Monday, July 31

Drought DPRK: Hello North Korean agronomists, your country isn't Kansas

Kim Jong-un inspecting wheat during a visit to a seed research farm; 2016, from The Telegraph

A collective farm in North Korea; Photo: Clay Gilliand via The Diplomat

After more than a half century of trying to pound the round peg of pastoral agriculture into the square of a mountainous nation, maybe it's time for North Korea's agricultural scientists to rethink. It's perfectly possible to use mountainous terrain to grow crops, and here I'm not talking about making pasture by cutting down trees on mountain slopes, as the North Koreans have done with results that lead to catastrophic flooding because the soil is unable to retain rainwater.  

I'm thinking in terms of steppe or terrace farming, as used for more than a thousand years in the South American Andes mountains. Here's an illustration from Wikipedia's all-too-brief article on terrace farming:

Also, the article mentions in passing the use of ziggurats in ancient times in the Middle East for terraced farming although it doesn't provide a citation. Nor is there discussion of this use for ziggurats in Wikipedia's article on such structures, which were mostly assumed to have been built for religious purposes or for taking refuge from a flood. I have always suspected their original use was for terraced farming although I can't offer evidence for this; it was just the first thought that came to my mind about the structures when I first saw photographs of them in my youth. 

In any case where flat cropland is at a premium, one can think of terracing, and I can certainly think of how ziggurat architecture can be used for such.

One can also think of the incredible innovations (made possible by cutting-edge science) applied to the ancient method called silvo-pasturing. The genius idea of modern silvo- pasturing, which greatly reduces the acreage needed for grazing land by stacking forage rather than spreading them out for the cows' consumption, can be applied to raising crops for human consumption. 

This is already being done with coffee trees and plantains. In other words, plant scientists can figure out what kind of food/beverage crop could raised on top of another crop. Or it could be a combo -- one plant in the stack would be, say, legumes for human consumption, and another plant in the stack for animal feed. 

The trick is that the plant on top is leafy enough to allow the one below to get enough sunlight, or that the one below is shade loving; figuring all this out is where the cutting-edge science comes in.

As for water, science based silvo-pasturing, which can produce the same amount of dairy, meat, and timber in half the land area, requires almost no fertilizer -- or irrigation. And that's even during dry atmospheric conditions. Yes, you read that right. 

This type of agriculture is old news to readers who've been with this blog for years; for people chary of clicking on links to unknown sources the report I link to above is at Yale Environment 360, which is associated with Yale University. The report, by Lisa Palmer, was published in March 2014 under the title In the Pastures of Colombia, Cows, Crops and Timber Coexist: "As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change."

There are also a great many things the North Koreans could be doing in terms of preserving food and conserving water, and which, again, relate to newer approaches and methods. 

See the Christian Science Monitor's great "Search for Solutions" series, three of which I've posted here in recent days.   

As to the immediate drought crisis in North Korea and the specter of another famine, below are three news reports -- two recent and one, the most interesting, published in 2016 -- and analyses by two experts on DPRK; between them they cover all the bases in terms of conventional policy advice. Their observations are as relevant today as when they were published in 2015, during the last drought crisis in DPRK.  

July 24, 2017
North Korean drought leaves Kim's kingdom crippled amid deadly food crisis, UN warns
By Thomas Hunt
Sunday Express (U.K.)

NORTH Korea faces a devastating drought that threatens a food crisis in the sanction–hit country, a United Nations report has warned.

The secretive state was previously ravaged by a widespread famine where at least 2 million people are estimated to have died between 1995 and 1999.

The UN Food Agriculture Organisation [FAO] said: “More rains are urgently needed to avoid significant decreases in the main 2017 cereal production season.

“Should drought conditions persist, the food security situation is likely to further deteriorate.”

he UN agency estimated North Korea’s early-season crop production was down 30 per cent to 310,000 tonnes from the same time period last year.

Vincent Martin, FAO representative in China and North Korea, said in a statement: “Seasonal rainfall in main cereal producing areas have been below the level of 2001, when cereal production dropped to the unprecedented level of only two million tonnes.”

A persistent lack of rainfall in North Korea in recent months has decimated staple crops such as rice, maize, potatoes and soybean, which many of the country's citizens depend on during the lean season that stretches from May to September.

Jean Lee, global fellow at Wilson Centre, said: “There's a chronic shortfall of food… In terms of being able to feed their people, they never recovered.

“Then on top of the drought, they may get some monsoon flooding when it does start to rain. So this country that has very little arable land, 85 per cent mountains [has a] vicious cycle of drought and flooding.”

Inefficient food production means that large parts of the North Korean population face malnutrition or death.

The FAO said in a statement: “Increased food imports, commercial and/or through food aid, would be required during the next three lean months [July to September] until the harvest of the 2017 main season from the end of September to October, in order to ensure adequate food consumption for the most vulnerable people.”

Kim continues to flex his state’s military muscle after the belligerent North tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) it claimed is capable of hitting Hawaii, located in the Pacific ocean.

The drought follows calls from an Obama era Envoy for the hermit kingdom to be handed humanitarian aid by the US.

The astonishing claim did come with a caveat, that the aid should only be given to the residents if transparency of distribution is secured.

Earlier this month former-envoy Robert King said: “Aid at the civic level should also be extended to the North under the same condition.”


