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Iraq: Drought Crisis Affects Entire Country

UN officials say Iraq is being hit for the second consecutive year by the worst drought conditions in a century. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with the UN's Food and Agriculture representative in Baghdad about the crisis.

Prague, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Amir Khalil is the chief representative in Iraq for the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO.

Speaking by phone from Baghdad, he said this year's rainfall has been about a third of its average level. That continues the record-breaking drought conditions in Iraq last year.

"The drought experienced through the country during the cropping season 1998- 1999 was Iraq's worst in a century. Unfortunately, this drought has continued during the current 1999-2000 season. No exact statistics are available on the magnitude of the drought; however, the total rainfall for the months of October 1999 and April 2000 dropped down to 33 percent and 40 percent of the general average value respectively. The drought has hit the entire country for two consecutive years; however, due to the climatological zoning of Iraq, it is very natural that the central and southern governates were [most] affected by the drought coupled with low water in the flowing rivers."

Last year's drought had a devastating effect on Iraq's agriculture, reducing cereal output by 40 percent. Khalil said that the damage from this year's water shortages will probably be worse:

"I could say that the effect on the present cropping harvest was probably more than that of last year. The rainfed area in central and southern Iraq, which comprises 50 percent of the [country's] total crop area, was more than 90 percent damaged by drought. Only some 7,500 hectares in that region were harvested, [and] even in those areas, the crops were dwarfed and the yield was very low. And in the irrigated zone, which comprises the other 50 percent of the total crop area in the country, the effect of the drought on the crop output was between 70 to 90 percent, depending on the area."

He said irrigated areas have been hard hit because the total flow into all Iraqi rivers during this year and last is as low as 40 percent of the normal average. This is due to low rainfall, lack of snow cover at the rivers' sources, and reduction in water released downstream from dams constructed in Turkey. Iraq's two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, arise in Turkey.

Khalil said the worst-hit region is the Diyala governate in north-central Iraq, where the main river -- the Diyala -- is at only 27 percent of its normal average.

The expert said the water shortages will spell a total loss of the country's summer planting, which ordinarily starts now.

"The summer crop output ... is estimated as a total loss because there will be no summer crop allowed this year. Summer crops most affected will be rice, barley, maize, cotton, sunflower, and sesame."

Khalil also said the continuing drought is taking a heavy toll on livestock as grazing lands and supplies of fodder have shrunk:

"The drought has drastically affected the rain lands and reduced the quantities of fodder and agricultural byproducts, both of which constitute the country's main domestic animal feed base. And currently large herds of sheep, goats, and cattle can be observed migrating to barren and dry lands in search of feed and water. Field crops and livestock which used to be the major source of livelihood for many Iraqi families are presently under a big threat."

He continued:

"There are no statistics available on this subject, but the negative impact of the drought was clearly reflected in the prices of red meat and live animals. Because of the difficulties farmers are facing in providing feedstuff, the herders are trying to get rid of as many as possible of their herds. And that shortage of feedstuff has also subjected the livestock to an outbreak of disease as their immunity is becoming really very low."

People, too, are directly feeling the effects of the drought as the availability and quality of drinking water has dropped.

"The drought has also affected human lives, not only through the shortage of food production but also through its negative effect on the availability of drinking water throughout the country, including the large cities. The low quality of the water -- coupled with the sanctions on Iraq and its consequences on the water and sanitation -- have led to the increase of infectious and water-borne diseases among the entire population."

The parched conditions across the country also have given rise to dust storms -- another health hazard:

"The drought has also had a negative effect on the environment, where almost daily dust storms are observed in Iraq as a result of the drought. Such storms have a severe effect on the health of the population and on the plants."

But Khalil said that so far there has been no substantial migration of people from the countryside to the cities. The reason is that -- in Iraq's sanctions-hit economy -- the cities provide little alternative of jobs. Khalil:

"As far as migration to the cities, no substantial migration has been observed due to the deteriorated services in the cities aggravated by high living expenses and lack of job opportunities resulting from the sanctions."

According to the FAO expert, the most pressing problems facing Iraq now are to provide good quality drinking water for people and livestock in all regions, including the north, and to dig more wells throughout the country. Another pressing need is to save Iraq's orchards, which would take 15 to 20 years to regrow if they perish.

Khalil said that for Iraq and the international community to cope with the drought, it is urgent that contracts for delivery of equipment under the oil-for-food program get rapid approval by the UN sanctions committee.

The FAO official said there are recent signs that the sanctions committee will put a priority on approving drought-related items. After Khalil visited New York last month to brief the sanctions committee on the crisis, the committee approved contracts for $143 million in agriculture and irrigation equipment.

Under the oil-for-food program, all Iraqi purchases must be cleared by a committee made up of the 15 members of the UN Security Council. The committee regularly delays approvals as part of a verification process to assure equipment has no dual uses for military purposes.