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7 Sep, 2010 08:26

Drought underlines need for Russian irrigation focus

Irrigation has helped power agricultural powerhouses such as Australia and the US over the past 100 years. The summer drought has added to calls that it could be doing more for Russian agriculture too.

Russia’s dry spell and poor harvest may have an upside for the country's farmers, as the agricultural disaster of 2010 could force the government to invest more in the sector, and particularly irrigation.

Russia’s agriculture has traditionally had little emphasis on irrigation, relying on generally reliable rains, across a nation pockmarked by dams and lakes, and crossed by thousands of rivers. Water, like oil, is something Russians usually think they have plenty of.

But the drought of 2010 has underlined the waste if Russia’s abundant water resources can’t be used effectively to ensure reliable agriculture. In the ‘Black Earth’ region near Voronezh, the land is famed for being some of the most fertile on earth. But this year the potatoes are shrivelled and miniscule in comparison with a normal year. Farmers joked that the potatoes were nearly baked, as field temperatures hit 65 degrees centigrade.

Logus-Argo is one of the few farms in the region that irrigates its land, and the difference in its harvest impressed President Medvedev.

“Wow! The harvest it’s 4 times larger!”

Russia irrigates just 8% of its land, compared with 40% in the U.S and 80% in the United Kingdom. Irrigation not only helps the harvest but also reduces the risks for investors.

Medvedev urged officials to revive an irrigation system which was wide-spread in the Soviet Union, but which has since declined. But Aleksey Gordeev, Voronezh region governor, says that considering the dilapidated state of the system, any move will take a lot of time.

“Even if we start to work on this now, and I know that for next year the government has made a decision to revive the irrigation program, we will need 10 years just to restore what we lost in recent years.”

Analysts say, relying purely on the weather caused Russia to lose one third of its harvest, with the total damage to agriculture estimated at $1.5 billion. But they also note that if irrigation can transform a dry nation such as Australia into a global agricultural powerhouse, it could also be a key part of turning the far richer soils of Russia into a more productive agricultural industry.