Drought Menaces Central Asia, Caucasus
A severe drought is ravaging crops across the Caucasus and Central Asia. The hardest hit countries, Georgia and Tajikistan, are issuing urgent appeals for assistance, as some experts warn that millions of people may face severe food shortages in the coming months.
Widespread crop failures have been exacerbated by a breakdown in regional irrigation systems and disputes over water resources [For background see the EurasiaNet Civil Society archive]. In addition, a crumbling agricultural infrastructure is complicating harvesting efforts.
In Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze described the drought as "extreme" and in early August declared five regions of the country to be environmental disaster areas. Some analysts say most of the orchards and vineyards in eastern Georgia have been wiped out. Shevardnadze announced that he has appealed to the United States and the European Union, as well as a variety of international organizations, requesting emergency food aid. "It will be very hard to cope with this problem [the drought] we are facing all of a sudden," Shevardnadze told Georgian radio.
According to estimates by the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture, almost 80 percent of the country's wheat crop has been lost. In some regions, loses to other crops approaches 70 percent, the Prime-News agency reported.
The United States has dispatched an assessment team comprising agronomists and economists to Georgia. The group's findings are due to be released in the coming weeks. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has already identified a need for food aid, seeds and diesel fuel assistance. Other experts have also cautioned about a need for animal feed. Farmers in Georgia are currently facing the prospect of having to slaughter a large number of cattle due to a lack of fodder.
A special report compiled by the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program indicated that conditions in Tajikistan may be just as severe as in Georgia.
Tajikistan's domestic output of cereals was projected to be 46 percent less this year than the 1999 level, the report said. "An estimated 3 million people, one-half the total population [of Tajikistan], face severe food access problems and the situation is likely to worsen as the 2000/01 marketing year progresses," the report said.
According to the report, Tajikistan requires an estimated 787,000 tons of imported cereals to meet existing needs. So far, existing aid pledges and planned commercial imports have totaled 474,000 tons, creating a shortfall of 313,000 tons. "A deficit of this magnitude, if unmet, will inevitably result in widespread, serious nutritional consequences, and even loss of life," the report said.
Rainfall this year has been about 45 percent below the average level in most regions in Tajikistan. There was virtually no rainfall in May, a critical period for crop development.
The drought is underscoring the regional crisis in the agricultural sector. Tajikistan, for instance, experienced a bumper wheat crop as recently as 1997. Since that year, however, harvest totals have been steadily declining. The collapse of the agricultural infrastructure has been a major factor in fall-off of crop yields.
"The same farm machinery (tractors, harvesters, pumps, sprays, trucks) have been in use for a long period," the FAO/WFP report said about Tajikistan's infrastructure. "By now, much of the machinery is out of commission, or in poor condition due to non-replacement, lack of maintenance and non-availability of spare parts. Human hands are now extensively used to perform various agricultural operations, including land preparation."
The decaying irrigation network is also playing a large role in this summer's food crisis. The amount of land under irrigation has dropped precipitously in recent years largely because of equipment failure.
Experts say that without substantial investment in the agricultural sector, the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia will experience a continuation of current trends, exposing the region's population to chronic food shortages.
"The severe agricultural sector constraints, particularly the rehabilitation of the crumbling irrigation systems, need to be addressed to improve agricultural production," the FAO/WFP report warned.