Iraq’s prized rice crop threatened by drought

Hexbyte Glen Cove

A worker at a rice mill in Iraq’s central province of Najaf, where water shortages mean a drastic reduction in the amount that can be cultivated.

Drought is threatening the Iraqi tradition of growing amber rice, the aromatic basis of rich lamb and other dishes, and a key element in a struggling economy.

The long-grained variety of rice takes its name from its distinctive scent, which is similar to that of amber resin. It is used in Iraqi meals including sumptuous lamb qouzi, mansaf and stuffed vegetables.

But after three years of drought and declining rainfall, Iraq’s amber rice production will be only symbolic in 2022, forcing consumers to seek out imported varieties and leaving farmers pondering their future.

“We live off this land,” Abu Rassul says, standing near a small canal that in normal times irrigates his two hectares (five acres) near Al-Abassiya village in the central province of Najaf.

“Since I was a child I have planted amber rice,” says the farmer in his 70s, his face wrinkled and unshaven, dressed in a dazzling white dishdasha robe.

“Water enables us to plant every year.”

Except for this one.

Normally, rice fields planted in mid-May should stay submerged all summer until October—but that’s a luxury Iraq can no longer allow.

The country’s available water reserves “are well below our critical level of 18 billion cubic metres (4.8 trillion gallons)”, Shaker Fayez Kadhim, Najaf’s water resources manager, told AFP.

Abu Rassul has planted amber rice since he was a child, but drought leaves him and other rice farmers with an uncertain future.

Rice drains between 10 and 12 billion cubic metres during its cultivation period of about five months, so it is “difficult to grow rice in Najaf or other provinces because of the high level of water it needs”, Kadhim said.

Previously, more than 70 percent of the amber crop was grown in Diwaniyah and neighbouring Najaf provinces.

In early May, officials limited total rice crop areas to 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres), in Najaf and Diwaniyah only, according to the agriculture ministry.

The normal quota is 35 times that.

Water shortages have also led to reduced quotas for wheat farmers.

The country’s annual rice production had been 300,000 tonnes (tons), according to Mohammed Chasseb, a senior official in the ministry’s planning department.

Iraq is known in Arabic as the “country of the two rivers”—the Tigris and the Euphrates. But despite those two legendary water sources, the supply of water has been declining for years and the country is classified as one of five most vulnerable to climate change effects and desertification.

The consequences are dire: depleted rivers, more intense sandstorms, declining —all of which add to the multiple challenges the country faces after decades of war and insurgency.

Amber rice is named for its distinctive scent similar to that of amber resin.

Fearing the worst

The Tigris and Euphrates, and their tributaries, originate in Turkey and Syria as well as Iran, which dams them upstream. This reduces the flow as they enter Iraq.

Kadhim says the Euphrates has dropped to about one-third of its normal level. He wants “” to get more water flowing.

Ahmed Hassoun, 51, president of the Najaf farmers’ association, fears the worst.

“There is a risk of seeing rice cultivation disappear for lack of ,” he said, blaming authorities.

“We know Iraq will have a shortage of rain in the coming years,” said Hassoun, an agricultural engineer. Despite that, nothing has been done to “modernise the irrigation system”, he complains.

But agriculture is not the only sector where the infrastructure needs upgrading in a country grappling with corruption and a after decades of war.

Hassoun lamented that Iraq has become “a market for all its neighbours”, a reference to the deluge of Iranian and Turkish agricultural product imports.

A farmer fetches water from a drying and polluted stream in Najaf province — Iraq is classified as one of five most vulnerable to climate change effects.

Last year, Iraq’s own agricultural sector contracted by 17.5 percent “following , energy outages, and the rising global price of inputs”, according to the World Bank.

That is significant in a country highly dependent on oil income but that wants to diversify its economy.

According to the World Food Programme, agriculture is the second-largest contributor to Iraq’s GDP, after oil, and employs about 20 percent of the workforce.

“We want the state to take an interest in farmers,” says Jassem Zaher, who is in his 60s and also exclusively farms amber .

“We don’t have other crops. It’s the farmers’ livelihood.”

© 2022 AFP

Iraq’s prized rice crop threatened by drought (2022, May 15)
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Terahertz near-field microscopy based on an air-plasma dynamic aperture

Schematic of THz near-field microscopy based on an air-plasma dynamic aperture. Two femtosecond laser pulses were focused in mutually perpendicular directions to generate two air-plasmas (Plasma1 and Plasma2) close to the sample surface. The incident THz beam was modulated by the cross-filament created by the air-plasmas and the reflected THz near-field signal was measured. The inset shows the relationships between the two air-plasmas, the THz beam, and the sample. Credit: Xin-ke Wang, Jia-sheng Ye, Wen-feng Sun, Peng Han, Lei Hou, and Yan Zhang

As a novel far-infrared inspection method, the development of terahertz (THz) imaging technology has attracted considerable attention in recent years. With the unique properties of THz radiation, such as non-ionizing photon energies and broad spectral information, this imaging technique has shown powerful application potential in many fundamental research and industrial fields. However, the resolution of THz imaging is always limited due to its long wavelength. The introduction of optical near-field techniques can greatly enhance the resolution, but it is always essential to require that a THz source or detector approach the sample from as far as possible. For soft or liquid materials in biomedical sensing and chemical inspection, these samples may be easily damaged and the THz source or detector may be contaminated in traditional THz near-field techniques. Hence, it still remains a challenge to achieve THz near-field microscopy in wider application fields.

