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Iraq's ancient name, Mesopotamia, means the land between two rivers. The Tigris and the Euphrates flow the full length of Iraq, but because of drought and war, water for farming is now so scarce that the country imports 80 percent of its food. Like the rest of the Muslim world, Iraq is in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, even as traditional Ramadan foods from Iraqi farms are now much harder to find. NPR's Deborah Amos has this report from Baghdad.
(Soundbite of splashing water)
DEBORAH AMOS: I'm standing on the banks of the Tigris River, where the water is so low the banks are cracked and dry. There's been a two year drought, decades of war and mismanagement. But Iraq once had the most fertile lands in the region. The Tigris is a reminder that there's an environmental disaster.
For Iraqi rice farmers, the lack of water is a catastrophe. Kamel al-Kafaji has been farming since he was a boy, but the future is bleak for his own son. Kafaji grows ambar rice, an aromatic variety that is especially popular during Ramadan. It's part of a food tradition when the Iraqis break their fast at sunset.
Mr. KAMEL AL-KAFAJI (Farmer): (Through translator) It's no lie - Iraqis cannot live without ambar rice.
AMOS: Placing the small rice plants into wet ground by hand is hard work in the burning heat, but harder still - getting enough water to keep the plants alive.
Mr. KAFAJI: (Through translator) It's a tragedy. I have planted 50 percent of the land while only 20 percent will survive till the harvest time. The reason behind this is the water shortage.
AMOS: Most of Kafaji's soil is dusty and cracked. In this rice belt south of Baghdad, many farmers have abandoned the land and they've joined the urban poor. The Iraqi government has banned rice farming altogether in the southern provinces because there's just not enough water to sustain it.
Iraq's water shortage is also a regional political problem that's years in the making.
Latif Rashid is the water resources minister. He walks over to a large regional map in his office to explain that Iraq is what he calls a downstream country.
Mr. LATIF RASHID (Water Resources Minister): This is Turkey. Obviously there are reservoirs and dams on every branch, okay?
AMOS: Turkey and Syria are upstream countries. The map charts every water diversion built by the two neighbors over the years.
Mr. RASHID: Saddam didn't care about it and he even did not have a relationship with them. I mean when I was appointed the minister of water I sent a message to Turkey and Syria, saying, look, you know, let us talk about water issue and this is very important. They were surprised. I mean…
AMOS: But the region's water ministers are scheduled to meet in September after Rashid angrily accused the Turks of broken promises to increase water flows to the Euphrates.
The water shortage is so acute across so many borders that an international group monitoring sustainable development warns shortages could lead to water wars — armed conflicts for control of the resources. That's why Rashid is pushing for a regional agreement.
Mr. RASHID: There is just not enough water for everybody. If we do not manage it, everybody will be cheated.
AMOS: Plenty of cheating across Iraq's rice belt, says farmer Kamel al-Kafaji. The government rations water. The farmers find ways around it.
Mr. KAFAJI: (Through translator) Let me tell you a secret: Even the water pumps we use are not licensed ones because water ministry won't allow us to do so. We knew that it was illegal, but we had to, it was emergency case.
(Soundbite of market)
AMOS: In this Baghdad market, shoppers stand over mounds of ambar rice to take in the aroma before haggling over the price.
Mr. RAFID RADHI (Shopper): (Through translator) Well, there is nothing tastier than ambar rice, especially for us in the Ramadan month.
AMOS: Rafid Radhi is shopping for his mother. What would happen if he didn't come home with ambar — if this favorite rice disappeared from the market?
Mr. RADHI: (Through translator) My mother would kick us out of the house.
AMOS: But with the continuing drought — and no regional water plan — Iraq's agricultural disaster could mean the end for a traditional food that's long been part of the country's identity.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.