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Second Year Of Drought Devastates Iraqi Agriculture

An Iraqi girl stands on cracked earth in the marsh area near Basra
An Iraqi girl stands on cracked earth in the marsh area near Basra
A prolonged drought has hit the region extending from Turkey to Afghanistan, and farmers in many areas are losing hope that it will ever end.

For two years, the fields of Iraq have been covered in dust, which is whipped up into dust storms on windy days.

And it doesn't matter whether those fields rely on rainfall or irrigation to grow their crops. There simply is no water -- in the sky or on the ground.

On the border with Iran, Wasit Governorate is famous for its orchards of citrus fruits, pomegranates, and date palms. But there is so little water in the Tigris that farmers are able to irrigate only a quarter of the land that they usually farm, according to Abbas Fadhil of the Cooperative Farmers Union.

"At the start of the season, farmers prepared their land for the growing season, only to be faced with this water shortage.... This has had a negative effect on agricultural production and also on the income earned by the farmers," Fadhil said.

Elsewhere along the Iranian border, in Diyala Governorate, some villagers have abandoned their farms. The water levels in local dams are too low to generate electricity for the last resort: pumping water from wells to moisten the fields. Nothing can be done but move to the towns.

In the mountainous north, near the border with Turkey, the drought is so bad that the International Red Cross said in September it would offer $6 million in aid to the region. The usually rainy area is normally one of Iraq's breadbaskets, growing wheat and barley and raising livestock.

But this year, Iraq's wheat production is down 27 percent and barley production is down 60 percent. Baghdad now plans on buying some 2.8 million tons of wheat from abroad to offset the losses.

Dead Canals

As far south as Najaf, things look the same. On the banks of the Euphrates, the wheat and rice fields are dry and the salt levels in the soil are rising.

Farmer Raheem al-Shibli pronounced his canals "dead" as he surveyed a cracked network of drainage canals which, in normal times, flush the salt from his fields.

"The amount of salt in the soil has increased because of the water shortage," al-Shibli said. "Drainage channels have been neglected and are practically dead. The number of irrigation projects is insufficient and the lack of drainage is increasing soil salinity. The land is no longer suitable for growing crops."

Experts say the drought began in the winter of 2007-08, when the rains in Iraq and southern Turkey reached only 30 to 40 percent of their usual level. This year the winter snow and rain were again down by 30 percent.

Pasquale Steduto, chief of the water department at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, says there is no clear explanation of why some winters bring rain and some bring drought.

But he says Iraq's own extremely heavy use of its water resources for agriculture makes it particularly vulnerable to any decrease in rainfall.

Steduto says that hot, dry Iraq uses 85 percent of its renewable water resources -- rivers, groundwater, and rain -- to irrigate its fields and flush salt from the soil. The FAO considers 40 percent use of water resources to be the limit of sustainability. After that limit, farmers become entirely dependent upon the vagaries of the weather.

"All this, of course, puts them in a very vulnerable situation because any fluctuation from year to year, or even during a year between the seasons, has a higher impact than if they were using a much smaller percentage [of their overall water], so that some sort of back-up resources would be available," Steduto said.

The fact that Iraq is also dependent for a full half of its water supply upon its two great rivers -- the Euphrates and Tigris -- also makes it vulnerable. Both rivers are dammed by Iraq's upstream neighbors, which make increasing demands on the water supply for their own agricultural projects.

The current drought comes at a particularly bad time for Iraq, just when it is hoping to use its improved security situation to make some economic progress.

Thanks to oil exports, the central government earns enough money to import food to offset this year's expected meager harvests. But that means less money for reconstruction projects, including digging new wells and improving irrigation systems that could help farmers keep working their fields.

Agriculture is Iraq's biggest business, employing some 26 percent of the population in normal times. Now, many of the farmers have no choice but to join the ranks of Iraq's jobless and wait for help until the rains return next winter.

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