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UN warns drought on verge of becoming "full-fledged disaster"

TEHRAN, Iran, August 3, 2000 (AFP) - UN emergency officials warned Thursday that the drought in Iran is on the verge of becoming a "full-fledged disaster" which is overwhelming the government's ability to handle the crisis.

Arrival of international aid in the form of water tankers and livestock feed is as much as two months away, they said, while the catastrophe is certain to continue into next year even with a normal rainfall this autumn.

"The situation is critical in many provinces and may easily turn into a full-fledged disaster if not properly addressed," said Vladimir Sakharov, a UN disaster specialist who has toured some of the worst-hit regions.

"The government response has been timely but they are clearly overwhelmed, both from a financial and technical standpoint," he told AFP at the UN mission here.

A second straight year of drought has decimated Iran's livestock population and, according to some estimates cited by the UN team, left all but three of the nation's 28 provinces short of drinking water.

"I have seen droughts that left a shortage for agriculture but I have never before seen people themselves simply running out of water," said Rod Kennard, a livestock expert with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The two officials said they had met earlier in the day to outline the gravity of the crisis for officials from potential donor nations but said they had a "realistic" view of what was possible to do in the short-term.

At least one million tonnes of emergency barley are needed to feed livestock, as well as some 400 mobile tankers to transport drinking water and hundreds of stationary containers and pumps, they said.

The cost would run well into the hundreds of millions of dollars and, they stressed, only a part of that is likely to be provided -- and even then will take "weeks or even months" to arrive.

The crushing drought has been a politically sensitive issue for Iran, which is accepting international aid for only the second time since the 1979 Islamic revolution which brought the clergy to power.

Tehran pointedly said it was not asking for assistance from abroad but would accept it if offered, while the drought has added another unwelcome burden to the nation's already struggling economy.

Violence erupted in the southwestern town of Abadan last month, with police being called in to quell the unrest after residents smashed shop windows and set fires to protest the lack of drinking water.

UN officials here have underlined that the government has been doing its utmost to address the crisis and Kennard said he had received assurances of an additional 200 million dollars in state funding.

He said a government program to buy back livestock was helping ease the vicious cycle in which already barren land was being over-grazed by desperate farmers and nomadic herders.

But with perhaps a million head of livestock already dead, some 200,000 nomads primarily in the south and central regions of the country are losing -- and will continue to lose -- their only way of making a living.

The UN team says the nomads will likely be displaced, putting a further strain on Iran's cities, which it says may have to find a home for as much as a staggering 60 percent of the rural population.

That in turn will heighten the water shortage in the cities which could lead, according to a draft of the UN team's report to be delivered next week, to the spread of contagious disease and other "irreparable damages."

Meanwhile large numbers of the drought-stricken population in neighbouring Afghanistan are expected to begin trying to cross into Iran in search of water and pasture.

But there is nothing here for them. Some lakes have disappeared completely, wildlife wetlands have been badly damaged and the UN says even government efforts to deliver water by tanker to open-air reservoirs will increase the likelihood of contamination.

A normal rainfall in November would not have any significant effect on crops and the underground water table until next spring, meaning the crisis will go on well into 2001.

This is a catastrophe, Kennard said, whose effects will be felt for "quite a few generations."