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Iraq rice yield up as water, power supplies grow

Meshkhab, Iraq, December 21, 2010

The yellow fields on the banks of the Euphrates are producing higher yields of aromatic Iraqi No. 1 rice this year thanks to increased water supplies and enough electricity to run irrigation pumps.

Standing over a massive pile of unhusked brown rice, farmer Adil Hassan tosses his crop into the air with a hand shovel to separate the chaff and expose the rice to the sun to dry.

Aided by government-subsidised fertiliser and insecticides, Iraqi farmers like Hassan are having some success increasing production along the Euphrates south of Baghdad in an area that was the heart of the ancient world's Fertile Crescent.

Government officials are projecting an 11 per cent increase in rice yield per hectare from this year's harvest over last, and 18 per cent better than two years ago.

'Our problem is water and electricity every year,' said Hassan, 29, as his four small children played nearby. 'When there is water, there is no electricity ... we can't water all the planted land. Or vice versa.

'The yield is much better this year than last because of the availability of water and fertiliser,' Hassan said recently in the midst of the yearly harvest in the area of Meshkhab.

Iraq is one of the world's top 10 importers of rice and wheat, which are purchased by the government to supply a huge food rationing programme held over from the Saddam Hussein era.

Decades ago, Iraq's bread basket was a leading producer. It exported wheat and barley and was, at one time, the world's top exporter of dates. But entrenched problems with soil salinity, poor irrigation and in the last three years, a severe drought, combined to make it a major buyer on world markets.

Encouraged by the high prices offered by the government, farmers like Hassan, whose families have worked the land in the Euphrates basin for generations, are boosting planted acreage and yield in the Najaf region south of Baghdad.

'Every season the planted acreage increases because the prices are good and this encourages the farmer to increase the planted acreage,' said Hakim Takleef, a spokesman for the Najaf agricultural department.

'In addition, the government subsidises the agricultural requirements needed.'

The government offers its farmers $583 per tonne for rice, far more than the $420-$430 per tonne it pays for imported rice on world markets.

The Iraqi grain board expects farmers to sell the government between 150,000 and 175,000 tonnes of rice this year, a big improvement over last year's harvest of 119,000 tonnes but still far from meeting the country's growing needs.

Iraq consumes 1.2 million tonnes annually, according to government figures.

The government has consolidated the rice crop in three central provinces, Najaf, Diwaniya and Wassit, allowing it to direct more water to fewer fields. As a result, planted acreage of rice nationwide has fallen in the last three years, according to government figures, from about 85,000 hectares in 2008 to around 48,000 this year.

Yield has gone up each of those years, from about 2,900 kg per hectare in 2008 to a projected 3,460 kg this year, officials said.

Farming is one of Iraq's biggest employers but contributes less than 3 per cent to state revenue, far behind the oil sector, which accounts for 95 per cent of the federal budget. The sector gets little government investment as Iraq focuses on tapping its vast oil reserves for the billions of dollars it needs to rebuild after years of war and economic sanctions.

Rice farmers saw some relief this year from a crippling three-year drought as the ministry of water resources captured winter rain and snow in reservoirs and put the extra supplies to work this summer.

At the same time, Iraq's feeble electrical grid is supplying a bit more power, allowing farmers to run pumps to carry water from canals to the fields.

Future yield gains for Iraq's farmers, however, may be limited by factors out of Iraq's control. As an example, Turkey's controversial Ilisu hydroelectric project, which would dam the Tigris in Iraq's neighbour to the north, could limit the flow of water to Iraq.

Hassan is hopeful he will be able to continue to boost the yield in his fields but says he needs the government's help.

'If, in the coming years, the government increases the subsidies of fertilisers, insecticides, water supplies, and electricity, the yield will be higher,' he said.

'We (also) hope the government will increase the purchase price, because the end benefit out of this huge piece of land is very little.'-Reuters

Tags: agriculture | Iraq | power | farming | Irrigation | rice yields |

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