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September 27, 2008

Argentina hit by drought

The northern province of Santa Fe usually boasts lush vegetation in September -- the Southern Hemisphere's spring -- but not this year, as Argentina grapples with its worst drought in a century.

"Hopelessness approaches, but you realize that hopelessness makes you crazy," said Jose Miguel Zabala, a cattleman in Tostado, a town full of hungry, thirsty animals. "You give up hope, but there is no solution, there is no one who can alleviate the problem."

Zabala is managing 900 head of cattle, 130 short of his usual complement.

So far this year, fewer than 200 millimeters (7.9 inches) of rain have fallen, less than a third of the 600 millimeters that usually have fallen by this time.

Salt that has concentrated in the remaining well water is slowly poisoning his remaining animals. He and his fellow cattlemen know that more deaths are inevitable.

The country's farm sector had already been hurt this year during four months of strikes held to protest an export-tax hike ordered in March by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Meanwhile, it's not just the old and weak cows that are at risk. Young, pregnant cows are dying, too.

Government figures indicate that the drought is responsible for the deaths of about 15 percent of the area's 1 million head of cattle.

And the impact is creeping into other farming sectors.

"We are almost at the limit of the last date that we can plant sunflowers," said Sixto Periche, of the National Institute of Farming Technology. "If it doesn't rain this week, they won't plant sunflowers."


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