Severe water shortages weigh on Iraq’s wheat crop

BAGHDAD (AP) — Salah Chelab crushed a bale of wheat snatched from his vast farmland south of Baghdad and inspected its seeds in the palm of one hand. They weighed several grams less than he had hoped.

“It’s because of water shortages,” he said, the farm machinery roaring behind him, cutting and gathering his year’s wheat crop.

Chelab had planted most of his 10 acres (4 hectares) of land, but he was only able to irrigate a quarter of it after the Ministry of Agriculture introduced strict water quotas during the growing season, did he declare. The produce he grew on the rest, he fears, “will die without water”.

As world wheat prices have soared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iraqi farmers say they are paying the price for a government decision to cut irrigation by 50 percent. agricultural areas.

The government took the action in the face of severe water shortages resulting from high temperatures and drought – believed to be fueled by climate change – and the continued extraction of water by neighboring countries from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All of these factors weighed heavily on wheat production.

Struggling with water scarcity, the Iraqi government has been unable to address other long-neglected issues.

Desertification has been blamed for this year’s relentless wave of sandstorms. At least 10 have hit the country in recent months, blanketing cities in a thick blanket of orange dust, grounding flights and sending thousands to hospitals.

“We need water to solve the problem of desertification, but we also need water to ensure our food supplies,” said Essa Fayadh, a senior official at the Ministry of Environment. “We don’t have enough for both.”

Iraq depends on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for almost all of its water needs. Both arrive in Iraq from Turkey and Iran. These countries have built dams that have blocked or diverted water, creating major shortages in Iraq.

Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed told The Associated Press that river levels were down 60% from a year ago.

For Chelab, less water means smaller grain size and lower crop yields.

In 2021, Chelab produced 30,000 tonnes of wheat, the year before 32,000, according to receipts from the Ministry of Commerce silos. This year, he expects no more than 10,000.

Its crops are both rainfed and irrigated via a Euphrates canal. Due to low levels of rainfall, he had to rely on water from the river during the growing season, he said.

Government officials say change is needed.

The current system has been inefficient and unsustainable for decades. The scarcity of water leaves them no choice but to push to modernize obsolete and useless agricultural techniques.

“We have a strategic plan to deal with the drought given the lack of rain, global warming and lack of irrigation from neighboring countries, because we have not obtained our share of water rights” , said Hamid al-Naif, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture. .

The ministry has taken steps to design new types of drought-resistant wheat and introduce methods to increase crop yields.

“We are still dealing with irrigation systems from the 1950s. It has nothing to do with farmers,” he said. “The state must make it effective, the farmer must be forced to accept it.”

Iraqi farmers have always been heavily dependent on the state for food production, a dependency that policymakers and experts say drains public funds.

The Department of Agriculture supports farmers by providing everything from harvesting tools, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides at a subsidized rate or free of charge. Water diverted from rivers for irrigation is provided free of charge. The Ministry of Commerce then stores or purchases produce from farmers and distributes it to markets.

Wheat is a key strategic crop, accounting for 70% of the country’s total grain production.

Planting begins in October and harvesting usually begins in April and extends into June in some areas. Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture cut subsidies for fertilizers, seeds and pesticides, a move that angered farmers.

The local demand for the staple food is between 5 and 6 million tons per year. But local production is decreasing year by year. In 2021, Iraq produced 4.2 million tons of wheat, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. In 2020, it was 6.2 million tons.

“Today we could get 2.5 million tons at best,” al-Naif said. This would force Iraq to increase its imports.

Most of the wheat harvest is usually sold to the Ministry of Commerce. In a sign of the poor harvest, so far there are currently only 373,000 tons of wheat available in the Commerce Ministry’s warehouses, al-Naif said.

To meet demands in the context of the recent global grain market crisis, the government recently changed a policy allowing all Iraqi farmers to sell their produce to Ministry of Commerce silos. Previously, this was limited to farmers who operated under the government plan.

Back at the Chelab farm, the wheat is ready to be transported to the silo.

“It’s true that we need to develop,” he said. “But the change should be gradual, not immediate.”

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