December 12, 2008
KUT, IRAQ // Just before harvest time the fields around the city of Kut used to be thick with barley, sunflowers and maize. This year large areas were left bare as farmers fell victim to a water shortage that has pushed agriculture in Iraq to the brink.
“We are suffering, all of us,” said Falah Mohammed al Dirian, a local farmer. “It has been one crisis followed by another. There is no rain, there is no water in the rivers, the land is ruined by salt, we cannot afford fuel for our generators and there is no help from the government.”
Mr al Dirian’s family has been working the land for generations but the 38-year-old said he now sees no future in it.
“All of the farmers I know are encouraging their children to get different types of work, mainly in the Iraqi police and security forces,” he said. “There is not much money in farming now. In fact we are losing money these days.”
There are 22,000 people living in the 14 villages of the Al Mzak district along on the Tigris River near Kut, the capital of Wasit province. Most of them are dependent on farming for a living and are now threatened by rising poverty.
Average rainfall in 2007 was just 40 per cent of its typical level, according to the Iraqi government, hitting farmers, already suffering from a myriad of problems, particularly hard.
Ministry of agriculture officials said Iraq is losing upwards of five per cent of its agricultural land each year and estimates the country will need to import three million tonnes of wheat in 2008-2009 to offset a 27 per cent drop in domestic production.
Barley production is also likely to fall by 60 per cent, according to government figures and US$132 million (Dh485m) has been set aside to purchase supplies.
“Farmers are abandoning their land, much of which has become unproductive from water shortages or salinity [salt in the soil],” said Latif Hamid Turfa, the governor of Wasit. “Farmers are looking for alternative work and that’s going to do a great harm to Iraq’s food production.”
At a local level, Mr Turfa said, there was little that could be done. The provincial council has set up a committee that is in the process of evaluating the land with the aim of reclaiming areas that have effectively been poisoned by increasing levels of salt.
“The drought is beyond our power to control,” he said. “And the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are both reduced in their flow because Turkey and Syria are taking more water than before. It means less gets down as far as Wasit.”
A report on Iraq’s farming sector by the US Department of Agriculture this year noted an “agricultural disaster” had cut wheat production in some parts of the country by up to 80 per cent of normal levels.