The worst North Korean drought since 2001 has severely damaged staple crop production and could lead to serious food shortages, according to a new report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FOA report, an early warning alert published Thursday, warns that a drop in bilateral food aid to North Korea — in part a result of sanctions imposed in response to the hermetic nation's nuclear weapons program — has made the country especially vulnerable to famine.

Prolonged dry weather during the crucial period from April to late June is likely to cause a significant decrease in this year's harvest, the report said. North Korea now requires "immediate interventions" such as food imports and agricultural assistance to make up for the shortfall.

"Seasonal rainfall in main cereal producing areas have been below the level of 2001, when cereal production dropped to the unprecedented level of only two million tonnes, causing a sharp deterioration in food security conditions of a large part of the population," said Vincent Martin, an FAO representative in China and North Korea, in a press release that accompanied the report.

Staple crops such as rice, maize, potatoes and soybean — which many North Koreans traditionally rely on to get through the May to September lean season — had been decimated by the drought. Vulnerable people such as children and the elderly would be worst affected by food insecurity, the FAO said.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to have died during widespread famine in the 1990's.

By Julian Ryall
The Telegraph (U.K.)

In a proclamation that will strike fear into the hearts of the North Korean people, state media has ordered the citizenry to prepare for a new "arduous march".

The term was first coined by the North Korean leadership in 1993 as a metaphor for the four-year famine that decimated the nation from 1994 [to 1999].

The famine - in which as many as 3.5 million of the nation's 22 million people died - was brought on by economic mismanagement, natural disasters, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the consequent loss of aid, combined with the regime's insistence on continuing a life of luxury and feeding the military.

Now, less than one month after the United Nations Security Council voted in favour of new sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang has announced a nationwide campaign to save food.

"The road to revolution is long and arduous", an editorial in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper stated on Monday. "We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again".

The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, reported that every citizen of Pyongyang is being ordered to provide 1kg (2.2lb) of rice to the state's warehouses every month, while farmers are being forced to "donate" additional supplies from their own meagre crops to the military.

There are also reports of North Koreans hoarding food supplies due to fears of another famine, while the regime has started to crack down on the open-air markets that serve as an important source of additional food for city-dwellers and have been tolerated in recent years.

The markets began to appear after an attempt in 2009 to reform the North's currency went awry, causing the national food-rationing system to collapse and triggering fears of another famine.

The Rodong Sinmun also warned that despite the hardships, allegiances to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, would not be permitted to waver.

"Even if we give up our lives, we should continue to show our loyalty to our leader, Kim Jong-un, until the end of our lives", the newspaper said, demanding a "70-day campaign of loyalty".

North Korea has requested 440,000 tons of food aid from overseas to feed its people this year, although a mere 17,600 tons had been delivered by early February.

Such is the dire situation that scientists have found that migrating vultures are feasting before attempting to cross the country because they know it has slim pickings.


Perhaps, but we shouldn't take Pyongyang's word for it.
By Andrei Lankov

Foreign Policy

[Andrei Lankov is a Director at (nonprofit) NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University (Seoul, South Korea).  - From NK News website]

North Korea is experiencing a major drought. The first news about grave water shortages appeared earlier this year; in late May, the United Nations warned that the country might face a “huge food deficit.” By mid-June, the North Korean drought had become an international news story. And on June 16, the Korean Central News Agency, the North Korean official wire service, finally chimed in, calling it “the worst drought in 100 years.”

When people talk today about problems in North Korean agriculture, the grim events of the late 1990s loom. Back then, over half a million people starved to death as society broke down following the passing of the country’s longtime leader Kim Il Sung — the worst famine East Asia had seen in decades. So, unsurprisingly, international media tends to worry about a major famine.

It is too early to estimate the scale of the problem. North Korea is one of the world’s most opaque countries: Foreign journalists see only what their handlers allow them to see and hear from the locals only what the authorities order the locals to tell. Problems can be greatly exaggerated, or hidden — whichever better serves the current demands of Pyongyang.

Nonetheless, there is no need to be alarmist. Indeed, as every North Korean watcher with a sufficiently long memory will tell you, official stories of drought and other natural disasters have been a common feature in North Korean propaganda for decades. For example, KCNA reported floods in 2006, 2007, and 2012, and drought in 2012 and 2014. And this, in turn, led to Western news media reporting on the subject. For example, “Korean Drought Worst in a Century for North and South Korea” and “North Korea Suffering Serious Drought” are two AP headlines from mid-2012; in 2007, the Guardian headlined a story titled “Flooding Devastates North Korea.” And in spring 2014, there was the Reuters headline, “North Korea Faces Worst Drought in Over a Decade.”

Why does Pyongyang do it? And are these calamitous events actually happening?

In the depths of the famine in the late 1990s, North Korean media managers learned that if Pyongyang is going to ask for foreign food assistance, it must first admit it has serious problems with food production. Back then, that move was a dramatic break with the past. In previous decades, the North Koreans, in their encounters with foreigners, were required to paint a picture of nearly perfect paradise, where nothing could possibly go wrong. 

Those times have passed: The 1990s famine taught the North Koreans that they could not beg for foreign aid while also boasting about unprecedented economic successes. That’s not to say the North Korean media is remotely transparent about these events. They tend to remain silent on the human casualties or imply that nobody was killed. The truth of what actually happened with the natural disasters — like so much in North Korea — is often impossible to know.

