BAGHDAD — Salah Chelab crushed wheat husks picked from his vast farmland south of Baghdad and examined its seeds with one hand. They were a few grams lighter than he had hoped.
“It’s because of the lack of water,” he said, as farm machinery growled behind him, cutting and gathering his year’s wheat harvest.
Cherab has grown most of his 10 acres (4 hectares), but he can only irrigate a quarter of it after the Agriculture Department imposed strict water quotas during the growing season, he said. He worries that the produce he grows on the remaining land “will die without water”.
Iraqi farmers say they are paying the price for the government’s decision to cut the irrigated area of agriculture by 50 percent as the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent global wheat prices soaring.
The government has taken measures in the face of severe water shortages caused by high temperatures and drought (believed to be exacerbated by climate change), as well as by neighbouring countries that continue to draw water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All these factors have seriously affected wheat production.
Battling water scarcity, the Iraqi government has been unable to address other long-neglected issues.
Desertification has been blamed as a factor behind this year’s ongoing dust storms. At least 10 have hit the country in the past few months, covering cities with a thick layer of orange dust, grounding flights and sending thousands to hospitals.
“We need water to tackle desertification, but we also need water to secure our food supply,” said Essa Fayadh, a senior official at the Ministry of Environment. “There’s not enough for both of us.”
Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates for almost all of its water needs. Both flowed into Iraq from Turkey and Iran. Dams built by these countries either blocked or diverted water, leaving Iraq with a severe water shortage.
Water resources minister Mahdi Rashid told The Associated Press that river levels are down 60 percent compared to last year.
For Chelab, less water means smaller grain sizes and lower crop yields.
In 2021, Chelab produced 30,000 tonnes of wheat, compared with 32,000 tonnes the year before, trade ministry receipts show. This year, he expects no more than 10,000.
His crops were irrigated and irrigated by rainwater through the channels of the Euphrates. He said he had to rely on river water during the growing season due to low precipitation.
Government officials say the change is necessary.
For decades, the current system was inefficient and unsustainable. Water scarcity leaves them no choice but to modernize outdated and wasteful farming techniques.
“Considering the lack of rain, global warming and lack of irrigation in neighbouring countries, we have a strategic plan to deal with the drought because we are not getting the water rights we deserve,” said Hamid al-Naif, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture.
The ministry took steps to design new types of drought-resistant wheat and introduced methods to increase crop yields.
“We’re still dealing with irrigation systems from the 1950s. It’s not about farmers,” he said. “The state has to make it efficient and we have to force farmers to accept it.”
Iraqi farmers have historically relied heavily on the state to produce food, a reliance that policymakers and experts say drains government funds.
The Department of Agriculture supports farmers by subsidizing or providing everything from harvesting tools, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for free. Water diverted from the river for irrigation is provided free of charge. The Ministry of Trade then stores or buys produce from farmers and distributes it to the market.
Wheat is an important strategic crop, accounting for 70% of the country’s total cereal production.
Sowing begins in October, and harvesting usually begins in April and in some areas continues until June. Last year, the Agriculture Department slashed subsidies for fertilizers, seeds and pesticides, a move that angered farmers.
Local demand for this staple food is 5-6 million tons per year. However, local production has been decreasing year by year. In 2021, Iraq produced 4.2 million tons of wheat, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. 6.2 million tons in 2020.
“Today we could get up to 2.5 million tonnes,” al-Naif said. This will require Iraq to increase imports.
Most of the wheat harvest is usually sold to the Ministry of Trade. So far, only 373,000 tonnes of wheat are available in the trade ministry’s warehouses, a sign of a low harvest, al-Naif said.
To meet demand amid the recent global food market crisis, the government recently changed a policy to allow all Iraqi farmers to sell their produce to the Trade Ministry’s granaries. Previously, this was limited to farmers operating under government schemes.
Back at Chelab’s farm, the wheat is ready to be shipped to the silo.
“Indeed, we need to develop ourselves,” he said. “But change should be gradual, not immediate.”
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