Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan Faces Drought Crisis

Uzbek farmers see hopes of a good harvest receding, as drought attacks rice, cotton and grain crops.

"We peasants are always dependent on nature, and our only saviour is rain," says collective farm chairman Nurali Aralov. In the Kashkadariya region of Uzbekistan, where Aralov farms, there has been no rain for three months.

"We've sown 80 tons of grain, but we're unlikely to get a harvest," says Aralov, shrugging his shoulders. "I've no idea how we'll cover the losses."

There are severe water shortages across the southern regions of Uzbekistan and in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. A warm winter and almost no rainfall in spring combined to hit reservoir supplies. As a result, cotton, rice and grain harvests are all under threat.

Some farming enterprises in Karakalpakstan are expecting to lose half their harvests this year.

Water shortages are already evident in the fields, where agricultural workers can see recently sown cotton and wheat drying out. Local officials estimate that 17,000 hectares of cotton need water. They have begun to re-sow areas less affected by the drought, in the hope of making up the harvest.

This tactic may indeed salvage some of this year's harvests, but it's too late to save the winter crop. The Kashkadariya region has lost 84,000 tons of winter wheat because of drought, says its deputy head Khalil Saatov.

Water shortages are also evident in the south of Bukhara and Surkhandariya. But perhaps the worst hit areas are in northern Karakalpakstan, where rain fell for the first time in months at the end of May.

Karakalpakstan provides half of Uzbekistan's total rice harvest. But this year, Deputy Economics Minister Abat Zarekeev predicts it will lose half its crop.

Rice-sowing was delayed a month because of water shortages, he says. As rains have now fallen, planting can now go ahead, but Karakalpakstan's continental climate may prevent the rice from maturing if frosts come early in September or October. If that happens, farmers will harvest useless white powder instead of rice.

The plan is to sow 115,000 hectares of land. But according to Khubbiniaz Ashirbekov, chairman of the Nukus branch of the International Fund for the Saving of the Aral, the figure is wildly optimistic.

"Perhaps, with the coming of the rains, we'll have enough time to sow 40,000 hectares," said Ashirbekov. "Then we'll just have to put our trust in god, and hope that the warm weather will last through until November so the rice can ripen. With our climate, that's unlikely."

The cotton crop is also expected to be hit by drought, with agricultural managers expecting Karakalpakstan to meet only 50 per cent of its quota.

Back in Tashkent, though, Uzbek officials are sanguine. "We'll be saving every litre of water that we can," said Khajimurad Gapparov, head of water resources at the Ministry of Water and Agriculture. "We'll set up the irrigation of fields by rota, and we'll bring in additional sources of water. Don't worry, Uzbekistan will bring in the planned harvests of cotton, rice and grain"

During a similarly severe drought 14 years ago, the state provided aid by buying in additional grain and cotton seed.

This time round, according to the (local) news agency Turkiston Press, Uzbekistan has signed an agreement with the US for $10 million of credit to buy 52,000 tons of grain under the "Food for Peace" programme.

In a country that counts on agricultural exports to supply much needed hard currency, such preventive measures are to be expected. Recent history has also taught Uzbeks to respect nature: Irrigation projects over the last decade led to the desiccation of the Aral Sea, depriving many Uzbeks of their principal source of income.

Meanwhile in the fields of the south, where it's too late to save the bulk of the harvest, agricultural workers can only shake their heads forlornly at their ruined cotton and rice crops, and hope nature will be more forgiving next year.

Shavkhat Alimov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Uzbekistan.

More IWPR's Global Voices