Which returns us to the present. Pyongyang’s recent decision to report the drought implies that it probably at least considered a request for foreign aid.Indeed, the visitors’ reports make one suspect that this time the scale of the problems is great. European aid experts who recently visited the country described to me the sight of soldiers and elementary school children mobilized to water vegetable gardens with buckets and frequent blackouts, even in buildings which previously had a reliable electricity supply.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should ready ourselves for a rerun of the 1996-1999 famine. Things are different nowadays. 

First, North Korean agriculture has steadily recovered over the last decade, especially under Kim Jong Un, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Despite the spring 2014 drought, the 2013 and 2014 harvests were the best in decades: In those two years — and for the first time since the late 1980s — North Korea came very close to food self-sufficiency. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the country annually produced roughly 5.3 million metric tons of cereal in 2013 and 2014. During the famine, annual harvest was below 3 million metric tons.

What caused that success? North Korea’s move toward its own version of the Household Responsibility System, a farming system China introduced in the late 1970s at the early stages of its economic reforms, deserves some of that credit. Starting in roughly 2013, Pyongyang allowed farmers to register their family as a production unit — thereby keeping up proper ideological appearances of “socialist agriculture” — and allowed them to toil the same area every year, with 30 percent of the harvest as a reward. North Korean farmers ceased to be serfs working for fixed rations and became sharecroppers, whose well-being depends on the productivity of their labor. The change produced wonderful results, and North Korean agricultural recovery sped up significantly.

That new system worked well during the 2014 drought and will likely continue to be successful during the 2015 drought, which appears more severe. The 2015 harvest will likely drop — but it is unlikely to approach the level of the disastrous 1990s.

Nonetheless, even a small decline of the harvest is dangerous, since 5.2 million tons is, essentially, a subsistence level for North Korea’s roughly 25 million people. If the harvest drops, it means starvation, albeit on a relatively limited scale.

However, Pyongyang knows how to handle such issues. Gone are the times when officials were afraid to admit any problems out of fear that such admission would make them vulnerable domestically to accusations of treason. North Koreans now know how to ask for aid, and the recent KCNA reports about the drought were the first step in the right direction. 

China, whose relations with North Korea have recently been tense, has already expressed its willingness to help. Other countries are likely to follow, perhaps through the United Nations, which has been trying to fundraise $137 million for North Korean aid in 2015 — as of early June, it remains roughly $62 million short. If necessary, government minders could escort foreign visitors to the famine-stricken areas — like they did in 2012 and 2013 — and show them starving children and dead dry fields.

There might be some hopes in the United States that a looming famine will make Pyongyang more ready to negotiate on the nuclear issue. This is an illusion. First, for the reasons described above, a famine is unlikely. Second, even a famine may have little, if any, impact on North Korean decision-makers. Through the truly massive famine of the 1990s, they did not slow down their nuclear project and continued to spend money on it — roughly estimated at $3 billion over the last few decades.

Now, when the nuclear program is much less burdensome and when the country’s food problems are much less severe, they have even less reason to negotiate. The North Korean elite believe that nuclear weapons guarantee their survival, and they are not going to surrender the nukes in order to improve the life of farmers in remote villages — famine or otherwise.


July 16, 2015
The Real Cause of North Korea’s Drought Problems
By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
The Diplomat

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a non-resident Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum. He writes frequently on North Korean affairs and formerly worked as a special advisor to the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation.

By trying to help, the international community may be making long-run matters worse.

This year, both North Korean authorities and international agencies and experts have once again spoken of a drought, the worst in one hundred years according to the North Korean government news outlet. UNICEF, the UN agency for children, has already reported that North Korean children are suffering from an increased prevalence of diarrhea associated with a lack of safe drinking water.

It’s business as usual, in other words. The alarm bells of North Korean food shortages and natural disasters are a yearly phenomenon with the same regularity as Christmas. In the summer of 2007, the country was hit by some of the worst floods in its modern history, which saw 200,000 people displaced and at least hundreds killed. Floods devastated the country again both in 2012 and 2013, albeit on a smaller magnitude. And as recently as June last year, just like this year, North Korea reported that it was facing a drought – then the worst in a decade.

This recurring state of emergency is by no means inevitable. North Korea’s inability to cope with natural disasters, and to feed its own population, is a direct result of deliberate government policies. Even after the devastating famine in the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of its citizens starved to death as the economy collapsed, North Korea refused to abandon its socialist foundations and economic planning.

Foreign aid has been an integral part of North Korea’s food supply planning since the mid-1990s. This year is no exception, and the international community may have to allocate additional funds to North Korean food aid in order to prevent widespread malnutrition. But aid won’t change anything in the long run. North Korea will continue to be highly vulnerable to simple weather changes, unless its most basic economic policies are completely overhauled.Sadly, in trying to counter North Korea’s suffering, the international community may ironically be contributing to its prolonging. The United Nations and other donors are enabling the North Korean regime to continue its disastrous policies when they act as cushions whenever the country runs out of food.

The most fundamental of these policies is that of economic autarky. Countries with well-functioning economic systems that allow for economic specialization and trade would simply see food imports increase to offset dryer weather conditions. This cannot happen in North Korea. The regime has made efforts from time to time to modernize its system and attract foreign investments, but it has not taken any of the necessary steps to seek integration into the global economy.

