12 Jun 2019

The Gloomy Future of Iraq’s Agriculture Sector

After years of drought, unexpected heavy raining damaged agricultural products in almost all provinces of Iraq. Just in Maysan, 75 percent of crops was damaged, and dozens of villages were completely evacuated in Basra, Diyala, and Al-Wasit. The flood-crisis, again, raised questions about Iraq’s long-time neglected agriculture sector, poor infrastructure, and food security while decision makers are still overwhelmed by government formation deals and how to avoid summer protests driven by lack of public services. 

The great amount of rain should have been the blessing of the thirsty lands of Iraq, but the ugly truth is that we end up with floods and destruction. It shows how Iraq’s agriculture sector is ill-equipped for the upcoming challenges and how the whole country’s water-management is just not adequate.
Iraq, used to be one of the most food secure and self-dependent country in the Middle East, currently imports about 90% percent of its food due to years of wars, climate change, and lack of proper agricultural policy. No government support has been paid off in this sector due to lack of planning and old infrastructure, affected by four decades of instability, military conflicts, and constant drought.

Hemn Mohammed Awrahim
Hemn Mohammed Awrahim

is political and economic analyst in ICPAR. He is regular contributor for Inside Iraqi Politics. He has BA, major in international studies and minor in economics, from The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

The country’s agriculture sector could have been economic savior and a factor of stability as Iraq’s population growth is above 2.5 percent and youth unemployment is rising. However, similar to other resources, the already damaged sector does not get enough attention and is not properly managed. 
There has been a big debate over Iraq’s agricultural potentials. A CPR report to the US Congress in 2004 shows that only 22 percent of the country’s surface is suited for agriculture, and out of that number half is used for seasonal grazing of livestock. The fact is that many areas of Iraq can be used for farming but the main concern is water. If there is enough water and proper irrigation system, many areas can be fertile farmlands. Regardless of Iraq’s actual potential, domestic agricultural products have gradually decreased.

Wars and Instability

Since last month, which is crops-harvest time, about 280 fire accidents have burned more than 40 thousand dunams of crops all over Iraq, according to an ICPAR’s estimate to the reported fire-accidents. Directorate of civilian defense police stated that 67 of the fire accidents were caused intentionally or by outside sources. The crop burning is just an example of -agricultural damages caused by political, ethnic, and tribal disputes. 68 of the fire accidents happened in the disputed areas between KRG and FGO, according to multiple police sources.
Since 1980, Iraq have seen very little stability, undergoing three devastating wars and continuous internal conflicts. During 8 years’ war with Iran, Iraq kept the agriculture production stable and depended on local productions when it comes to vegetable and fruits even though there was a systematic diversion of labor force in this sector as the government drafted farmers to army. This and population growth caused “Iraq’s reliance on food imports to grow, mostly from the US.  The economic impact of the Iran-Iraq War was significant, resulting in delays on foreign loans, defaults to foreign contractors, and postponement of development projects, except for those vital for agricultural production.” Land mines and war remains also contaminated many agricultural areas.
The best example can be seen in Basra dates-trees. In 1979, Basra had 7 million dates-trees. By the time Iraq-Iran war was stopped, 1989, the number had fallen to 3 million trees. In the town of Al-Faw after the farmers left the city, the Iraqi army cut the water reaching to the town for irrigation and all the trees to make sure that it will not be used by Iranian Army as a safe haven. To clarify more, in 1980s, Iraq used to export 75 percent of its dates-protection around the world, but now it depends on import. The main problem was the war, but the aftermath of the war and neglecting the sector caused this major shift in the production. 
However, the most devastating war for this sector was 1991 Gulf War, when the US led international coalition drove Iraqi army out of recently occupied Kuwait and attacked many urban and agricultural sites of Iraq. The military engagement began with an aerial bombing campaign. In few weeks, it damaged Iraq’s irrigation infrastructure, electric grids, roads, bridges, oil refineries, factories, water purification systems, more devastation than 8 years Iraq-Iran war. Following the war, the UN sanctions against Iraq paralyzed any recovery attempt in the agriculture sector since Iraqi government was prevented from selling oil and import capitals and technology needed for the recovery.
Because of the sanctions, Iraqi agriculture did not see any intensification process, an increase in productivity by increasing inputs to cultivated lands. So, Iraq used extensification which is a process of expanding the cultivated areas horizontally. Till 2003, “Iraq’s irrigation infrastructure was barely functioning, prime cropland suffered from widespread salinization, and soil fertility had been badly depleted from overexploitation.” The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was not as devastating as 1991 war; thanks to precise targeting, the agricultural infrastructure was mainly undamaged. However, in the following years Iraq’s agriculture kept underinvested and never recovered due to lack of resources and major national plan.

