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Middle East: The Great Drought Hits Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq -- Part 2

  • Charles Recknagel

The Middle East and South Asia have been hard hit by a drought this year, which now also has spread to Central Asia and the Caucasus. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports in a two-part series that the drought in some countries is severely taxing their ability to feed their populations. Part 2 looks at Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.

Prague, 4 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For many states in the Middle East and South Asia, this summer has been the second year in a row of severe drought conditions which have devastated their agricultural sectors.

The worst case is Afghanistan, where continuing civil war has combined with the drought to force thousands in the north of the country to leave their villages and towns and seek shelter elsewhere. Some have fled to cities in the north, others to the Tajik border where they have gathered in makeshift encampments.

Shukri Ahmed of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO, says the northwestern Afghan city of Herat is receiving hundreds of villagers a day.

"In Afghanistan they are living with a severe [drought] situation, and also some escalation of the civil conflict in the country has already exacerbated the problem. We are seeing the escalation particularly in northern parts of the country has displaced many people and they are arriving in Herat city from drought-affected areas at the rate of 30 to 50 families per day, and up to 1,500 families in early September alone."

In northern Takhar province on the Tajik border, some 70,000 people are reported to have been displaced by fighting from the city of Taloqan, which the Taliban captured last month.

The UN's World Food Program, or WFP, says it is racing to get aid to the refugees to keep them from spilling into Tajikistan, which is also struck by water and food shortages. Khaled Mansoor of the WFP's office in Islamabad described the effort to RFE/RL's Tajik Service:

"What we are trying to do now is to help almost 40,000 to 50,000 people get their food needs in Afghanistan, inside Afghanistan, trying to provide all their needs there so that they don't have to, or don't try, to cross the border."

Across Afghanistan, the drought has caused a massive drop in agricultural productivity. Food experts say that total cereal production this year was about 50 percent lower than a normal year. After two years of reduced harvests, the country is now far away from the goal of being able to feed itself.

UN officials estimate Afghanistan's capacity to commercially import food during the coming year at about one million tons. But that leaves a shortfall of another 2.3 million tons that needs to be provided by international donors -- or more than double last year's amount. The UN says a shortfall of this magnitude, if not met, would inevitably result in loss of life and it has issued an emergency food appeal for the country.

Iran, too, is in the second year of a drought which covers some 18 of the country's 28 provinces. UN experts say over half the population has been affected by the water shortages, which have caused wheat production to fall and put strains on livestock.

The FAO's Ahmed calls the drought the worst Iran has experienced in over 35 years:

"It is now considered that the drought is the worst since 1964. The living conditions for the affected population are worsening rapidly and it is putting a very bad strain on the availability of water for livestock and crops. [This year's] wheat crop production is now estimated at about 8 million tons, which is almost 2 million tons below the [previous] five years' average."

The UN has appealed to the international community for thousands of water tankers to supply remote rural areas and for a million tons of emergency barley feed for livestock. At the same time, the drought is helping force Iran to become one of the world's largest commercial wheat importers, with imports reaching almost 7 million tons over the last 12 months.

Another hard-hit country is Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have dropped to about 20 percent of their average flow. Shortages of water for irrigation and erratic rainfalls have caused cereal production this year to plunge to 64 percent below the previous five years' average. The FAO's Ahmed says:

"In the most [severely] affected areas of the center and southern [regions], plantings have not only been reduced, but some 75 percent of the cropped areas under wheat and barley was heavily damaged. And most [of the damaged fields] were [finally] used for grazing of livestock."

Iraq remains under UN sanctions, and food officials have called for speedier delivery of agricultural equipment to help Baghdad cope with the drought. The country is permitted to use its oil revenues to purchase food to help ease the effects of the sanctions and of the drought through the UN oil-for-food program.

As the severe drought in the region nears the end of its second year, climatologists say they are unable to predict with any certainty when it will end. But some say there are signs the dry spell could be drawing to a close.

One of the strongest of the signs is offered by an association which climatologists have noted between cyclical cooling of the sea surface in the tropical Pacific Ocean and decreases of rainfall in Western Asia. Changes in the giant ocean's surface temperature are known to influence weather patterns at vast distances across the planet.

Mike Harrison of the UN's World Meteorological Organization in Geneva says that for the last two years the Pacific has been in a cooling phase -- known as La Nina. That phase is now over, and sea surface temperatures have returned to their normal levels. Harrison says that could suggest that the dry spell in Asia could also end soon.

"There is a tendency during a La Nina for the region of the western part of Asia to be dry. La Nina has basically disappeared now. That doesn't necessarily translate directly into an increase in rainfall this coming winter in this region, but what it certainly means is that the chances that the rainfall is going to be dry are rather less than they have been over the last couple of years."

But Harrison cautions that there are many other variables influencing weather conditions which make all predictions regarding droughts highly risky.

Weather experts say that the only certainty about dry spells in Western Asia and the Middle East is that they occur frequently and rarely last more than a few years.

Harrison says that history shows that droughts often occur two or even three years out of every 10 in the region. But usually they last one to two years before the weather changes again. That means that there is always both reason to hope a drought will end soon, and to fear another one will come later.

(This concludes the two-part series on drought in the Mideast and Western Asia. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)