The North Korean regime often emphasizes that the country consists mostly of mountainous regions not suitable for farming. That is clearly true, but the logical response to such a challenge would be to seek to import agricultural goods and export those that the country can produce in greater abundance to a cheaper price than others. Instead, the regime continues to uphold economic and political self-reliance as its overarching goal. More detailed policies have also contributed to the dire situation: For decades, North Koreans have systematically been cutting down trees on mountain slopes to create more farmland, contributing to flooding since the soil has been unable to retain rainwater.

To be sure, some economic and agricultural policy reforms have occurred. Unlike in the country’s more orthodox socialist days, private markets are now tolerated. Many even became formalized and integrated into the economic system after the famine of the 1990s, when the government could no longer restrict them as the socialist distribution system ceased to function.

Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, some experiments have been made in allowing farmers to keep more of their harvests for private trade and consumption. A large number of special economic zones have been designated by the government and allowed significant freedom to operate and craft their own rules.

These are only a few examples of how the state is trying to get the economy going. But these measures amount to nothing more than tweaking the edges of a failed system. The state still owns all essential means of production. While some scholars have argued that the country’s agricultural reforms have led harvests to increase, the slightly larger harvests of recent years merely seem to be a continuation of a trend that started long before reforms were implemented.

On the contrary, North Korea is not only refusing to change its economic structures to make them more resilient to events like the current drought. The state also continues to suppress those economic mechanisms that could help counter the effects of natural disasters. Even though private legal markets are now part of the formal economy to a large extent, imports and exports are still heavily restricted and largely rely on the willingness of border guards to accept bribes.

While Kim Jong-un has implemented measures that carry the shape of economic liberalization with one hand, his other hand has been used to tighten controls on border trade and smuggling. The government would only need to cease some of its control of the markets to alleviate the food shortages that will likely follow the current drought, a virtually costless measure. So far, it has done nothing of this sort.

Like most disasters often termed as “natural,” the consequences of North Korea’s drought are first and foremost failures of policy, not of nature. By agreeing to supply North Korea’s shortfall in food production, year after year, even as the regime refuses to make any fundamental changes to the system that keeps on failing, the international community acts as an enabler for the regime’s continuing mismanagement. 

Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.



Some SAA forces now 28 miles from Deir Ezzor city, on the southern outskirts

Peek-a-boo I see you
"Popular uprising" against Islamic State in Deir Ezzor

1.  For those who said they'd learn about the siege of Deir Ezzor when army reinforcements got there, it's getting to be that time. Here is Wikipedia's background article on the Islamic State's siege, going back to the beginning in 2014, and which is current up until early June of this year.


... The Hezbollah media wing in Syria also announced that the SAA had succeeded in digging a 280 meters long trench in the cemetery area in Deir Ezzor. The trench cuts ISIS supply routes between Al-Thardah mountain and its positions in the cemetery area and inside [Deir Ezzor] city.
According to the recent reports, the SAA is currently over 45 km away from Deir Ezzor city. It’s believed that the SAA will face stronger resistance from ISIS fighters after capturing Sukhna town in the eastern Homs countryside and exterminating ISIS in the eastern Hama countryside. ISIS allegedly transported dozens of fighters from Hama and Homs to Deir Ezzor to defend its positions in the oil-rich province.
3. In addition to the popular uprising in Deir Ezzor (see #6) so many assorted tribes are joining with the Syrian Army to fight Islamic State that it's hard to keep track of them all. I'm getting a little worried that there are so many new fighters that while they're welcome reinforcements they might not have the time to get integrated with the army's plans for Deir Ezzor. SouthFront reported Sunday on a new pro-government group calling themselves "Euphrates Hawks" that's joined the army's anti-IS operation in the al-Sukhnah area. 

3. The army wants to liberate al-Sukhnah before the final onslaught in Deir Ezzor City. From a FARS report 7/30:
... The source reported that the army men took control over several hills and heights overlooking the town of al-Sukhnah and managed to impose fire control over al-Sukhnah gas field, adding that the army soldiers are now just half a mile away from ISIL's last stronghold in Homs [Province], al-Sukhnah.
Al-Sukhnah is located at a crossroads linking Homs, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor along the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway, and the source said the army's advance towards Deir Ezzor to lift ISIL's siege on the eastern city [Deir Ezzor] will be accelerated after taking back al-Sukhnah.
Also, field reports said that the ISIL terrorists have been fleeing al-Sukhnah toward Deir Ezzor following the army's recent victories in region.

Relevant reports said on Saturday that a large number of ISIL terrorists fled from their last bastion in Eastern Homs towards Deir Ezzor after the Syrian Army troops continued to advance in al-Sukhnah region with the support of the Russian and Syrian warplanes.
The army's artillery and missile units were shelling ISIL's strongholds in al-Sukhnah in Eastern Homs.
In the meantime, the fighter jets carried out nonstop combat flights over ISIL's defense lines in the town of al-Sukhnah, weakening terrorists' defense capabilities.
A military source, meanwhile, reported that after the artillery and missile units and fighter jets pounded ISIL's positions in al-Sukhnah, the army men intensified their attack to enter the town, which caused a large number of ISIL terrorists to flee the battlefield towards Deir Ezzor.
[See SouthFront report above for map of area]
4. Al-Masdar News reported late Sunday (7/30) that the Syrian Army reached the northern border of Deir Ezzor governorate for the first time in years:
Following a tumultuous 24 hours that saw ... the government lose more than 40 soldiers during the Islamic State’s counter-offensive near Ghanem Al-‘Ali [and IS lose several fighters], the Syrian Arab Army struck against the terrorist forces to reestablish a supply line to the aforementioned town.
Unable to hold their ground, the Islamic State militants were forced to withdraw from Ghanem Al-‘Ali, Al-Rabiyah, and Al-Jabilah after the Syrian Army fractured their main line of defense. ...
5. This doesn't mean the SAA hasn't been busy in other parts of the governorate. From FARS on 7/30:
TEHRAN (FNA)- The Syrian Army troops stormed ISIL's positions in the Southern outskirts of Deir Ezzor city, killing several security members of the terrorist group.

