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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 20:13 GMT 21:13 UK
Iran drought hits rice farmers
Dried-up lakebed
Iran's rainfall has fallen for the last three years
By Monica Whitlock in Gilan, northern Iran

With much of western Asia facing a third year of drought, international attention has been fixed on desert areas of the region, mainly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

But the water shortage has also affected many highland and rainy areas which are the main food-growing regions.


One such is the rice-growing belt of northern Iran, the Caspian province of Gilan.

The landscape in semi-tropical Gilan is lush and green - hardly the image one usually associates with drought. But even here the drought is having its effect.

The Abdullahi family, who own three hectares of land, usually produce two-and-a-half tonnes of rice a year. The rice industry is perhaps the biggest employer in Iran as a whole, and is the staple food of the nation.

Self-sufficient

For the Abdullahis, rice is their only cash crop. The rest of their tiny farm feeds the family.

They have chickens, pomegranate trees, orange and tangerine trees. They produce their own milk and also have quince trees. Everything they need, they make and grow themselves.


All we want is to be make a living

Rice farmer, Gilan province
The Abdullahis have for the past two years been more self-reliant than ever. The harvest has fallen by a third because of the poor spring rains. The family has just about managed to make good the loss by digging into its small savings.

Zofrah Abdullahi has grown rice all her life. Gilan province incidentally is the only part of Iran in which women work as farmers.

"We plant the seeds and when they become green seedlings we weed the paddy fields," she explained. "We water them. They need water all the time.

"When they are ripe, we harvest the crop and take the rice into town, where we sell it."

Water in demand

When the harvest is poor, the government imports rice from Vietnam and Thailand and the market price drops. Iranian rice farms depend completely on cultivation techniques many centuries old and it is impossible to compete.

At the Rice Research Institute in Gilan, I met Mr Rezai, an irrigation engineer who believes it is essential to look at the wider picture if the rice farmers are to sustain production.

"The water problem all over the world is because of a population problem," he said. "It's a scientific fact."

Back at the farm, the Abdullahi daughters were frying rice flour with ground walnuts - pancakes for everyone. Like all the Gilan growers, the family eats rice at least twice a day.

"We grow it, we sell it, we eat it", as Zorah put it.

The Abdullahis and their ancestors have farmed this plot for a 125 years. They have seen lean times before and many cycles of drought. Almost none of the rice farming families of Gilan have given up and moved to the city for work.

"We're proud of our land," one told me. "All we want is to be make a living and hand it on to our children."

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See also:

03 Aug 00 | Middle East
Iran facing drought catastrophe
31 Jul 00 | South Asia
Taleban blames Afghans for drought
11 May 00 | Middle East
Drought raises food fears
10 May 00 | South Asia
Drought hits Iran's farmers
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