Drought withers Iraqi farms, food supplies

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ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi fishermen ride their motor boat in the waters of the Tigris River in Baghdad on August, 13 2009. Iraq's water minister accused Turkey on August 11 of breaking a promise to increase water flows down the Euphrates river, saying Ankara was actually holding back on the precious commodity.

As a two-year drought drags on, water is now so limited for agriculture that Iraq imports 80 percent of the food Iraqis eat. That means during the holy month of Ramadan, traditional foods that came from Iraqi farms are getting harder to find.

Iraq has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but it's running out of another valuable commodity: water.

Iraq's ancient name, Mesopotamia, means the land between two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates, which flow into Iraq from Turkey and Syria. But water is now so limited for agriculture that Iraq imports 80 percent of the food Iraqis eat.

During the holy month of Ramadan, traditional foods that typically come from Iraqi farms are getting harder to find.

One Farmer's Dilemma

Iraq once had the most fertile lands in the region, but the low waters of the Tigris serve as a reminder of an environmental disaster — a two-year drought — along with decades of war and mismanagement.

For Iraqi rice farmers, the lack of water is a catastrophe. Kamel al-Kafaji has been farming since he was a boy, but the future is bleak for his own son. Kafaji grows ambar rice, an aromatic variety that is especially popular during Ramadan — part of a food tradition when Iraqis break their fast at sunset.

"It's no lie — Iraqis cannot live without ambar rice," he says.

Placing the small rice plants into wet ground by hand is hard work in the burning heat, but harder still is getting enough water to keep the plants alive.

"It is a tragedy. I have planted 50 percent of the land while only 20 percent will survive till the harvest time. The reason behind this is the water shortage," Kafaji says.

Most of Kafaji's soil is dusty and cracked. In this rice belt south of Baghdad, many farmers have abandoned the land and joined the urban poor. The Iraqi government has banned rice farming all together in the southern provinces because there's not enough water to sustain it.

Water Wars?

Iraq's water shortage is also a regional political problem that was years in the making.

Latif Rashid, Iraq's water resources minister, explains that Iraq is what he calls a downstream country. "This is Turkey," he says, pointing to a large regional map in his office. "There are reservoirs ... and dams on every branch."

Turkey and Syria are upstream countries. The map charts every water diversion built by the two neighbors over the years.

"Saddam didn't care about it, he didn't have a relationship with them," Rashid says, referring to the late dictator, ousted in the 2003 U.S. invasion. "When I was appointed minister of water I sent a message to Turkey and to Syria saying: 'Look, let us talk about the water issue, and this is very important.' They were surprised."

The region's water ministers are scheduled to meet in September after Rashid angrily accused the Turks of broken promises to increase water flows to the Euphrates.

The water shortage is so acute across so many borders that an international group monitoring sustainable development warns shortages could lead to water wars — armed conflicts for control of resources. That's why Rashid is pushing for a regional agreement.

"There is just not enough water for everybody. If we do not manage it everybody will be cheated," he says.

But farmer Kafaji says there is plenty of cheating across Iraq's rice fields: The government rations water, but the farmers find ways around it.

"Let me tell you a secret: Even the water pumps we use are not licensed ones because water ministry won't allow us to do so," he says. "We knew that it was illegal but we had to; it was emergency case."

Will A Favorite Disappear?

In a Baghdad market, shoppers stand over mounds of ambar rice, taking in the aroma before haggling over the price.

"Well, there is nothing tastier than ambar rice, especially for us in Ramadan month," says Rafid Radhi, who is shopping for his mother.

What would happen if he didn't come home with ambar — if this favorite rice disappeared from the market?

"My mother would kick us out of the house," he laughs.

But with the continuing drought — and no regional water plan — Iraq's agriculture disaster could mean the end for a traditional food that has long been part of the country's identity.

View this story at NPR.org

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