BAGHDAD — It's been a year of drought and sand storms across Iraq — a dry spell that has devastated the country's crucial wheat crop and created new worries about the safety of drinking water.
U.S. officials warn that Iraq will need to increase wheat imports sharply this winter to make up for the lost crop — a sobering proposition with world food prices high and some internal refugees already struggling to afford basics.
"Planting ... is totally destroyed," said Daham Mohammed Salim, 40, who farms 120 acres in the al-Jazeera area near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. "Even the ground water in wells is lower than before."
The Tikrit area, where Saddam Hussein was born, normally is flush with green meadows in the spring and early summer — but this year has only thistles, said 30-year-old farmer Ziyad Sano. He's resorted to collecting bread scraps from homes to feed his 70 sheep, but 20 have died.
The dry weather has hurt areas from Kurdistan's wheat fields in northern Iraq to pomegranate orchards, orange groves and wheat fields just north of Baghdad.
In the capital, the Tigris river is at its lowest level since 2001, with yards of reeds exposed on each bank. Some irrigation canals to the north in Diyala province — the country's most important bread basket — are bone dry.
Iraqi officials have won praise for providing small-scale relief, such as aid to farmers and the digging of new wells. But the relatively low-tech farming, coupled with chronic electrical power shortages, have hindered broader solutions.
The power outages have prevented farmers in Diyala from drawing water from wells or pumping it from rivers to flood-irrigate fields as usual.
Oil for water
The dry spell has its roots in a winter with only 30 to 40 percent of normal rain — both in Iraq and in Turkey, where the Tigris enters Iraq to the south.
Iraqi officials negotiated with Turkey to let more of that country's dwindling water supplies to flow south from dams, said Mahdi Thumad al-Qaisi, Iraq's deputy minister of agriculture.
But some Iraqis say the government should press harder to get more water from neighboring countries. A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, urged the government this week to sell oil at preferential prices in return for more access to water.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asked about the issue on his first-ever visit to Iraq on Thursday, insisted his country is supplying Iraq "with more water than what we had promised, regardless of the high need in our own country."
Besides Iraq and Turkey, the drought has spread across Syria, Cyprus, Iran and Afghanistan, where the wheat crop is also in trouble and could cause shortages.
Rising bread prices have caused unrest in some nearby countries like Egypt and across the globe. Iraq, awash in oil revenues, should have the cash next winter to buy enough wheat on the world market, but its government has struggled to use oil revenues quickly to solve problems.
Iraqi money slated for reconstruction projects, for example, has sometimes sat unused waiting for the government to get organized enough to spend it.
Overall, Iraq's wheat and barley crop is expected to fall 51 percent from last year, meaning the country will have to buy substantial amounts outside, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.
Health risks and adequate drinking water are other worries.
A recent survey by the International Organization for Migration found some of Iraq's estimated 2.8 million internal refugees, including in Diyala and Baghdad, already have trouble finding affordable food and clean water — a situation that could now worsen.
"You'll see a lot of dry canals, a lot of barren fields. You might see some increased health effects," said 1st Lt. Paul Horton, an assistant civil military operations officer for the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Diyala, who praised local government efforts.
In Kurdistan, some villagers have left their homes and headed to cities because of dry wells.
Cholera has broken out in recent years in areas including Diyala. The disease is typically spread by contaminated water, a higher risk when rivers are stagnant and wells low.
Swept up by sand
The small Diyala river north of Baghdad, for example, is so low now that it's salty and unsafe to drink — for animals, plants or people, said Sheik Thamir al-Dulaimi, who lives in Dulaim village in Diyala.
Severe sandstorms are another health hazard — like one that clogged Baghdad last week with thick reddish air, full of sand and dust from dry farm fields and the desert to the west.
The storms cause respiratory problems for children, the sick and the old. They also have damaged power plants and disrupted commercial air flights, the government says.
Local Iraqi officials have taken steps to provide relief.
Diyala's governor has banned the growing of water-intensive crops such as rice, and is giving feed to livestock farmers and ordering new wells.
Overall, "We tried to concentrate on providing drinking water and pumping irrigation water," said Aon Dhiab Abdullah, the head of the ministry that administers most water resources.
Salim, the farmer near Tikrit, hopes some type of government compensation will get him through.
He bought 3 tons of wheat seed for $1,500 on credit last fall, planting all but harvesting almost nothing.
To feed his five children, he's resorted to working as a taxi driver.
"I couldn't even pay my debts," Salim said. "Farming has come to an end this year."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.