levels of soil salinity. Last May, the government had to reduce the planted area, which was about 68,750 hectares in 2008, by half.





Photo: Sinan Mahmoud/IRIN
Sandstorms are becoming increasingly common in Iraq

As a result, Iraq had to import most of its wheat and rice to meet domestic needs. Iraq had its worst cereal harvest this year in a decade, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.



The wheat harvest is set to fall this year to one million tons from an average of 3.5 million tons over the last decade, the head of FAO's Iraq office, Fadel al-Zubi, told IRIN. Iraq imported 2.5 million tons of wheat in 2007, and 3.5 million tons in 2008; it will have to import four million tons of wheat this year to meet its annual needs of about five million tons, he said.



Domestic rice production went down from an average of 500,000 tons to 250,000 tons. Rice consumption is 1.5 million tons a year, he said.



FAO is calling for an agreement between Iraq and neighbouring countries on water allocations, the use of modern irrigation technology to make optimum use of available water, consideration of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, the introduction of new drought-resistant seeds, and the rehabilitation of pumps, drainage networks and wells.



The Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish water ministers are set to meet in Ankara on 3 September to discuss drought in the region, AFP reported on 20 August.



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