The army men struck ISIL's positions near Panorama base, Deir Ezzor base and Regiment 137 base, killing a large number of ISIL, including one of the commanders of the terrorist group in the town of Muhassan nom de guerre Moravia al-Faraj.
Local sources reported that the entire members of ISIL's security headquarters, including Abu Abdulla Tunisi, Abu Harth Shaqra and Abu al-Mo'atasem al-Dayeri, were killed in the army attack in the village of al-Hosseiniyeh.
In the meantime, the Syrian Air Force pounded ISIL's positions and movements in the neighborhoods of al-Hamidiyeh, al-Arzi and al-Kanamat and in al-Maqaber (cemetery) region and Jonayd Division base, inflicting major losses on the terrorists. ... 
6. FARS also reported on 7/30 (and posted the above photo):
... A number of ISIL terrorists, including non-Syrians, were killed during a popular uprising in Eastern Deir Ezzor amid the Syrian Army's intensified offensives on ISIL's positions and movements.

Three foreign members of ISIL, including one of the commanders of the group's arms and ammunition supplying branch nom de guerre Abu Qasan Albanian, were killed and their bodies were found along a road near the village of Buleil.
Also, two ISIL terrorists were killed by a woman in the village of Salehiyeh in Northern Deir Ezzur.
Meantime, military sources pointed to the escape of a large number of ISIL commanders from Deir Ezzur and the terrorists' falling front in the Eastern province, and said that Head of ISIL's telecommunication Badi'a Issa al-Hamidi and Hosham Ramadhan a field commander in the town of Muhassan have fled the region.

Relevant reports said on Saturday that a number of civilians stormed ISIL's military vehicles in the village of al-Hara, killing four terrorists.
The source further said that a number of ISIL's commanders fled Deir Ezzor province following the army soldiers' advances to lift terrorists' siege on the city.
The source went on to say that the army aircraft bombed ISIL's positions and movements heavily in Panorama base, around Regiment 137 base, and al-Maqaber (cemetery) region in the southern outskirts of Deir Ezzor, destroying several command centers. ...

Saturday, July 29

Riyadh, Oil Price Martyr: Saudis now in damned if you, damned if you don't place

The Saudis need to cut production to prop up oil prices, but as soon as they do this --

By Zainab Calcuttawala
July 26, 2017

OPEC producers have reached a catch-22 in their quest to rebalance global supply fundamentals for their precious crude oil markets.

While deeper cuts are necessary to bring supply and demand to parity, any boost in oil prices that does occur will spur additional output from the United States – a booming player in the international oil game ever since it entered in December 2015.

“It seems like OPEC really faces a mission impossible at this time, which is to try to tighten oil markets and to sustain oil prices,” Victor Shum of IHS Markit told CNBC Asia on Monday.

New shale output from the Bakken and Permian basins in the U.S. will cut into Middle Eastern and Latin American dominance of the world’s largest crude markets.

“They realize that if they tried to jump start prices they would get short-term benefit from increasing prices over the next six months or so, but they would get a real head of steam behind U.S. production growth heading into next year, more loss of market share and eventually prices coming down toward the same equilibrium,” Greg Priddy of Eurasia Group told CNBC this week.

The dissolution of all price gains since January has led the bloc to adopt additional restrictions to jumpstart the oil and gas recovery. On Monday, top OPEC exporter Saudi Arabia announced export limits at 6.6 million barrels per day for August – a million barrels lower than its figures for the same month last year. Nigeria, one of two African nations exempt from the November production quotas, also vowed to cap output once it reaches 1.8 million barrels per day later this year.

Prices jumped over the $50 line once those two announcements hit international media, and while the growth had been based on mere promises, none of their plans have actualized yet. Still, enthusiasm continued to grow on positive news from the API regarding a serious drawdown in crude oil stocks in the United States.

Ecuador’s new defiance poses another threat to the long-term cuts. The nation became the first OPEC nation to announce its informal withdrawal from the output cuts last week, when it said it would raise output next month to plug large gaps in the national budget. Though the small South American country’s production totals just 545,000 bpd, Ecuador’s decision to sidestep OPEC will damage the bloc’s political capital. Transnational organizations are only as useful as their word.

“We need funds for the fiscal treasury and for that reason we’ve taken the decision to gradually increase production, although not to the country’s full potential, because of OPEC’s output restrictions and the ceiling that we have as a result,” Oil Minister Carlos Perez in a recent interview.

The 1.2-million-barrel cut is, for now, set to last until March 2018, but the longer OPEC extends the deal, the more likely it is that member countries begin defecting from the agreement. Each new barrel in production will cut into Saudi Arabia’s revenues, since Riyadh has made clear its role as chief output martyr since the beginning of the year.

Saudi Aramco’s 2018 initial public offering weighs heavily on the minds of the KSA’s financial planners and newly crowned Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Conquering Vision 2030 is a make it or break it solution for Saudi Arabia. Missing the deadline to diversify its economy away from oil will lead to the collapse of the Saud family’s absolute monarchy and the stability of Islamic world’s holiest lands.

