Disappearing paddy fields

Rice is only grown in certain central and southern regions of Iraq, but the area under cultivation appears to be diminishing rapidly due to low water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris and resulting higher levels of soil salinity.



“We are facing a very tough situation this summer regarding land where rice is planted in central and southern Iraq. We will be forced to reduce the planted area by half,” said Aoun Thiab Abdullah, a senior official in the Water Resources Ministry, adding “We are expecting a drought in the marshlands this summer.”



Abdullah said 68,750 hectares were planted with rice in 2008 in the central and southern provinces of Najaf, Diwaniyah, Samawa and parts of Babil but this would be reduced by 50 percent this summer “due to water shortages”.



According to a 2007 report by Khidhir Abbas Hamid and Flayeh Abed Jaber from the Al-Mishkhab Rice Research Station (MRRS) in Najaf, the total area under rice cultivation that year was 125,000 hectares; some 400,000 tonnes of paddy was produced for favoured local varieties.



Turkey releases more water



On 24 May Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Turkey, the source of the two rivers, had agreed to increase water flows into the Euphrates by 130 cubic metres a second from 22 May.



Whilst Al-Dabbagh welcomed the move, the Water Resources Ministry’s Abdullah was more critical. He said: “This isn’t enough; it is modest and has come too late… We asked them to release 350 cubic metres a second in March and increase this to 700 cubic metres a second by November.”



Abdullah said the situation was critical as Turkey had five major dams on the Euphrates, and Syria two. All rice fields depended especially on the Euphrates, he said. However, in some places tributaries of the Tigris feed into the Euphrates, so water levels in both rivers affect rice growing in Iraq, he added.



“Unfortunately it has become impossible for us to plant rice this year, as we did in previous years, due to acute water shortages, and despite the new increase in water flows into the Euphrates,” Mahdi al-Qaisi, undersecretary in the Agriculture Ministry, told IRIN.



Rahim Mohammed Khazaal, an analyst at the University of Diwaniyah, said the new release "doesn’t meet our real needs for water this summer". He added that some farmers could leave traditional cultivation areas in search of other work.



The upshot is that Iraq will have to import more rice - something that will not be easy given its restricted budget due to low oil prices, said Khazaal.



sm/at/cb