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Drought raises famine spectre in C.Asia, Caucasus

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Sujata Rao

ALMATY, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Severe drought conditions in former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus this summer have raised the spectre of hunger for many of the region's impoverished people, governments and experts say.

Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have appealed to Western agencies for aid after drought destroyed a large part of the cereal crop in key agriculture regions.

Georgia has declared a state of emergency in its eastern provinces where up to 75 percent of the 100,000 hectares sown to grain were destroyed. Agriculture and Food Minister David Kirvalidze said at least 30,000 tonnes of winter wheat seeds and nine million litres of diesel were urgently required.

"For Georgia where agriculture is a huge part of the economy accounting for 28 percent of gross domestic product, this situation is a terrible ordeal," Kirvalidze told Reuters. He added that total losses were estimated at $200 million.

Georgia has sent appeals to the United Nations and the European Union for food aid to avert hunger, he said.

In Azerbaijan, losses caused by drought amounted to $100 million, Azeri Deputy Agriculture Minister Sabir Veliev told Reuters. Azerbaijan had appealed to the World Bank for help in combating the consequences of the dry weather.

Tiny Armenia's wheat crop will fall 100,000 tonnes short of last year's harvest, agriculture ministry officials said. In all the countries, corn and fruit harvests have also been affected.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society said last week that Georgia, Armenia and Tajikistan needed urgent food aid if famine were to be averted.


It is in Tajikistan, the poorest former Soviet state, that drought could lead to a terrible humanitarian disaster this winter, aid agencies have warned.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said the grain deficit could be as large as 313,000 tonnes and added: "A food deficit of this magnitude...will inevitably result in widespread serious nutritional consequences and even loss of life."

Deputy Agriculture Minister Ikhtiyor Ashurov told Reuters losses from drought would amount to $49 million, less than the $57 million figure predicted by humanitarian agencies.

He refused to comment on the possibility of famine but admitted there would be a huge deficit of food grains.

"Drought has killed 100,000 hectares of crops out of 289,000 hectares sown to grain," he said. The country would be able to harvest just 250,000 tonnes of wheat this year, compared to its annual consumption needs of 800,000 tonnes.

Yields are also below target in neighbouring Uzbekistan, which harvested 3.0 million tonnes of grain against a goal of 4.29 million tonnes. The agriculture ministry said up to 300,000 tonnes of wheat had been lost from non-irrigated areas.

The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said earlier this week it had received an appeal for food aid for the desert region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. A team of U.N. food experts will visit the country from September 10.


Drought has also dashed hopes for a bumper harvest in Kazakhstan, one of the bread baskets of the former Soviet Union. The country has cut its output forecast by about 20 percent following a severe dry spell in its fertile northern farm belt.

Deputy Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said on Thursday Kazakhstan would produce just 11.0 million tonnes of grain this year, of which wheat would comprise 9.2 million tonnes.

Gross output of Kazakhstan's high-quality soft wheat was 12.5 million tonnes in 1999, out of a total harvest of 16 million, allowing exports to Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Iran.

"We had 50 days of severe drought from 19 June to end-July. This had a sharp negative effect on yields," said Bakhtily Assainova, agriculture department head of the Pavlodar region, part of Kazakhstan's agricultural heartland.

"Yields are about eight quintals a hectare but before the drought, we expected 12-15 quintals," she told Reuters. One quintal is equivalent to 100 kg.

A lower harvest is likely to eat into sales abroad of Kazakh wheat. The U.S. Agriculture Department said last week it expected exports to decline to three million tonnes this year, as compared to almost six million tonnes in 1999. (Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Hasmik Mkrtychan in Yerevan, Lada Yevgrashina in Baku, Sergei Yakovlev in Dushanbe, Shamil Baigin in Tashkent).

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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