Drought Bakes Balkans

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Drought Bakes Balkans, Ruining Crops, Sending Farmers to Despair Thursday, June 15, 2000 By Alison Mutler

DRAGANESTI-VLASCA, Romania  Under a blazing Balkan sun, Elena Matei hoes the parched earth around stunted ears of corn, easing out weeds struggling for the same traces of moisture.

There hasn't been a drop of rain for two months, the longest drought she has seen in more than 30 years of working the fields in near Draganesti-Vlasca, 37 miles southwest of Bucharest.

"If it goes on like this, the crop will be ruined, my animals will die and so will we," 57-year-old farmer said.

Across the Balkans, weeks of temperatures as high as 102 Fahrenheit have blanched and stunted wheat crops and driven already impoverished farmers to deeper despair. Even coastal areas are suffering from the worst dry spell in decades.

Governments are scrambling to combat the drought with irrigation. Orthodox priests are pointing fingers at the faithless.

"This drought is a consequence of our sins," said Gheorghe Popa, priest at the St. Alexandria church in Alexandria, mopping his brow. "We have destroyed nature and not respected God's laws."

Romania, which normally produces 4.65 million tons of wheat  roughly a quarter of it for exports  is among the worst hit. The country may have to import up to 500,000 tons of cereals to cover domestic needs, said Agriculture Minister Ioan Muresan.

Across the border in Yugoslavia's main republic of Serbia, the situation is similar.

"We are only one step away from a humanitarian catastrophe," said Radomir Popovic, an agriculture expert in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia, whose economy already is in bad shape after a war over its Kosovo province, had hoped to export wheat to help pay its debts. It now faces importing wheat to feed its population.

Eugeniu Salabsev/AP A Romanian woman waters her crop by hand in Draganesti-Vlasca

Croatia's fertile Adriatic coastline, which produces citrus fruits, grapes and olives, is suffering its worst drought in 35 years, said Stansilav Stambuk, an agricultural expert in that nation's capital of Zagreb.

In Bulgaria, Orthodox clergy from the Dobrich, 320 miles northeast of Sofia, said farmers from a nearby village had joined them for open-air prayer for rain and the ancient ritual of offering burnt lambs for sacrifice.

Muslims in northeastern Bulgaria held similar rituals.

Farther north in Slovakia, impoverished farmers have urged the government to cover costs of water and electricity to irrigate their parched fields.

Irrigation is also a problem in northern Romania, where rivers are flowing at a tenth their usual volume. Most farmers can't afford irrigation and the watering systems constructed under communism have been looted and left to disrepair over the past 10 years.

"The irrigation system we used under communism has been destroyed," said farmer Gheorghe Neagoe, 63. His two donkeys haul 156 gallons of water on a cart to his land, which he waters with his wife using plastic jugs.

"Look at this melon. It should be as big as a man's fist," he said pointing to a dark-green fruit no bigger than a pingpong ball.

"I don't think we'll see corn or melons or anything if it doesn't rain," said his wife, Maria.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 15, 2000

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