Iraq’s treasured amber rice crop devastated by drought

An Iraqi farmer plants Jasmin rice in the Mishkhab region, central Iraq, some twenty-five kilometers from Najaf, on June 6, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 03 July 2018

Iraq’s treasured amber rice crop devastated by drought

  • Facing an unusually harsh drought, the agriculture ministry last month suspended the cultivation of rice, corn and other cereals
  • 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

DIWANIYAH: Standing on his farm in southern 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 color 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 neighboring 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 traveling 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.
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 kilometers.”
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.”

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

Updated 10 December 2019

Dick Cheney: Upcoming decade bleak if US adopts ‘disengagement’ policy

  • Former US vice president sounds warning during panel discussion on ‘The global order 2030’
  • Remarks seen as indirect criticism of President Trump’s pledge to pull forces out of Syria

DUBAI: Dick Cheney, one of the most influential vice presidents in US history, has warned that “American disengagement” from the Middle East would only benefit Iran and Russia.

The 78-year-old politician’s warning came during a speech at the Arab Strategy Forum (ASF) in Dubai, an annual event in which the world’s leading decision-makers address global challenges and opportunities in “a precise, balanced and politically scientific manner.”

Cheney’s remarks could be seen as indirect criticism of US President Donald Trump’s pledges to pull forces out of northern Syria.

Addressing conference delegates, he cited the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and the 2015 lifting of sanctions against Iran during Barack Obama’s presidency, as events that amplified instability in the region.

“Our allies were left abandoned, and no one wants to feel that way again,” said Cheney, who was chief executive of Halliburton between 1995 and 2000 and held high posts in several Republican administrations.

The former VP’s remarks came during the forum’s concluding session titled, “The global order 2030: The Unites States and China,” which was attended by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Joined by Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister, in a candid panel discussion, Cheney offered his views on the world order in the next decade within the context of Iran’s regional ascendancy, China’s rise and Russian ambitions in the Middle East.

“I am not here to speak on behalf of the US government, or to speak to it,” Cheney said, adding that his talking points reflected concerns he suspected everyone shared.

“For decades, there’s been a consensus of America’s influence in the world and how to use it,” he said, citing instances where US disengagement had caused the political situation in the Middle East to implode.

“Humanity has benefited from America’s protectionism of the world and its relationship with its allies in the region.”

According to him, the upcoming decade would be bleak should the US adopt a disengagement policy, with the pressures most felt by supporters and partners in the Middle East.

Turning to the role that the US and China would play in the global status quo by 2030, Cheney said there were still concerns over China’s reputation.

“We had hoped that there would be a political evolution in China, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he added.

Li said: “China will never learn from a world superpower and will never try to be hegemonic,” citing as examples China’s strong relations with the UAE and the wider Arab world, and the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (a global development strategy) on Chinese foreign policy.

“History is the best teacher, but the US has forgotten its own history. You don’t keep your promises,” added Li, directing his statement at Cheney.

Cheney said that since the end of the Cold War, the US had expected that its policy toward China would have had a beneficial effect on its behavior and helped to deepen bilateral relations.

“It was disappointing to see that these expectations were not borne out – China has only grown richer, the regime has become more oppressive, and instead of evolving, it became more assertive,” he said.

In a separate ASF meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, discussed Iran’s policies in a session titled, “The race for relevance and influence in the region: GCC, Iran, Turkey and Russia.”

Sadjadpour said he expected in the next 10 years to see the arrival of “an Iranian Putin” with a military background as the country’s next leader.

“After 40 years of a clerical regime and a military autocracy, there is now a rise of Persian nationalism. This is a shift from the sheer revolution ideology,” he said.

Sadjadpour said there had been an evolution of “Shiite Arab” identity during the past two decades, with the focus more on religion than nationality.

Under the circumstances, he noted that Sunni Arab powers had an important role to play in welcoming Shiite Arabs into their fold “and luring them away from Iran.”

The analyst added that the future of the Arab world could not be explored and forecast without considering a growing mental health crisis. “Today, hundreds of millions of people in the region suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the effects of this will be with us for decades to come, resulting in issues like radicalism.”

He said there was a need for training thousands of counselors in the field of mental health in order to reach out to those whose lives had been robbed by extreme violence and conflicts.