So, what will it be for Riyadh? Either the nation cuts into its oil revenues today for the sake of a more vibrant tomorrow, or it allows its Aramco IPO to fall through from low oil prices, foiling Bin Salman’s scheme for an oil-independent KSA.

U.S. shale producers have the rigs on standby, waiting for an executive decision from OPEC leadership.



Syrian Army turns the tables on Islamic State tunnel diggers. Heh.


July 29, 2017

BEIRUT, LEBANON (7:35 P.M.) – The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) carried out a special operation in the Deir Ezzor Governorate on Saturday, targeting the Islamic State’s (ISIL) command-and-control center inside the provincial capital.

According to a military source in Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Arab Army dug a 40 meter long tunnel under the Islamic State’s command-and-control center, placing a large amount of explosives inside before leaving the area.

Once the soldiers cleared the tunnel, the Syrian Arab Army detonated the explosives that were placed under the ISIL command center, killing and wounding all the terrorists present inside the building at the time.

With little fighting reported over the last ten days in Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Arab Army has been able to carry out special missions to harass the terrorist group inside the provincial capital.



"Rise in sandstorms threatens MENA" - the dam factor

Photo: High winds and sand whip motorways and roads in the UAE, 2015 (AFP)

"We have seen a steady increase in the intensity of dust storms over the past four years."

By Kieran Cooke
July 1, 2017
Middle East Eye

Regional cooperation is needed to quell harmful and costly effects of sandstorms

Eyes are sore, breathing is difficult and outdoor life grinds to a halt. Even the food seems to be laden with grit.

Dust and sandstorms are some of the most enduring – and unpleasant – aspects of life across the Middle East and North Africa, the cause not only of serious health problems but also of multi-million dollar losses to the region's economies.

This week a major international conference on dust and sandstorms, sponsored by the UN and Iran, opens in Tehran.

Delegates will be told to expect more storms over coming years.

"In the Middle East there has been a significant increase in the frequency and the intensity of sand and dust storms in the past 15 years or so," said Enric Terradellas, an analyst at the World Meteorology Organisation.

Dr Wadid Erian, Professor of Soil Science at Cairo University and a speaker at the Tehran conference, warned of the ecological effects of such storms.

"Sandstorms accelerate the process of land desertification and cause serious environmental pollution, with huge destruction to ecology and the living environment," he said.

The storms are highly complex phenomena, governed both by human-induced and natural factors. As with weather systems and changes in climate, the storms do not obey borders, occurring in winter and spring in some countries and in the hot summer months in others.

Dams contribute to the problem 

Exactly what is causing this upsurge in storm activity is uncertain. A rush to build dams across the region and divert water resources for agriculture is considered to be one of the main factors.

Moisture acts as a glue for soil; when it dries out, dust storms are whipped up by the winds.

The construction by Turkey of the giant Ataturk dam on the upper reaches of the Euphrates and of the Ilusu dam on the Tigris is blamed for lessening water flows on the two great rivers of the region and causing a drying out of lands further south in Iraq.

Both Iraq and Iran have indulged in their own widespread programmes of dam construction and river diversion over recent years.

The region's wetlands have also been drained. In the early 1990s Saddam Hussein drained the marshes of southern Iraq, mainly to isolate his political enemies. The result has been disastrous, causing desertification and more dust storms; the UN forecasts that within the next 10 years Iraq could have up to 300 "dust events" annually.

In September 2015, a giant sand storm blanketed much of the Middle East, closing airports, causing multiple road accidents and a spike in hospital admissions. Visibility was so limited that fighting and bombing in Syria and Iraq temporarily came to a halt.

In March, a similar event occurred, turning day into night in parts of the Arabian peninsula.

Over recent years, Iran has been particularly badly hit by sand and dust storms.

"We have seen a steady increase in the intensity of dust storms over the past four years," said Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran's vice president and environment minister.

In May last year, 16 villages in the southeast of the country were reported to have been buried by a succession of sandstorms, with land ruined and livestock killed.

Earlier this year, in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, a politically sensitive area close to the border with Iraq with a majority Arab population, there were demonstrations about air pollution caused both by sand and dust storms and by the local petrochemical industry.

At one point, the electricity and water systems in the city of Ahvaz, described by the World Health Organisation as one of the world's most polluted cities, were shut down due to the storms.

States around the region have used precious water resources carelessly. Saudi Arabia rushed to become self-sufficient in many agricultural products, using up vast amounts of water and further drying out lands.

Iran, partly due to international sanctions, drained wetlands and lakes for water in order to promote food self-sufficiency. Lake Urmia in the country's northwest, once one of the world’s largest saltwater lakes, has lost at least 80 per cent of its waters in recent years.

Though some restoration work has been carried out, boats still lie stranded far away from the water. Winds whip up salt and other materials from the dried out lake bed which fall on surrounding lands, rendering them infertile.

No quick solutions

Dr Kaveh Madani has been studying dust storms as part of his work at Imperial College, London. He says that five years ago, dust and sandstorms were rare in his native Iran.

Madani said that while Iran has been careless with its water resources it had been more of a victim than a contributor to dust storms.

"One of the big problems is that across the region the environment has been given a low priority: people want quick solutions but you can't just throw money at complex issues like dust and sandstorms – there has to be a multi-faceted approach including properly implemented water and land management policies," he said.