The Endless Thirst 

Iraq had a great chance in 2003 to rebuild its agriculture infrastructure, but that did not happen despite great budgets and international help. The main problem that Iraq faced at that time was constant droughts and the decrease of the water flowing into both Tigris and Euphrates in addition to their tributaries coming from Turkey and Iran. 
The Global Warming has been the most damaging cause to the Iraqi agriculture sector in the long run. If some future forecasts would be true, the whole sector may disappear. In the last two decades, Iraq constantly faced droughts or irregular precipitation patterns that half of Iraq’s farmlands in the summer of 2018. Moreover, decreasing surface water, in many areas, pushed farmers to heavily depend on the reservoirs, and this has caused a real depletion of underground water. Some projections are expecting total dry out of Tigris and Euphrates, according to a report prepared by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iraq has little or no control over the sources of the major rivers and tributaries because they mostly coming from Turkey and Iran, and out of all the rivers and their tributaries in Iraq, only 8 percent are originated inside the country.
There is a proportional interlinkage between surface and groundwater in the Euphrates and Tigris river basins. Also, this relation is true for the rest of the country where the main rivers and their tributaries pass through. As, the Iraq’s share of the rivers and their tributaries decrease, the underground water is getting affected dramatically. This will directly lead to crop and farming failure as the land becomes drier and ultimately speeds up desertification in many areas.
As the flow of water from Tigris and Euphrates will decrease in the next decade and forward, the demand for water consumption will increase. Iraqi population is expected to reach 60 million by 2050, and this increases water consumption. A World Bank Group’s report in 2006 showed that Iraq’s water deficit will reach 25.55 BCM in 2030. 
Human consumption also deteriorates the quality of water, from north to south in both rivers, as Iraq does not have any water recycling system. In all Iraqi cities and towns, disposal waste water is dumped into rivers. Sewage pipes are directly going into Tigris and Euphrates, or their tributaries, polluting entire country supply of water. In the past 10 years, the level water contamination has increased by four folds in Basra, home city of more than 2.15 million population.  
The projections show that the situation will go from bad to worse, and if the projections come true, Iraq and its population will face many dimensional problems with endless consequences for Iraq and the neighboring countries. According to NMFA’s report, the 2050 projection will be the following:  
– Increase in mean annual temperature of 2°C.
-More frequent heat waves and fewer frost days.
-Overall decrease in mean annual average rainfall by 9 percent, with the greatest reduction during      December, January, and February;
-Decrease in the maximum amount of rain that falls in any 5-day period, but overall increase in rainfall intensity (heavy precipitation events [HPE]).
-Decrease in run-off of 22%.
-Longer and severe droughts.
-Increased flood occurrences (resulting from river fluctuations).
-Decreased agricultural production resulting from the increase in drought periods.
-Increased desertification as a result of the increase in sand and dust storms.
-Increased damage to infrastructure as a result of flooding and storms.
All factors included, by 2050, Iraq’s agriculture sector may fully fail, and the country may suffer finding enough water for human consumption, and become fully dependent on importing all its food needs. In addition, this does not mean only droughts, but rather continuation of unexpected precipitation patterns. However, droughts are the most repeated one, so the farmers have been adapting to a certain way of farming which has caused Iraq’s agriculture sector to be inflexible.
Lack of water, over many years, pushed many Iraqis to farm closer to the bank of the rivers and their tributaries depending on their old irrigation system; however, in the raining season of 2018-2019, the situation flipped as precipitation increased by more than three folds and damaged a lot of agricultural projects. In a province like Maysan, more than 75 % of the farmlands were damaged, and dozens of people were killed. Still no real statistics is available to measure the overall damage of 2019 floods; however, all the provinces were affected especially the southern ones. 

The Door of Hades is Opening on Iraq

The failure of agriculture sector in Iraq will have multiple effects not just on every aspect of life in Iraq. The direct result will be great loss of job opportunities for a segment of the society that have spent most of their lives in farms. In the late 1970s, agriculture in Iraq was employing 50 percent of the labor force in the country. Constant wars, lack of proper policies exposed Iraqi villages to great exodus from the rural areas to the urban centers. 

According to a UN estimate, in the next 8 years, four million Iraqis will be displaced, and each year over 250 thousand kilometers of the farmlands disappear due to desertification as a direct effect of the Global Warming. The future picture can be grimmer, if more chances to be wasted. Around 7 million people live along the bank of the Tigris River only, and if the current situation continues as now, the stream of the river may disappear or greatly shrink, and this will cause a great internal displacement to the areas with more water, but as all Iraq is suffering of the lack of water, then this can easily develop to a regional conflict.

After 2003, Iraq had a great chance to recover its agriculture sector by modernizing the whole sector, but instead, Iraqi governments invested heavily in hiring people in the public sector, which forced a great portion of the rural population to voluntarily move to cities. Not having any real economic opportunities, many of the newly moved population faced poverty and the socio-dynamic of both urban and rural areas of Iraq is distorted. Also, as in many areas around the Middle East, the loss of livelihood, especially in the rural areas has led to social and political conflicts. Iraq just finished a long and devastating war with ISIS, and if proper steps not taken to stabilize the lives of the marginalized groups in the rural areas, too many insurgent groups will pop up under different tittles and ideologies.
 While all the impacts of the Global Warming and failure of agriculture sector manifests itself in the lives of Iraqis, the Iraqi Government has not taken any serious step to handle the issue. Still, Iraqi politicians are busy with their pity politics which does not envision Iraq as a whole, but rather stays with the border of their political parties, tribes, and families. For Iraq to have a successful plan to tackle this issue, it needs a new national vision which goes beyond the sectarian and ethnic politics which runs the show. 
Iraq needs to take some steps to ensure that the situation will not exacerbate anymore. This issue needs attention and effort from the government and everyone who can help because the effects of the Global Warming are as dangerous as terrorism and corruption. These steps will start from modernizing irrigation system and introducing new technology to farmers in a way that will prevent overusing fertile lands and prevent wasting water. 
In addition, the Iraqi government needs to take water quality of underground and surface water, into consideration. The government has to formalize its approach in conversations with Turkey and Iran regarding their share in Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries. Farmers need government to create more sufficient approach to farming and national strategy for agriculture must be created. Only by doing all abovementioned steps can we expect Iraq to make any progress in agriculture field. With the current speed of destruction, Iraq will not be able to do much, and the future generation will be born into a destroyed country and left with no choices except migration, which makes a big problem for Iraq and the whole international community. 

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