BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.N. relief organizations are working to alleviate the impact of what could be Iraq's worst drought in 50 years, a senior U.N. official said.
Senior Iraqi officials also are holding separate meetings to evaluate the consequences of this year's infrequent and late rains on the livelihood of farmers and millions of Iraqis who rely on their produce. Water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have dropped so much this year that people can cross them on foot, according to farmers and residents in northern Iraq.
The drought, however, will not affect the U.N.-approved oil-for-food deal that provides 22 million Iraqis with almost two-thirds of their basic needs including flour, sugar and rice.
The deal allows Baghdad to sell oil, in an exception to U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The oil revenue may only be used to buy humanitarian supplies and food from abroad.
Meanwhile, local produce has been used by the government to provide additional rations to about 5 million especially poor people.
The United Nations and the Iraqi government haven't issued any forecasts but both say privately that this year's yields, particularly of wheat, barley and rice, will be at least 75 percent less than last year, a bumper year for crops.
The United Nations says it is aware of the crisis and has already notified relief organizations to seek their help.
``We've been aware for some time that the very low rainfall of this year is certainly going to affect the annual harvest in Iraq,'' U.N. humanitarian spokesman in Iraq, George Somerwill, told the Associated Press. The Al-Ittihad economic weekly said rainfall in Mosul, Iraq's breadbasket, has been the lowest in more than 50 years.
The Mosul plateau, extending from the northern city of Mosul to the Syrian border, usually provides the country with up to 70 percent of its grain yields. This year, Al-Ittihad said, rainfall has been one-fifth of last year, even insufficient to water land devoted to grazing cattle and sheep.
The water shortage has forced the government to ban planting of rice, the country's staple food. Irrigation Minister Mahmoud Dhiab Ahmed has said the government might resort to strict water rationing.
Last year, Iraq produced 300,000 tons of rice. The government granaries collected 1.2 million tons of wheat and 859,000 tons of barley.
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