Drought pushes Azerbaijan's women farmers to brink

Photographer: Ehtiram Jabi

Author: Leyla Hasanova


Azerbaijan is suffering from water shortages and the problem is only expected to worsen, according to local and international forecasts.

Vulnerable women in rural areas are more likely to suffer due to climate change, experts warn.

UNDP has predicted that climate change-related droughts will likely reduce the water supply in Azerbaijan by 23 percent from 2021-2050. The World Resources Institute notes that, while currently Azerbaijan has a medium-level of water stress, it will be in the top 20 countries suffering from water shortages by 2040.

“As a result of climate change our water resources are down by 15 percent and it is predicted that this process will continue,” Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mukhtar Babayev said at the 6th meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).

Mirnuh Ismayilov, a member of Azerbaijan Geographical Society, notes that farmers are already feeling the effects of climate change in the country.

“In particular, water resources are one of the most important factors in areas with hot and dry climates like Bilasuvar and in semi-desert areas. Here, problems such as water shortage and drought directly affect the livelihoods of the population and its economic income. Productivity declines several times, which affects the income and social life of the population,” he notes.


Although we have no exact figures, the number of women engaged in farming in Azerbaijan is definitely more than 50%. In most cases, their employment in agriculture is measured not as employment, not as an individual entrepreneurship, but rather as a contribution to the family,” Shahla Ismayil, a gender expert.

Decreased rainfall and water shortages are already harming vulnerable farmers in the country's southern district of Bilasuvar.

Traditionally the region receives an average of 70-80 days of rainfall a year. Sakina Azimova, a resident of Samadabad-- a local village in the region-- says it rained just twice in the second half of 2019.

The dry conditions are having an outsized impact on female farmers, who are less able to adapt to the changes—in part due to unequal access to resources like land, credit and education.

Shahla Ismayil, the chairperson of The Women's Association for Rational Development, says water shortages force women to work harder. 

“Water shortages have a devastating effect on agriculture, but it is women who face a physical burden [by the lack of water]. In some villages and places, women have to carry water. First of all, heavy loads often lead to problems with their reproductive organs, such as the displacement of the uterus and other organs, which can lead to serious complications,” she says, adding that when there is not enough water, women face more challenges keeping the house and their children clean. That can lead to more sickness and additional burdens on their resources.

She adds that women continue to be denied access to the education and tools they need to become more effective and efficient farmers.

“Women's access to new equipment and new knowledge is also a serious problem. Even though there are occasional seminars and educational activities, women are not allowed by men in the family to go to those events or they are overburdened with house work so they do not have time to attend,” Ismayil says.


In the village of Samadabad in Bilasuvar district, as in other rural areas, women are responsible for food, water, fuel and serve as family caretakers. The water shortage creates more work for them and makes it difficult for them to take care of their homes and families.


While the Azerbaijani government has started some programs to put women farmers on equal footing with men, the overall picture is bleak.

Azimova, for instance, lost her land to a pilot project to plant cotton. Her family is now forced to live off of a small backyard plot. Before the drought, Azimova says she had enough water to grow sufficient crops to feed her family. But last year she lost everything due to the water shortages.

“There was no wheat, no barley. We hardly got grain for our chickens. There is no water in our yard. Along with the barley and the wheat, I had such beautiful flowers in the yard and they all died,” Azimova says.

Her husband and two grown sons also live on the property, but they do not earn enough to pay for irrigation water.


“Having cattle also helps, otherwise just one employed person in the family is not enough. You have to have chickens and cattle to eat eggs and meat. Without them, it is simply not possible to provide for a family,” Sakina Azimova explains.

Gulnaz Agayeva, who also lives in Samadabad, has been forced to buy fruits and vegetables due to the drought.

Agayeva lives with her husband and three children on a single salary. While she spends hours looking after the family's cattle, chicken and garden, the lack of water means the family struggles to meet basic needs.

“Everything that is fresh and the best quality is being sent to cities, and it's cheaper there. Tomatoes are 70-80 qepik (roughly 40 cents) in the city, but here it costs 1 AZN (around 60 cents). We even buy grain for chickens,” she notes.

Agayeva adds that feed for livestock costs roughly six times the price of a litre of milk. 

“Animals cannot survive on just straw. The price of clover is 6 AZN. There are families that can’t even pay for utilities, how can they buy fodder and water for animals?”

While the government has pledged to take action, so far help has been limited to improving accessibility to water in two villages. The best action, according to Ismayilov, is to cultivate plants that require less water.

But instead the government appears keen on increasing cotton production in the region. In 2019, Azerbaijan exported slightly less under $92 million worth of cotton fiber.

In the long term, Azimova worries who will be left in the village and how they will survive.

“You have to have chickens and cattle to eat eggs and meat. Without them, it is simply not possible to provide for a family,” she says.

“Many people are leaving the village to find jobs in the city. The women stay home, the men go away to work. Mostly it is the young people who are leaving; they have to leave their families because there are no jobs here. The only ones who are left are the women.”


The house where Gulnaz Agayeva lives with her husband and three children. While she spends hours looking after the family's cattle, chicken and garden, the lack of water means the family struggles to meet basic needs.

Sakina Azimova and her neighbors discuss the challenges they are facing at home.

“Everything that is fresh and the best quality is being sent to cities, and it's cheaper there. Tomatoes are 70-80 qepik (roughly 40 cents) in the city, but here it costs 1 AZN (around 60 cents). We even buy grain for chickens,” Gulnaz Agayeva notes.

“Many people are leaving the village to find jobs in the city. The women stay home, the men go away to work,” Sakina Azimova says.

“Animals cannot survive on just straw. The price of clover is 6 AZN. There are families that can’t even pay for utilities, how can they buy fodder and water for animals?” Gulnaz Agayeva says.

The government appears keen on increasing cotton production in the region. In 2019, Azerbaijan exported slightly less under $92 million worth of cotton fiber.



This article was produced as part of the partnership between Chai Khana and Femiskop.


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