Iraq’s prized rice crop threatened by drought

Iraq’s prized rice crop threatened by drought

Iraq’s prized rice crop threatened by drought

Drought is threatening the Iraqi tradition of growing amber rice, the aromatic basis of rich lamb and other dishes, and a key element in a struggling economy.    

The long-grained variety of rice takes its name from its distinctive scent, which is similar to that of amber resin. It is used in Iraqi meals including sumptuous lamb qouzi, mansaf and stuffed vegetables.    

But after three years of drought and declining rainfall, Iraq’s amber rice production will be only symbolic in 2022, forcing consumers to seek out imported varieties and leaving farmers pondering their future. Normally, rice fields planted in mid-May should stay submerged all summer until October but that’s a luxury Iraq can no longer allow.    

The country’s available water reserves “are well below our critical level of 18 billion cubic metres (4.8 trillion gallons)”, Shaker Fayez Kadhim, Najaf’s water resources manager, told AFP.    

Rice drains between 10 and 12 billion cubic metres during its cultivation period of about five months, so it is “difficult to grow rice in Najaf or other provinces because of the high level of water it needs”, Kadhim said.    

Previously, more than 70 percent of the amber crop was grown in Diwaniyah and neighbouring Najaf provinces.    

In early May, officials limited total rice crop areas to 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres), in Najaf and Diwaniyah only. The normal quota is 35 times that.    

Water shortages have also led to reduced quotas for wheat farmers.    

The country’s annual rice production had been 300,000 tons.    

Iraq is known in Arabic as the “country of the two rivers” -- the Tigris and the Euphrates. But despite those two legendary water sources, the supply of water has been declining for years and the country is classified as one of five most vulnerable to climate change effects and desertification.        

Last year, Iraq’s own agricultural sector contracted by 17.5 percent “following severe droughts, energy outages, and the rising global price of inputs”, according to the World Bank.