Deserts and dry areas, covering about 40 percent of the Earth's land surface, are the source of sand and dust storms.

Up to 50 percent of the world's desert dust originates from the Sahara. Carried by the winds, it can travel vast distances, not just to surrounding areas including the Middle East but to the Americas; sand from the Sahara also reaches Mount Everest and Hong Kong.

Professor Andrew Goudie at Oxford University has done extensive studies on both the causes and impacts of dust storms in the Middle East, particularly relating to health.

Dust and sandstorms can be beneficial, carrying nutrients to the oceans and land. Dust blown from the Sahara feeds the vast rainforests of South America.

"But dust and sand – whether from the Sahara or whipped up by winds from the Arabian desert– can pick up and transport biological materials which include bacteria, pollen spores, fungi and viruses," said Goudie.

"The dust can also transport materials such as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and radioactive materials used by the military."

Serious health problems can develop as people breathe in these materials. Fine particles can enter directly into the bloodstream.

Goudie points to high levels of asthma in southwestern Iran and in the Gulf, with 24 per cent of Saudis being described as asthmatic. The incidence of asthma and other respiratory ailments is also high in the UAE and Kuwait, which lies at the confluence of various wind systems.

Inhaling dust can also cause cardiovascular and other health problems; Goudie said there's evidence suggesting that a substantial proportion of lung cancers in the so-called "dust belt" of the Middle East and North Africa may be caused by exposure to desert dust.

"One of the problems is that there's a lack of research and solid data in the region," Goudie added.

"Kuwait, Iran, Jordan and Oman are doing some good work but others are not. Then of course conflict not only creates its own dust through bombing and fires but it makes gathering data or taking any proper measures to alleviate the situation virtually impossible."

Need for cooperation

Dust storms also cause large-scale economic damage with the UN calculating the storms account for losses of about $13bn in gross domestic product each year across the region. Not only does agriculture suffer; when airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha are shut due to poor visibility – even if it’s only for a few hours – millions in revenue are lost.

When dust storms swept across southwest Iran earlier this year, oil production was reported to have been cut by thousands of barrels a day.

Dust and sandstorms can also affect the generation of alternative energies: coatings of dust on solar panels can severely inhibit power output.

It's uncertain how climate change will influence dust storm behaviour but with rising temperatures forecast across much of the region, it is likely that land in many areas will become drier and more prone to being carried up into the atmosphere.

In some areas, farmers are being persuaded to plant crops and vegetation more capable of withstanding drought and preserving the integrity of land surfaces. A growing awareness of the need to cut down on water use is evident in some countries.

Monitoring systems, alerting people to dust and sandstorms, has improved significantly with a new supercomputing centre tracking storms in the Middle East being opened in Barcelona in Spain.

There is joint action on the issue between some states; Iraq and Iran recently signed an agreement to set up a joint dust-monitoring centre.

The UN says an integrated approach, with cooperation at both regional and sub-regional levels, is vital.

Sadly, with enmities on the increase and ongoing conflict in many areas, cooperation is one factor severely lacking across much of the region.

- Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times, and continues to contribute to the BBC and a wide range of international newspapers and radio networks.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.



"Desalinated Water Can Harm Crops, Researchers Warn"

By Eli Ashkenazi
Haaretz (newspaper, Israel)

Israeli researchers are calling for a reassessment of the use of desalinated water for irrigation, warning in an article published in today's issue of Science Magazine that desalinated water adversely affects some crops, such as tomatoes, basil and certain varieties of flowers.

Israel's use of desalinated water for agriculture is the highest in the world, so the new research is arousing considerable interest among scientists.

Much of the water produced in Ashkelon's desalination plant is used for irrigation. This is the world's largest seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant, producing some 100 million cubic meters of desalinated water a year. Dr. Jorge Tarchitzky, head of the Agriculture Ministry's department of soil and fertilizer usage and one of the article's authors, says the plant produces more water than required for urban use, and half of it is funneled to agriculture.

The article says that the water's the low mineral content, once believed to be an advantage, is bad for the crops. Calcium shortage, for example, causes physiological defects, while magnesium shortage damages the plant's development.

If the crops are grown in sand or off the ground, the damage is even worse, because the soil cannot provide the missing elements. Frequent changes in the water's composition hurt the crops still further.

"One morning we woke up and found that only desalinated water was flowing through the pipes," said another co-author, Dr. Uri Yirmiyahu of the Gilat Research Center. "We gradually began to see the problems. For example, a shortage of magnesium damaged the development of tomatoes and caused defects in basil."

Added co-author Dr. Asher Bar-Tal of the Agricultural Research Organization - Volcani Center: "The problem is the irregular water composition. Sometimes the desalinated water is adulterated and sometimes it isn't. The damage is reflected in the crops' quality."

"The Agriculture Ministry gave farmers a solution - a system that reports changes in the water's composition," Yirmiyahu said. "But the farmer must be prepared for such changes at any given moment. The changes used to be seasonal, which they could handle. Now, the change could take place within a few hours and the water's quality must be checked all the time."

The tender for the desalination plant set criteria only for the quality of drinking water. The researchers are calling for new standards that would also require the desalinated water to be suitable for farming, by requiring it to contain some of the nutritional elements vital to crops.

"Israel is first in the world in setting criteria for desalinated water and has managed to raise this water's quality. Now the water quality must be improved for both farmers and urban consumption," said a fourth co-author, Dr. Ori Lahav of the Technion.

