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UN: FAO On Asian/Middle East Drought

Much of Western Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East is suffering the third year of a continuing drought that is severely reducing many countries' crop yields. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with an environmental expert at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization to get a detailed assessment of the drought's impact on the region.

Prague, 29 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Agricultural experts say that the continuing drought afflicting much of Western and Central Asia, as well as the Mideast, is increasingly straining the ability of many countries to cope with the crop losses it has caused.

The drought is now in its third year across a region that extends east-to-west from India to Cyprus and north-to-south from Uzbekistan to the Arabian Sea. Within that expanse, there are areas that have received adequate rainfall. But for most of the region, there has been no let-up in dry weather conditions, which have brought lower than usual amounts of snowfall and rainfall, drops in river levels, and reduced water supplies to farms and cities.

Shukri Ahmed is a regional expert at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) World Information and Early Warning System in Rome. He says that the hardest-hit country in the region continues to be Afghanistan.

An FAO mission which returned from Afghanistan in May reported that because of the drought and continuing warfare the country will face a grain shortfall of more than a million tons during the next 12 months. UN agencies have issued a special alert asking donor countries for emergency aid contributions to help Afghanis cope with the grain deficit.

The drought has also seriously affected several of Afghanistan's immediate neighbors, including Iran and Tajikistan.

Ahmed says that the water shortage continues to threaten Iran's grain production. But he says Iran has been spared Afghanistan's food crisis because it can afford to import enough supplies to offset the crop losses.

"From the latest information that we have, the drought this year has also threatened [Iranian] grain production, mostly in the southern, eastern, and central parts of the country. There were some rains in between but it didn't really help and to some extent we are expecting that they may even have a worse production this year than last year. The only difference I would imagine [between Iran and] Afghanistan is that [Iran] can import and is importing, and that is what is keeping it floating."

Ahmed says that wheat production has continued to fall in Iran since it plunged some 25 percent with the first year of drought in 1999. Last year's harvest brought in some 8.7 million tons and this year's crop is forecast to drop to 8 million tons. The FAO expert says that in a normal, non-drought year, Iran's wheat production would be around 10 million tons.

Tajikistan is expecting a very poor harvest this year as it continues to suffer drought conditions throughout much of the country. Ahmed says that this year's crop could be one of the worst in many years:

"The government has already issued a warning for the overall cereal harvest that it will be low and I think this year we are seeing one of the worst crops to be harvested."

Ahmed says that Tajikistan will require continuing outside food assistance to deal with the drought. The FAO and the UN'S World Food Program are currently sending a joint assessment mission to the country to determine the precise requirements.

Turning to elsewhere in Central Asia, Ahmed says parts of Uzbekistan also continue to experience water shortages. Analysts say that water flow in the two main Uzbek rivers, the Amudar'ya and Syrdar'ya, is less than last year, making a reduced crop harvest likely. Ahmed says:

"The outlook [in Uzbekistan] is for another reduced spring crop harvest. The latest official estimates confirm that the area sown with winter wheat has decreased by about 100,000 hectares to an estimated 1.2 million hectares."

Ahmed says that a UN assessment mission to Uzbekistan in October determined some 45,000 people might experience food supply problems as a result of the water shortages. But he says that for the moment there is no crisis requiring immediate outside intervention.

In the Caucasus, several countries are slowly recovering from droughts that reduced harvests there last year. But shortages of seed are limiting the areas that can be sown, notably in Armenia and, to a lesser extent, Georgia. Ahmed says that means the area could continue to experience below-normal production this year:

"There is kind of a mixed picture coming out. Even though the rains were better, due to other reasons like seed shortages we are expecting that there will be below-normal production again."

In the Mideast, Iraq continues to suffer from water shortages as rainfalls there have been insufficient to reverse the pattern of the last two years. A UN assessment mission reported that total water flow into all of Iraq's rivers during the last two years was as low as 40 percent of the normal average.

Ahmed says current information is incomplete and has relied mostly on satellite imagery because there was no UN assessment mission in Iraq this year:

"[This year] we just have our satellite imagery, which shows the continuation of the drought. And the vegetation indices of this year, compared to the previous years, didn't show any improvement, which overall indicates that there is a continuation of the drought. Hopefully, we'll get more information as the summer goes along and we [learn] exactly what production there was for cereals."

The UN sends crop and food supply assessment missions to countries upon the request of their governments, and when there are signs of a sharply deteriorating situation. Iraq, which asked for an assessment mission last year, made no request for a mission this year.

The FAO's latest worldwide "Food Crops and Shortages" report, which is updated five times yearly, is due to be published early next month. It will present a detailed picture of the drought conditions in the region on a country-by-country basis.