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Middle East: Serious Drought Afflicts Extended Region

As the world's attention has focused on the drought in the Horn of Africa, growing drought conditions across the Middle East and southern Asia have received less notice. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, water shortages are at critical levels, particularly in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.

Prague, 23 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, has confirmed what many in the countries stretching form Pakistan to Jordan have known for months. They are suffering a drought of very serious proportions.

The Rome-based FAO issued a special alert this month calling on the international community to be ready to provide assistance if the drought in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, and India reaches crisis levels.

The special alert comes as Iran has seen rainfall levels in parts of the country down by 25 percent compared with last year, with some two-thirds of its provinces suffering from drought conditions. The FAO warns that the water shortages again threaten domestic food production in the wake of a devastating drought last year in which wheat production fell by a quarter.

Iran has told the UN it needs some $200 million to provide water tankers and water purifying units for drought-hit areas. Iranian officials said the aid would help meet losses, which they estimate at some $1.7 billion overall, as the drought has affected hundreds of thousands of people, their livestock, and their crops.

At the same time, UN figures show Iraq's Tigris and Euphrates rivers have dropped to about 20 percent of their average flow, substantially reducing cultivated areas -- which in Iraq depend heavily on irrigation. That follows upon drought conditions last year that reduced cereal output by nearly 40 percent and took a heavy toll on livestock already weakened by an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

But the worst hit country in the region is Afghanistan. There, the drought is exacerbating problems with food supplies that are precarious even in the best of times due to years of civil war.

An expert from FAO's Early Warning System, Shukri Ahmed, spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from Rome. He says that in Afghanistan the drought has caused extensive losses of livestock and crops and that large numbers of people are now in need of urgent food assistance.

"At the moment, given the country's other problems of being unable to import enough and the infrastructural damage that it has, the problem in Afghanistan is [the] worst. What we see now in Afghanistan is a drought condition that has really extended to the central and southern parts of the country, and it already has killed a lot of livestock. And we are now hearing some news that it also is causing human loss in some of those areas, and people are migrating to urban centers."

The drought in Afghanistan comes on top of a severe drought and an outbreak of pests last year that cut cereal production by some 16 percent. The UN says that has made it necessary for Afghanistan to import a record 1.1 million tons of grain over the past 12 months. And the agency calculates that the import requirement is likely to be substantially higher this year.

Ahmed says the impact of the drought has been most pronounced in Afghanistan. Other countries' infrastructure is better able to absorb the loss of crops.

"The [other countries] can relatively well absorb the shock by the sheer wealth that they have or their ability to import whatever is necessary. But the problem now is water and the water problem they cannot do anything about and in most of the countries the livestock is affected very badly. And the crop sector and the irrigation sector is also very affected, not to mention the rain-fed areas as well."

In Iraq, whose infrastructure has been badly weakened by UN sanctions in place since Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the UN relies upon the oil-for-food program to make up for crop shortages.

In Jordan, Pakistan, and India, the regional drought is taking varying tolls.

Jordan has received some $60 million worth of wheat imports over the last two years from Washington -- its main provider of aid -- to counter crop shortfalls.

In Pakistan, a prolonged drought over the last three years has devastated the country's largest province, Baluchistan, in the west, and Sindh province in the south. The FAO says the problem in those areas is expected to worsen, as the monsoon season is several weeks away and little rain is forecast until then. But wheat production in other, unaffected regions of the country is predicted to reach record levels, reducing Pakistan's overall need for grain imports.

In India, five states have been hard hit by drought. But India's main grain production areas have been spared and there, too, national food production is up and helps offset the losses.

Meanwhile, experts say there is no way to predict how long the drought conditions will last. An unseasonably heavy rainfall has brought relief to some areas in recent weeks, but there is no way to know if the rainfall will continue.

"An unexpected kind of weather phenomenon is giving some relief in some of the countries of Eastern Africa and some of the Middle Eastern countries, some rains were seen but that was not the [usual] pattern of rain, so [meteorologists] are a little bit unsure how long that is going to [continue] and whether that will just fizzle out and again we will go back to the same problem of drought at the moment."

The FAO has deployed special teams to many parts of the region to assess the drought and assistance needs. The teams are to compile a detailed picture of the crisis when they return to Rome next month.