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Climate change leaves Iraq’s ‘breadbasket’ with less water, wheat, and farmers

‘When I leave the farm, what do you expect me to do next? I'm an old man. How will I afford the cost of living?’

Iraq has long relied on the northern province of Nineveh for domestic wheat production, but recent droughts have drastically cut its crop yields. Sanar Hasan/TNH
Iraq has long relied on the northern province of Nineveh for domestic wheat production, but recent droughts have drastically cut its crop yields.

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Shadi Qader’s fingers, once stained by Nineveh’s soil, are now drenched in cement, his nails smudged with the residue of building materials; textures he is still getting used to six months after starting to work in construction. 

The 33-year-old lifelong wheat grower is one of thousands of farmers who have recently left or plan to leave Iraq’s so-called “breadbasket”.

Iraq is known as the land of two rivers, with the Tigris and the Euphrates crossing its plains and irrigating its rich earth, creating a lucrative agricultural sector. But recent droughts are forcing farmers and their families, left without income, to uproot their lives.

Water scarcity is notably rising in the northern province of Nineveh – the most wheat-productive part of the country – exacerbating already dangerous levels of food insecurity worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Between June and December last year (the most recent month data was collected), at least 303 families – around 1,800 people – from Nineveh were forced to leave their homes because of drought, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

Exact figures for those displaced due to climate change factors across Iraq are unknown because data is not collected regularly across the country. But more than 34,000 people are currently displaced from south and central Iraq because of climate change, according to IOM: This includes many people from the southern province of Basra, which has been dealing with a lack of clean water for decades.

“I grew up working on farms to help my family,” Qader told The New Humanitarian. “We used to harvest wheat annually, relying fully on rain, and those were comfortable times. But the last two years things have gotten so bad.” 

With crop losses and fluctuating harvests, Qader had already been finding it difficult to make ends meet for years. Then, in 2021, the owner of the farm he worked on decided to sell the land. With no option but to look for another source of income, Qader moved to the city of Duhok with his family and took up construction work.

“I work twice a week, earning roughly $20 a day,” he said. This is more per hour than he earned working on the farm, but Qader explained that some days he still can’t find enough work to pay the rent or provide food for his three children.

Drought takes its toll

Classified by the UN as one of the world’s “top 5 countries most affected by climate change”, Iraq’s rainfall last year was so low that it marked the second driest season in four decades. 

According to a June statement by a group of UN agencies and NGOs, this has led to “water shortages, desertification, and soil erosion due to unsustainable agricultural practices and shrinking, damaged vegetation cover”.

Temperatures are high and the weather is dry again this year, with severe dust storms – more frequent because of drought, low rainfall, and desertification – sending thousands of people to hospital in May. 

Water scarcity isn’t just because of low rains: For years, upstream countries like Turkey and Iran have been building dams that eventually reduce the water flows into Iraq. This contributes to severe drops in water levels in the Tigris and the Euphrates, which irrigate many of the region’s crops. 

The result is that the serious water shortages in Nineveh – which lies on the banks of the Tigris – are only expected to get worse, adding further strain on dwindling surface waters and weakening agricultural production. The province is home to 3.7 million people as of 2018, the last year for which official statistics are available.

“Climate change poses real challenges to farmers and to wheat production as a whole in Iraq, which is drastically falling,” said Amer al-Mamouri, spokesperson for the Grain Trade Unit in Iraq’s Ministry of Trade.

Ministry figures suggest that local yields decreased from 5 million metric tonnes in 2020 to 3.37 million in 2021. By 2022, they had fallen by more than half again, to a mere 1.34 million metric tonnes. 

Anas al-Tai, an agricultural consultant in Mosul Eye – an online platform that focuses on the security, cultural, and environmental situation in Mosul, Nineveh’s capital – said that an estimated 90 percent of the province’s arable plains have been hit by desertification. 

Man-made problems 

The desertification isn’t just down to a lack of rainfall, al-Tai said. He also blamed a lack of adequate irrigation systems in northern Iraq.

“Only around 10 percent of farmers in Nineveh own mechanical water sprinklers, or [have] lands [that] are close enough to Tigris’ waters [to be irrigated],” al-Tai explained. The few irrigation systems that did exist in the region were destroyed during the so-called Islamic State’s 2014-2017 occupation of the region.

Al-Mamouri of the Grain Trade Unit also alluded to this issue, noting that farmers are still “not adapting farming methods that are more compatible with the new weather conditions”. Most farmers in Nineveh, he added, continue to rely on traditional farming methods, such as seed dispersal and waiting for the rain to fall, rather than irrigating using wells or rivers (as is more common in central and southern Iraq).

“When I leave the farm, what do you expect me to do next? I'm an old man. How will I afford the cost of living?”

This means that when rain doesn’t fall, there’s not much farmers like 60-year-old Yashue Yohanna can do. A farmer in Niveneh’s Hamdaniya neighbourhood, Yohanna said he planted 250 acres of wheat last year, but only harvested about 17 acres this spring. 

“For the past two years, my grain harvest has been of poor quality due to the drought, and I had to settle for lower prices, which barely covered cultivation costs,” he said.