In a new paper published in Light: Science & Applications, a team of scientists, led by Professors Xin-ke Wang and Yan Zhang from Beijing Key Laboratory of Metamaterials and Devices, Key Laboratory of Terahertz Optoelectronics Ministry of Education, Department of Physics, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China, and co-workers have developed a new THz near-field microscopy to achieve THz sub-wavelength imaging without approaching the sample with any devices.

In this THz near-field technique, a cross-filament was formed by two cross air-plasmas, which opened a dynamic aperture to modulate the intensity of a THz beam on a sample surface. When the cross-filament was close enough to the sample surface, THz imaging with the resolution of tens of microns was fulfilled. Taking advantages of this technique, the limitation of the sample choice was effectively removed in traditional THz near-field imaging and sample damage from the cross-filament was minimized.

To check the performance of the technique, four different kinds of materials were measured and their THz sub-wavelength images were successfully acquired, including a metallic resolution test chart, a semiconductor chip, a plastic pattern, and a greasy spot. In addition, the technique is also suitable in principle for an encapsulated sample, if its packaging is transparent to THz and visible light. Therefore, it could be anticipated that the reported method will significantly broaden applications of THz near-field microscopy, e.g., biomedical sensing and chemical inspection.

More information:
Xin-ke Wang et al, Terahertz near-field microscopy based on an air-plasma dynamic aperture, Light: Science & Applications (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41377-022-00822-8

Terahertz near-field microscopy based on an air-plasma dynamic aperture (2022, May 13)
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Study finds soil composition isn’t key to southeast Raleigh flooding

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Some types of soil act more like concrete than a sponge, allowing water to flow off to flood streams, creeks and rivers. However, a recent study by North Carolina State University researchers suggests recurrent problematic flooding in part of Raleigh is more likely due to the amount and location of paved surface in the area, rather than to the composition of soil.

In the study, published in the Journal of Environmental Management, researchers reported that soils in the Walnut Creek watershed, an area that includes parts of Raleigh, could absorb the rain as fast as it fell in recent climate history. The findings could help address flooding problems and improve the accuracy of flooding predictions, researchers say.

“There have been some studies in other places where they have really compacted soil, and due to the history of development, the unpaved areas acted almost like a paved surface,” said the study’s corresponding author Katherine Martin, assistant professor of forestry and at NC State. “But in Walnut Creek, our soils are doing a great job. They can absorb over 99% of precipitation events that we generally have. That includes soils in forested areas, and also densely developed ones. That was a good surprise.”

In the study, researchers measured the type and density of soil in the Walnut Creek watershed, as well as the amount of the soil could absorb. They calculated the rate at which the soil absorbed water at 86 sites by pouring water on the ground and timing how fast it went into the soil. They compared the absorption rate to actual rainfall amounts between 2018 and 2021, and used computer modeling to estimate soil absorption across the entire watershed. They chose to look at the Walnut Creek area because of recurrent flooding problems in the southeastern part of the watershed.

“Our hypothesis was that the urban soil in Walnut Creek was kind of abused from the history of construction and probably wasn’t absorbing a lot of water, and was contributing to flooding,” Martin said. “We were wrong. It’s exciting to be wrong.”

They found the soil in the watershed is pretty sandy—which is good for absorbing rain. In almost all cases, the soil can absorb water at the rate at which it received rain.

“Under most rainy-day conditions, the water is going into the ground and not running into streams or causing flooding,” Martin said. “There will be exceptions; in a hurricane, even the soil is going to be overwhelmed by how much rain is coming in at a really high rate.”

Forested land and areas where leaves cover the ground were the best at absorbing water. They were also surprised to see that turf grass did a pretty good job.

They compared their findings with estimates created using other runoff models, and found they had underestimated the soil’s ability to absorb water. The overall findings suggest it’s unlikely the soil itself is the culprit behind recurrent flooding in this watershed.

“At least in this area, they’re underestimating how much the soil is benefiting us,” Martin said. “That means all of the buildings and roads are having a worse effect than we imagined. It’s not just the total amount of impervious surface, which is a big deal. It’s also how connected it is. If we could put soil in places to break it up, we could take more advantage of the role that it could play in soaking up rain.”

Researchers say their findings could also help improve methods urban planners use for predicting soil absorption and designing stormwater management solutions.

