IRAQ: Amjad al-Kazaali gazed sorrowfully over fields where rice has been sown for centuries — but which now lie bare for lack of water.
For the first time, this season Kazaali has not planted the treasured amber rice local to Diwaniyah province.
Facing an unusually harsh drought, the agriculture ministry last month suspended the cultivation of rice, corn and other cereals, which need large quantities of water.
The decision has slashed the income of amber rice farmers, who usually earn between 300,000 and 500,000 dinars ($240 to $400) a year per dunum (quarter-hectare, 0.6 acres).
With a black-and-white chequered keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his head, 46-year-old Kazaali was distraught at the absence of green shoots on his 50 hectares.
“Our eyes can’t get used to the yellowish colour of the earth, it’s too hard to look at my fields without my amber (rice),” he said, on his farm in the village of Abu Teben, in the west of Diwaniyah province.
The long-grained variety takes its name from its aroma, which is similar to that of amber resin.
More than 70 percent of the amber crop is grown in Diwaniyah and neighbouring Najaf province, and in total, the variety makes up over a third of the 100,000 tons of rice grown in Iraq every year.
Fondly dubbed “royal rice” by Iraqis, many Shiite pilgrims travelling between the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf stop to stock up on the popular grain.
Exports are banned, although some of the rice is smuggled through the Iraqi city of Basra to the Gulf.
– Scent of the Euphrates –
Of the thousands of rice producers in Diwaniyah province, just 267 are dedicated to the centuries-long tradition of growing the amber variety.
“As my parents and my grandparents have done for hundreds of years, since the Ottoman Empire, I’ve been used to touching the grains of amber with my feet during planting and taking them in my hands during the harvest,” said Kazaali.
“It’s the water of the Euphrates River which gives it the fresh scent that we can smell for kilometres.”
But Iraq has seen its water resources dwindle in recent years — a problem soon to be compounded by the inauguration of Turkey’s controversial Ilisu dam on the Tigris River.
Planting was due to take place between May 15 and July 1, with the harvest set for late October.
Iraq’s agriculture ministry had planned for 350,000 hectares of crops this season, including staples such as rice and corn, spokesman Hamid al-Naef said.
But after the ministry for water resources warned it would not be possible to irrigate these key crops, the forecast was slashed to 150,000 hectares, mainly set aside for less water-intensive vegetables and palms.
“The ministry has therefore asked farmers not to cultivate rice, yellow or white corn, cotton, sesame, sunflower,” Naef said.
In Diwaniyah, the agriculture ministry’s provincial director, Safaa al-Janabi, said the changes represent a total loss of 50 billion dinars ($42 million, 36 million euros).
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said the government will compensate farmers, particularly rice producers. But Kazaali feared that promise would not be kept.
“We could be forced to leave agriculture and the region,” he said.
“Some farmers have tried to carry on regardless and plant their rice anyway, but the ministry for water resources has removed their pumps, which has destroyed their crop.”