Struggling to make ends meet, Yohanna said he is one of at least a dozen other farmers in his neighbourhood who are considering selling their land and moving elsewhere. He’s considering joining his daughter in Sulaymaniyah in the eastern part of the country, even though he doesn’t really know what awaits him there.

“I know nothing but farming. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life and I’ve inherited this land from my father,” he said. “When I leave the farm, what do you expect me to do next? I'm an old man. How will I afford the cost of living?” 

A bleak outlook for farmers and consumers

It’s not just desperate times for farmers. Iraqi consumers are feeling the impacts of the drought too, compounded by a worldwide increase in wheat prices due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the world’s two biggest wheat producers. 

A recent survey conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that 81 percent of food vendors across Iraq reported the prices of key food items have increased since June 2021, with the largest increases in wheat grain, wheat flour, and barley. 

Between October 2020 and November 2021, the price of 50 kilograms of wheat flour went up from 41,100 dinars ($28) to 50,000 dinars ($34). The price of bread has also risen sharply according to the NRC, leaving “the most vulnerable households struggling to afford basic necessities”. 

Sanar Hasan/TNH
Due to water shortage, wheat stalks in Ninewa have largely failed to grow to their full potential, which makes them more prone to soil salinity and reduces their quality.

But food insecurity was a growing problem before the invasion of Ukraine: The World Food Programme said last year that, as of May 2021, 8 percent of people in Nineveh and nearby Kirkuk province had “insufficient food consumption”, twice as high as the national average. In Nineveh alone, it said, “13.4 percent of people reported employing negative coping strategies – such as borrowing money or eating less food – above the 7.5 percent national average.” 

This means that as farmers are forced off their lands to seek their fortunes elsewhere, customers are struggling too. 

As purchasing powers drop in agrarian Nineveh and basic food items become a luxury for many, the impacts are being felt beyond those working directly on the land. Majeeda Kwish, a 40-year-old clothes vendor in the town of al-Baaj is worried for her own livelihood. Having been selling clothes for 15 years, she is now starting to feel the crunch and is worried she won’t be able to feed her five children. 

“With people struggling to feed their families as their crops fail, who will think of buying clothes?” Kwish asked The New Humanitarian.

Government solutions?

Awab Ayoub, a 55-year-old farmer from Nineveh’s Hamdaniya neighbourhood, said the lack of rain meant the wheat he grew this year couldn’t even be given to livestock.

Pointing to the wheat stalks he cultivated, he said, “the taller the stem, the better the quality of the grain, and the further it is from the soil’s salinity.” These stalks barely reach his waist.

Farmers like Ayoub can choose to sell their wheat crops to private mills if the quality is good enough, while the government buys lower quality wheat at Iraqi markets and mixes it with higher quality imported grains to sell at a lower price to the public, according to various sources in the agricultural sector. 

As local wheat production declined in Nineveh, the government raised the price at which it procures grain from local farmers by 30 percent, both as a form of support and to ensure the farmers don’t sell to private mills. According to al-Mamouri, the price has increased from 560,000 Iraqi dinars ($383) a tonne to 850,000 dinars ($582) this year, “which is higher than the price the government pays for some imported wheat types.” 

Ali Daedush, an economics professor at Baghdad University, argued that there is a better way for the government to help farmers and consumers. 

“The government should have provided support through subsidising production requirements and not the final product price, which is causing a surge in inflation rates,” he told The New Humanitarian. Estimates suggest inflation has edged up to an average of 6.6 percent in 2021, and an additional 5.4 percent in May this year. “Reducing [the] costs of planting wheat would have meant lower flour prices, making it accessible for all,” Daedush explained.

This type of intervention is not unprecedented.

Although Iraq is traditionally a major wheat importer, it self-reported being nearly self-sufficient when COVID-19-related trade restrictions hit in 2020, producing enough wheat to cover its own domestic consumption. 

The country produced around 5 million metric tons of wheat locally, in part due to measures introduced by the government in 2011, such as the promotion of wheat seeds that are resistant to drought and salinity. But there was also heavy rain at the time, which had a massive impact on crop harvests. 

If the droughts continue as expected, the future for farmers in Nineveh looks bleak.

“The drought dried up my crops and left nothing but memories of the years and work my dad spent cultivating this land.”

Ayoub noted that while he normally harvests around 100 tonnes of grain in one season, he produced just a third of that amount this year. His son is currently covering his living costs while he debates whether he will plant anything again. Like many farmers, he sees leaving home as a last resort.

Kamran, a 27-year-old farmer from Mosul who asked to be referred to by his first name only for privacy reasons, said he had no choice but to abandon the land he inherited from his father. "I was spending more on [farming] than whatever I was earning from it,” he explained. 

Now working as a hotel cleaner in the city of Erbil to provide for his mother and three sisters, he regrets how the drought crisis has completely changed his life. “It dried up my crops,” he said, “and left nothing but memories of the years and work my dad spent cultivating this land.”

This article was produced in collaboration with Egab, which connects journalists from the Middle East and North Africa with news organisations worldwide.

Edited by Helen Morgan.

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