“There are a couple of different tools that stormwater managers use to try to estimate how much water the soil is absorbing,” Martin said. “We found those tools were not very accurate. Our method, which uses machine learning as a tool to kind of map out infiltration rates, along with some online mapping, could be a better way of determining where rainfall is being absorbed, and where it isn’t.”

The study, “Soil infiltration rates are underestimated by models in an urban watershed in central North Carolina, U.S.,” was published online in the Journal of Environmental Management on April 8. Co-authors included Chase B. Bergeson, Barbara Doll and Bethany B. Cutts. The study was supported by North Carolina State University funding awarded to Martin as part of a faculty start-up package.

More information:
Chase B. Bergeson et al, Soil infiltration rates are underestimated by models in an urban watershed in central North Carolina, USA, Journal of Environmental Management (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2022.115004

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In franchising, playing tough early may support long-term benefits

Retail signs along Duff Ave in Ames, IA, April 2022. Credit: Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University

From McDonalds to Marriott, 7-Eleven to Ace Hardware, we’re surrounded by franchises. They are the dominant retail model in the U.S., and underpinning their success are franchisors who grow a network of franchisees who use their own resources to open and run brick-and-mortar stores.

But Stephen Kim, a marketing professor at Iowa State University, says focusing on growth alone misses a big opportunity to understand how franchises become profitable.

“There is another aspect, which is termination,” says Kim.

Terminating a contract with a franchisee is the ultimate form of enforcement that is rarely publicized, he explains. Franchisors generally use this last resort in an effort to uphold uniformity and protect their brand when franchisees repeatedly violate or deviate from the chain’s standards. Kim gives the example of a pizza outlet that’s skimping on quality ingredients; rubbery cheese could damage the restaurant chain’s reputation, causing it to lose customers and revenue.

But cutting ties with a franchisee also carries costs for the franchisor, including the risk of lawsuits, the possibility of upsetting customers and other franchisees in the network, and an immediate drop in royalties, which is usually 5-7% of the franchisee’s sales.

To better understand these tradeoffs and how termination affects the multi-year profitability of franchises, Kim led a study that dug into 4 years of data from more than 6,000 chains in South Korea. The results, which are now available in the Journal of Management, found franchisors’ profitability decreased right after termination but essentially bounced back in two years.

The researchers also discovered young, rapidly growing chains benefited more from ending contracts with wayward franchisees compared to mature, slow-growing chains.

“For the younger chains, termination can have a spillover effect. It signals to other franchisees early on that they need to follow the rules or else they may suffer the same consequences,” says Kim. “For mature chains, there’s a higher chance that the franchisees have already established their way of doing business.”

Perks and drawbacks of being a franchisee

In their paper, the authors pointed to previous research that found 9-10% of contracts with franchisees are terminated, which begs the question: why take on risk as a franchisee in the first place?

Kim says the biggest benefit is that the franchisee gets to open a business using a model that’s already established and tested. They face lower risks and start-up costs compared to launching their own independent business, and they benefit from the chain’s brand recognition and marketing.

But people may feel boxed in when they can’t try something new or make a change to fit local tastes.

“Often people who want to run a franchisee want to be their own boss, but they find there are very tight procedures and rules that the franchisor wants them to follow. They realize they don’t have that much freedom,” says Kim.

Collecting and analyzing data

One of the reasons the researchers decided to analyze franchises in South Korea is that, compared to the U.S., it’s easier to access the data. The South Korean government requires every franchisor operating in the country to submit annual reports to the country’s Fair Trade Commission, which the government then compiles and makes publicly available online.

To understand how terminating franchisee contracts affected performance over multiple years, the researchers focused on profitability (return on asset), rather than profit. Kim explains profit is driven by the size of the franchise whereas profitability is a metric used to determine the scope of a company’s profit in relation to the size of the business. Profitability captures more nuance and accurately reflects the impact of termination on the franchise’s success.

The researchers also investigated whether “franchisee addition” and “customer mobility” eased or exacerbated the effects of dropping a franchisee’s contract.

They found franchisee addition (i.e., the rate at which franchisors sign new contracts to add more stores) lessened the negative effect of termination on the chain’s profitability while customer mobility showed no discernable effect. Customer mobility refers to what extent someone visits different outlets of the same chain on a regular basis. For example, customers going to a lot of different McDonald’s stores may expect more uniformity than someone who dines at only one location.

Kim says future studies may be able to tease apart the relationship between franchisee termination and high and low customer mobility.

While the data for this study comes from franchises in South Korea, the researchers say the findings are applicable in the U.S. and can help inform franchisors as they make decisions to grow or trim their business.

Sungwook (Sam) Min at California State University Long Beach contributed to the study.

More information:
Stephen K. Kim et al, Terminating Franchisees: Does It Improve Franchisor Performance?, Journal of Management (2022). DOI: 10.1177/01492063221088507

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