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Iran: Drought Devastates The Land

Drought conditions are levying a heavy toll on Iran, where some two-thirds of the country's provinces have severe water shortages. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel interviews the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's representative in Tehran about the crisis.

Prague, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Jamal Ahmed heads the Iran office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, which is closely monitoring the drought's effects.

He says that the drought is particularly serious because it is a recurrence of a devastating drought last year which saw wheat production fall by some 25 percent. The cumulative effects of the two droughts caused the FAO to issue a special alert this month calling on the international community to be ready to provide assistance to Iran if conditions worsen.

RFE/RL asked Jamal Ahmed to describe the extent to which the drought threatens Iran's agriculture and livestock. Ahmed replied:

"Well, actually, 13 out of the last 22 years, Iran was hit with droughts. And last year was one of the worst droughts it has experienced in the last 30 years. This drought of this year is even worse. In fact, 17 out of the 28 provinces of the Islamic Republic are hit badly by the drought, and ten of them are in extremely bad condition and severely affected. The drought hit the eastern, southern, and central plateau of Iran where there is most of the rain-fed agriculture and also the livestock. So, it is affecting the wheat cultivation, barley cultivation, rain-fed orchards and livestock in those areas."

He continued:

"The amount of food being produced by Iran was almost 80 percent enough for the domestic food consumption of the country. Last year, the wheat went down. This year, we expect that the wheat and the barley will both go down. The most severely affected portion of the agriculture sector is the livestock [and] now in many places, in areas like Sistan-Baluchistan, the people are either taking their livestock to other cities -- the prices of livestock already went down -- and in some places it has been reported that the government is slaughtering animals to reduce losses."

Ahmed said that this year's wheat crop in Iran could fall by 30 percent. But he said it is difficult to assess the loss of livestock, because many animals are being moved from one point to another in search of water. Ahmed said that in some provinces, however, it appears the loss of livestock is running at 10 percent.

He also said that the most pressing problem now -- located mostly in the southern provinces -- is providing drinking water to populations and livestock in areas where rivers are so low they have become brackish. There the government is transporting drinking water by tankers from reservoirs to affected villages and towns.

Ahmed said there is no emergency situation now of people migrating in large numbers from rural areas to cities but that at the end of the farming season there may be sizeable numbers of people doing so.

The FAO estimates that the amount of rainfall in the seven months prior to April this year was some 25 percent less than that during the same period a year earlier. Ahmed said this has exacerbated the scarcity of water in dams and reservoirs from last year's drought and could mean the situation will worsen in the months ahead.

"If we don't have some rain now, we will see the situation worsening. Because there is a possibility of rain in certain areas at this particular season. If we don't have in the remaining parts of May and early June some rains, things would even be worse, particularly for the rain-fed agriculture."

Ahmed said the Iranian government has responded efficiently to the crisis with a parliamentary bill providing for direct assistance to farmers and has already made some $183 million available in aid. But he said fully coping with the crisis will require that Iran receives international financial assistance.

RFE/RL asked Ahmed in what areas Iran most needs the assistance:

"They would need at the moment some assistance in this emergency for drinking water and perhaps assistance in certain areas in the livestock sector and long-term assistance in infrastructure for irrigation. Because, as I see, the drought cycle is not over yet and nobody can predict what happens next year. But if the drought persists, then the Islamic Republic will have to diversify a lot [from rain-fed agriculture] into irrigation, and this would call for a lot of investment. But for now, at the moment, the most urgent thing is drinking water for livestock and humans in the most-hit provinces."

He called the crisis too much for Iran to cope with alone, even in the short term:

"It's a little too much. The devastation is too much actually, if we take 17 out of 28 provinces. I think the Islamic Republic would do a lot [by itself] but still some assistance from outside is needed to cope with the situation."

Ahmed said the UN regional coordinator in Iran has been approached by Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that the ministry provided an estimate of the drought damages and expressed interest in external assistance. News agencies have reported that Tehran estimates losses at $1.7 billion and wants about $200 million to provide water tankers and water purifying units for drought-hit areas.

The FAO's special alert this month warned UN member states of the gravity of the drought, but as yet the UN has made no official appeal for emergency assistance to Iran.

An FAO assessment team is now in Iran compiling a detailed report on the crisis and is due to report back to FAO headquarters in Rome early next month.