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Food and Agriculture

Drought Dries Up Balkans Harvests

BELGRADE, Aug 29 2012 (IPS) - After two months of waiting, people from the central Serbian town Valjevo followed the call of their bishop and went to local Orthodox Church to pray for rain.

“It wasn’t because I am religious, but because I didn’t know what else could help,” said Milan Stankovic (55), who attended the Sunday service. “Half of my raspberries are gone, half of the corn as well.”

And the rain fell in the night between Sunday and Monday all over the Balkans, bringing a little relief to a region where hundreds of thousands of farmers spent most of the summer looking at the sky through four heat waves since Jun. 1.

“All over the Balkans farmers are listing damage,” analyst Misa Brkic told IPS. “But nations of the region should admit they are doing almost nothing in regard to agricultural strategy…governments put agriculture high on their lists of priority, but only in words.”

The Commercial Chamber of Serbia (PKS) has put the damage from drought at 2.1 billion dollars. “Half of total plant production of Serbia was destroyed by this year’s drought,” PKS agriculture expert Vojislav Stankovic told journalists. This goes for corn, soy, wheat, fruit and vegetables.

Stankovic said Serbia, the biggest agricultural producer in the region, needs to invest 2 billion dollars in the irrigation systems that currently cover only 200,000 hectares, or four percent of arable land. The coverage needs to be taken up to two million hectares, he said.

Agriculture is Serbia’s most profitable export branch, and netted in 2 billion dollars in 2011.

“That substantially supported the national budget, but this year will see nothing alike,” Brkic said.

“Harvest losses do not mean only that we’ll have to be careful with use of agricultural produce,” head of the Product Exchange, Zarko Galetin, told IPS. “Those losses transfer into reduced produce of meat, eggs, milk etc., and higher prices of food.”

Consumers in Serbia have already felt the impact, with two hikes in the price of meat of about five percent each in just the past two weeks.

Irrigation has proved difficult. “Our wells have lower levels,” said Mirjana Kiric (35), a vendor at the biggest open air green market Kalenic in Belgrade. “We use old pumps and can almost hear the ground slurping the water.”

In neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, comprising the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Serb dominated Republic of Srpska, there is no joint agriculture ministry. Soil temperatures in the south have hit 47 degrees Celsius, and the government has estimated damage to crops at almost a billion dollars. Farming accounts for 20 percent of employment in the country, where unemployment stands at 48 percent.

“The situation has not been this bad since the end of the (1992-95) war,” Jovan Jankovic (65) from Ljubovija told IPS over the phone. “Corn will be as rare as gold here.”

The World Bank (WB), which in May approved a 40 million dollars loan to improve the irrigation system in Bosnia, said then that the countries of the Balkans had “huge agricultural potential, but lacked the infrastructure and strategy.”

“Former Yugoslavia used to have one of the most advanced irrigation and drainage systems,”

said Holger Kray, the WB’s lead official for agriculture and rural development in Europe and Central Asia. “Unfortunately, these systems have degraded, eroded,” Kray told Belgrade media.

In Croatia, less than one percent of arable land (16,000 hectares) is being irrigated. Agriculture Minister Radimir Cacic admitted to local media last week that the country’s approach to agriculture is like that of “primitive tribes”.

“If there’s rain, there will be crops, there will be electricity. If there is drought, there’ll be nothing. This has to change,” he told Croatian Radio Television (HRT).

So far little has been done in that direction. The only ray of hope for Croatia is the European Union (EU) funds that will become available when it becomes the 28th EU member in July next year.

The drought has had a severe impact on energy production. Hydropower plants have had to scale down due to low water levels. In Serbia, electricity production has fallen 20 percent.

Low river levels have led to a slowdown in international shipment on the Danube and Sava rivers.

Fires as a result of the drought have destroyed large tracts of forests and bush in Bosnia, on the Croatian Adriatic coast, and in Montenegro and Serbia. Some of the fires raging on the border between Serbia and Kosovo are still beyond control because mines left over from the war over the former Serbian province make the area inaccessible.

“Whoever we have to thank for the rain, we do,” Milan Stankovic told IPS. “But it came too late and in such small quantities that it was of little consolation.”

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