Increased rainfall and the wettest winter in decades, made Iraqi farmers wait for great harvest this year, but the hope of many of them burned with their harvest. Fire incidents became the most frequently reported events in Iraqi media across May and June of 2019, the harvesting season in Iraq. The great number of the fire incidents raised concerns about Iraq’s agriculture sector and food security since $542 worth of wheat and barley farms in 16 provinces of Iraq was smoked into the sky.
The reported fire incidents destroyed at least 62,000 acres of wheat and barley farms across the country, but the biggest portion of the incidents occurred in the Disputed Areas located between Federal Government of Iraq (FGI) and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The economic and environmental damages of the wildfire is too complicated to be measured since the Iraq’s formal institutions have not announced any final statistical information on all the incidents.
The latest statistics issued by the Directorate of Civil Defense in Iraq, shows that 329 separate fire incidents destroyed wheat and barley fields between May 8th and June 29th in 12 provinces; Nineveh, Salah Adin, Kirkuk, Diyala, Baghdad, Babylon, Maysan, Wasit, Qadisiyah, Muthanna, Anbar, and Najaf. In addition, local Kurdish media also reported dozens of major fire incidents in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Halabja, and Dohuk.
No study has been conducted to monetize the environmental damages of the fire accidents. A basic ICPAR calculation for this report shows that the fire incidents cost Iraqi farmers around 645,951,000,000IQD (about $542,689,872). According to the following calculation, average productivity of 1 acre of Iraqi wheat and barley crop-fields in 2019 is about 22.3 tones. So the lost product of 49,000 acres of wheat farms is estimated to be 1,092,700 tons and 13,000 acres of barley farms 289,900 tons. Iraq’s Ministry of Trade has fixed prices for three types of wheat and barley based on their qualities, and also there are market prices (usually cheaper than the government prices) vary based on provinces and regions. The estimated lost products multiplied by government prices of type 2 quality wheat and barley has been shown in the table* below.
Taking into account, the formal Iraqi government prices and market prices of wheat and barley in 2019, the economic damage of the incidents is about 645,951,000,000IQD i.e. ($542,689,872) in government price. And it is worth 469,415,000,000 IQD i.e. ($394,374,753) in market prices. In addition, the reported fire incidents led to death of 4 farmers and 11 people injured. The fires burned all the living beings and grass with the crops, and only left damaged black fields for the farmers.
Why Fire Incidents?
More than 72% of the fire incidents happened in three provinces; 103 in Salah Adin, 77 in Nineveh, and 69 in Kirkuk. These three provinces are located in the the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil. These were ravaged by war with so the called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which consequently weakened security and governing institutions. The increased number of fire incidents in these areas made many people cast doubt on political agendas and suspect neighboring countries, believing that the target is Iraq’s food security and economic stability.
Some of the fire incidents were accidental, but the majority of them were intentionally caused due to political reasons or land disputes. Iraq’s Directorate of Civil Defense Police stated that out of 272 fire incidents up to June 8th, 2019, 35 of them were set deliberately for unknown reasons, 25 of them were caused by spark of fire from the harvesters, 74 others by electric fusing, and 22 incidents were caused by cigarettes. Moreover, PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi, in one of his weekly pressers, stated that the fire incidents are normal and happen in many countries, asking local media to not sensationalize it.
However, several MPs and government officials rushed to accuse ISIS and neighboring countries for setting the fires. In a public announcement, Mukhtar al-Musawi, member of Bina Coalition in Iraqi Parliament, on Jun 9, 2019 stated, “There are doubts that neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and United Arab Emirates, are involved in fire incidents in order to weaken Iraq’s economy.”
Believing in some conspiracy theory, several farmers in villages of Hawija (South of Kirkuk) and rural areas north of Salah Adin (where many fire incidents happened) told ICPAR that a certain neighboring country (especially Iran) paid their agents in Iraq to burn the crop fields. Believing that they want to keep Iraq dependent on their exports. In Sinjar (another disputed town in Nineveh) and Tauwq in (Kirkuk), local security forces and farmers believed that insurgents belong to ISIS are behind most of the incidents. ISIS also claimed responsibility of burning crops in their weekly newsletter, Al-Nabaa, targeting crop farms of senior officials in six Iraqi provinces and areas under control of Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava).
In Kirkuk, where many Arab, Turkmen, and Kurdish farmers are already in disputes over land ownership, there are some doubts about tribal and ethnic tensions to cause the fire incidents just to push out farmers from their villages.
In addition, “There are political parties working to hit the local products and not give importance to self-sufficiency in wheat,” said Ali al-Badiri, MP from the Reform and Reconstruction Bloc.
Regardless of who caused the fires, Iraqis are paying for its economic and environmental damages. The crop burning causes huge air pollution in the first place. It is a significant emission source of primary fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and gaseous precursors of secondary PM2.5, according to some environmental studies. “Environmental impacts resulted from open field burning of agricultural crop residue, includes visibility impairment, air quality degradation (sometimes heavy haze pollution) and adverse health effects, were explored.”
This scale fires damage soil and adversely affect health of local population in overcrowded areas, especially around riverbanks, where respiratory diseases are already high in Nineveh and Salah Adin for example.
How to Address the Concerns
In the Middle East, no country’s agriculture sector has been affected by fire incidents as Iraq and Syria. This is mostly because of dysfunctional governmental institutions and lack of adequate extinguishing capacity and weak security measures. The role of security institutions and state is crucial for protecting crop fields and helping farmers conduct their harvest operations quickly and safely. Therefore, the Iraq’s security and police forces are expected to play a bigger role in preventing the same crop burning to repeat in 2020.
The Iraqi government is expected to take some security measures to prevent repeating the same incidents in 2020 and help farmers recover their economic losses. The Federal Government is expected to take following steps:
– The Iraq’s security forces should come up with a better strategy to protect agricultural areas in the unstable provinces and areas taken back from ISIS. They should help farmers protecting their farms during harvest sessions and not let them doing it alone like what happened in Tawuq, where unknown armed men killed a farmer and wounded three others while trying to extinguish the fire on their fields.
– The Federal Government should compensate the farmers whose crops were burned this year in order to be able to invest in their lands. Many of them have already lost all their capitals and wealth, and they can’t keep investing in their land unless getting some financial support. The government should provide loans to farmers and finance viable projects.
– There should be enough grain silos to receive summer and winter products. Providing this for harvesters will allow farmers to wrap up their harvest operations and they would not last for weeks when the risk of fire-incidents is too high.
*ICPAR summed up all the reported fire incidents in Iraq and KRI and then compared the reports with the Iraq’s civilian police reports to check their accuracy. The reports incidents took these amount of crop farms, but there might be incidents not reported to police forces or by Iraqi news outlets.