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Iran: UN Expert Details Effects Of Drought

Iran is suffering a third consecutive year of drought that has sent wheat production plummeting, killed some 1 million livestock and resulted in water rationing in many cities, including the capital Tehran. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with the representative in Iran of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to get a detailed picture of the continuing drought, which is considered the worst in some 30 years.

Prague, 19 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The cumulative effect of three successive years of drought is seriously affecting Iran's agriculture and livestock production -- with still no end to the water shortfall in sight.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO, which tracks the health of countries' agricultural sectors worldwide, recently issued an updated report on the drought in Iran that gives a clear picture of the damage being done.

The update, issued last month, says that hardships associated with the drought are being felt by an estimated 37 million people, or more than half of the population. It says that during the 2000 to 2001 growing year, wheat production fell to about 8 million tons. That's 2 million tons below what is considered to be the country's normal wheat production level of some 10 million tons a year.

The country's wheat production has steadily declined during each successive year of drought, with the latest harvest yielding some 700,000 tons less than the 1999 to 2000 growing season.

Jamal Ahmed heads the office of the UN FAO in Iran, which closely monitors the drought situation. He told RFE/RL by phone from Tehran that there is every reason to expect that the wheat yield in the next harvest will continue to decline.

"Roughly 2.6 million hectares of irrigated farms and 4 million hectares of rain-fed agriculture, together with 1.1 million hectares of orchards are being affected. And the farmers [in drought-hit regions] are expecting reductions of 35 to 75 percent in wheat and barley production."

The FAO has reported that 20 of Iran's 28 provinces experienced precipitation shortfalls during the past winter and spring, leading to significant shortages of water. The UN this year raised its estimate of the economic damage due to the drought over the past three years to a total of $2.6 billion. That is up from the $1.7 billion estimated last year.

Ahmed says that rural populations in the 12 most severely affected provinces are largely relying on water tankers, which deliver drinking water for them and their livestock. He says that livestock has been particularly hard hit by the drought, with some 1 million animals estimated to have died over the past three years.

At the same time, many villages in drought-struck areas have been abandoned as people move to places where there are better water supplies. Ahmed says:

"There has been sort of a migration of people. This is voluntary migration of a lot of people, from villages into the cities because of the lack of water and, first of all, a lack of livelihood [in their native villages]. If you have lost your livestock or your harvest, then you move into the city [or] to other places where there is water."

Cities themselves have not been spared the effect of the drought. Iran is rationing water in 30 cities -- including Tehran -- in the driest southern, eastern, and central provinces. Early this month, there was rioting in the central city of Isfahan because of lack of water. Police dispersed crowds by firing into the air and arrested 44 people.

The drought has also caused a drying-up of many wetlands that are used by migratory birds and are home to many of Iran's rarer animal and plant species. UN environmental experts have called for special assistance to cope with what they say is a mounting threat to the country's biodiversity.

The FAO's Ahmed says the Iranian government has mobilized its resources in an effort to deal with the worst economic and social problems caused by the drought. But he says international assistance is needed.

"The parliament has allocated an equivalent of $500 million to mitigate the effect of the drought, and the cabinet declared June to September of this year as a water crisis period and they have issued certain directives [regulating] water use. But the drought impact is so huge that international assistance is needed, is really needed to relieve the people in the country and to perhaps help in the livestock sector."

Ahmed says the greatest needs in outside assistance are for water tankers and other temporary water distribution equipment that can substitute in dry regions for the normal water distribution infrastructure, which has been made useless by too-low reservoir and water-table levels.

"The needs which the United Nations have foreseen so far are water-tanker trucks with epoxy-coated tankers -- the need actually is for about 12,000 mobile water tankers with capacities of 12,000 to 18,000 liters. Another thing is stationary tanks for potable water, and this potable water has to be provided in villages and in the vicinity of livestock areas. Also, provision of polyethelene pipes: about 2,000 kilometers of pipes of different sizes are needed."

He continues:

"Water pumps are needed, electric or diesel, in the range of 2,500 pumps with different capacities. Water-quality test equipment [is needed] because there is always the possibility of contamination. And we need money to be given to the agricultural bank to provide loans for farmers and herders who have lost their livestock and their livelihood, and they need to restart their life."

Ahmed says there is also a need for some 1.5 million tons of emergency barley feed for livestock.

The UN Development Program this month made an urgent call to donor countries to help Iran cope with the drought. The appeal came as senior Iranian officials and UN representatives met diplomats from would-be donor countries in Tehran to present an assessment of the drought's damage.