Drought devastates Iraq’s wheat crops

Power outages disrupt irrigation

BAGHDAD – It’s been a year of drought and sand storms across Iraq – a dry spell that has devastated the country’s crucial wheat crop and created new worries about the safety of drinking water.

U.S. officials warn that Iraq will need to increase wheat imports sharply this winter to make up for the lost crop – a sobering proposition with world food prices high and some internal refugees already struggling to afford basics.

“Planting … is totally destroyed,” said Daham Mohammed Salim, 40, who farms 120 acres in the al-Jazeera area near Tikrit, 130 kilometres north of Baghdad. “Even the ground water in wells is lower than before.”

The Tikrit area, where Saddam Hussein was born, normally is flush with green meadows in the spring and early summer – but this year has only thistles, said 30-year-old farmer Ziyad Sano. He’s resorted to collecting bread scraps from homes to feed his 70 sheep, but 20 have died.

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The dry weather has hurt areas from Kurdistan’s wheat fields in northern Iraq to pomegranate orchards, orange groves and wheat fields just north of Baghdad.

In the capital, the Tigris river is at its lowest level since 2001, with yards of reeds exposed on each bank. Some irrigation canals to the north in Diyala province – the country’s most important bread basket – are bone dry.

Iraqi officials have won praise for providing small-scale relief, such as aid to farmers and the digging of new wells. But the relatively low-tech farming, coupled with chronic electrical power shortages, have hindered broader solutions.

The power outages have prevented farmers in Diyala from drawing water from wells or pumping it from rivers to flood-irrigate fields as usual.

The dry spell has its roots in a winter with only 30 to 40 per cent of normal rain – both in Iraq and in Turkey, where the Tigris enters Iraq to the south.

Iraqi officials negotiated with Turkey to let more of that country’s dwindling water supplies to flow south from dams, said Mahdi Thumad al-Qaisi, Iraq’s deputy minister of agriculture.

But some Iraqis say the government should press harder to get more water from neighbouring countries. A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, urged the government this week to sell oil at preferential prices in return for more access to water.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asked about the issue on his first-ever visit to Iraq today, insisted his country is supplying Iraq “with more water than what we had promised, regardless of the high need in our own country.”

Besides Iraq and Turkey, the drought has spread across Syria, Cyprus, Iran and Afghanistan, where the wheat crop is also in trouble and could cause shortages.

Overall, Iraq’s wheat and barley crop is expected to fall 51 per cent from last year, meaning the country will have to buy substantial amounts outside, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Health risks and adequate drinking water are other worries.

A recent survey by the International Organization for Migration found some of Iraq’s estimated 2.8 million internal refugees, including in Diyala and Baghdad, already have trouble finding affordable food and clean water – a situation that could now worsen.

Salim, the farmer near Tikrit, hopes some type of government compensation will get him through.

He bought 3 tons of wheat seed for $1,500 on credit last fall, planting all but harvesting almost nothing.

To feed his five children, he’s resorted to working as a taxi driver.

“I couldn’t even pay my debts,” Salim said. “Farming has come to an end this year.”

Jul 10, 2008 05:50 PM
Source: The Star.com

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