Dr. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University and Dr. Alon Ben-Gal of Gilat also took part in the study.

The financial cost of improving the water may determine whether and how any changes are made.

"Our proposal is a compromise," Yirmiyahu said. "The water would still not be perfect for agriculture, but it would be less harmful. We got together with several researchers from various disciplines to compose an article calling attention to a world problem.

Water shortages are becoming more common - in Australia, California, China, Spain and, as ever, the Middle East. Given this looming crisis, it is obvious that desalination is the front-line defense, and so all the implications of its use must be considered."



"Turmoil in Saudi water sector as country runs dry"

"Half a century ago, Saudi Arabia sat on one of the world’s biggest and oldest aquifers, containing an estimated 500 cubic kilometres of water. Scientists say that in one generation most of that massive amount of water has been exhausted, mainly through a seriously flawed agricultural policy." 

By Kieran Cooke
Sunday 10 July 2016
Middle East Eye

Saudi Arabia could run out of water in the next 20 years after decades of mismanagement of domestic resources

Middle East watchers are familiar with the considerable financial problems facing Saudi Arabia as oil prices continue to drag along the bottom and the country’s budget deficit balloons.

Less well scrutinised is a potentially far bigger crisis unfolding in the desert kingdom’s vital water sector.

Government policy aimed at removing large subsidies on water use in order to tackle the serious state of public finances has met with a storm of protest on social media.

There have been widespread complaints over the implementation of a new water metering scheme brought in at the beginning of the year, in particular serious billing errors. Some residents complain their water charges have risen from a few dollars to several thousand.

In April the country’s long-serving water and electricity minister, Abdullah Al-Hussayen, was sacked by the royal family and, as part of one of the biggest shake-ups in the labyrinthine Saudi bureaucracy in recent years, his ministry was dissolved.

Everyone, including the Saudi government, is agreed that the country and its population of 32 million – including an estimated nine million non-nationals – are facing immense water-shortage challenges. With demand rising at five per cent per annum, the country is in danger of running dry within the next 20 years.

Predicted lower rainfall in future and increased temperatures caused by climate change are likely to exacerbate the problem.

Saudi Arabia is part of one of the hottest and driest regions on the planet, receiving on average about 100mm of rain per year.

Due to generous government subsidies, Saudis - living in a land dominated by desert with no natural rivers or lakes - have become used to paying virtually nothing for their water. As a result, they are among the world’s most prolific consumers, using on average up to 350 litres of water per person per day. In Europe the equivalent figure is about 130 litres per day.

In the more affluent areas of cites such as Riyadh and Jeddah, the figure climbs to more than 500 litres per person per day.

There has been chronic mismanagement of water resources. Half a century ago, Saudi Arabia sat on one of the world’s biggest and oldest aquifers, containing an estimated 500 cubic kilometres of water.

Scientists say that in one generation most of that massive amount of water has been exhausted, mainly through a seriously flawed agricultural policy.

Agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s water usage. In the late 1970s and '80s, a programme of food self-sufficiency was pursued. The government subsidised pumps and energy so farmers could suck out underground water. Irrigation methods were primitive, with vast tracts of desert flooded for crops.

The country became one of the world’s biggest wheat producers. On average it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of wheat. Large herds of cattle were kept in air-conditioned pens.

In recent years the self-sufficiency programme has been abandoned: the government says it will stop subsidising and buying domestically produced wheat and many other crops this year.

Instead, Saudis have been urged to invest in land and water resources overseas as part of the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agriculture Investment Abroad.

The activities of Saudis abroad and accusations of a "land grab" in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan have come in for growing criticism.

As part of the recent restructuring of the government bureaucracy, Abdul Rahman Al-Fahdli, the former agriculture minister, has been appointed to head a new environment, water and agriculture ministry.

Ironically, Al-Fahdli – who for many years has been CEO of Almaria, Saudi Arabia’s giant food conglomerate – is seen as one of the main architects of the country’s food self-sufficiency policy, presiding over the exploitation and near exhaustion of freshwater sources.

To cope with an ever more parlous water problem, the desert kingdom has become increasingly reliant on production from desalination plants. Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s biggest user of desalination technology, with its more than 30 plants on the coast processing millions of gallons of water each day, then piping it hundreds of kilometres to Riyadh and other population centres.

Over-dependence on desalination creates its own set of problems. Saudi officials are trying to curtail state spending but desalination is an expensive business. Estimates are that to keep up with water demand, as much as $29bn needs to be invested in desalination over the next 15 years.

The desalination process requires large amounts of energy. To fuel its desalination plants, Saudi Arabia uses up to 1.5 million barrels of oil per day – more than the entire daily oil consumption of the UK.

There is also a wider environmental issue: not only does the burning of oil during desalination result in more climate-changing carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere, but the process also discharges large amounts of salt brine into sea water. This has resulted in increased salinity in Gulf waters, threatening fish stocks.

The Saudi authorities have tried to lower water use, mounting big publicity campaigns and giving away water-saving devices such as more efficient showerheads.

In some areas the campaigns have been successful, but the government is realising mistakes arising from its overly generous subsidy regime.

Once people have grown used to paying virtually nothing for services, they deeply resent any charges - even if the taps are running dry.

- Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent for both the BBC and the Financial Times, and continues to contribute to the BBC and a wide range of international newspapers and radio networks.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.