Farming Is Latest Casualty In Drought-Stricken Iraq

Iraqi farmer Fareed Sha'ban Mohammad i i

hide captionIraqi farmer Fareed Sha'ban Mohammad touches the dry, cracked earth that should be a cucumber field outside the southeastern city of Diwaniyah. A drought has killed any chance of his growing crops this year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Iraqi farmer Fareed Sha'ban Mohammad

Iraqi farmer Fareed Sha'ban Mohammad touches the dry, cracked earth that should be a cucumber field outside the southeastern city of Diwaniyah. A drought has killed any chance of his growing crops this year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Iraqi farmers stand next to a dried and cracked irrigation ditch. i i

hide captionIraqi farmers Fareed Sha'ban Mohammad, Azzawi Selman Abdullah and Hamad Mehdi Hamad stand by a dried and cracked irrigation ditch next to their fields. They say it would be filled with water if it weren't for Iraq's drought.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Iraqi farmers stand next to a dried and cracked irrigation ditch.

Iraqi farmers Fareed Sha'ban Mohammad, Azzawi Selman Abdullah and Hamad Mehdi Hamad stand by a dried and cracked irrigation ditch next to their fields. They say it would be filled with water if it weren't for Iraq's drought.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Across Iraq, farmers are struggling with the worst drought the country has faced in years. Some say it's the worst they've seen in their lifetime — and not just because of the lack of rain.

Some Iraqi officials blame waste and regional politics, as well as the continuing war in some of Iraq's bread baskets — such as in Diyala, just northeast of Baghdad, where a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation is under way to oust al-Qaida in Iraq from safe havens.

The view from an Army helicopter confirms why farmers in Diyala are in a panic. Instead of crops, shriveled, dusty fields stretch as far as the eye can see.

Standing on the tarmac at the American base outside the provincial capital, Majid al Khalid, Diyala's top agriculture official, says he has never seen it this bad. He says the drought has damaged more than 120,000 acres of farmland and killed any summer vegetable crop. One-third of the fruit orchards are also in bad shape.

A two-hour drive south of Baghdad, outside the city of Diwaniyah, the farm belt is also more brown than green. Irrigation ditches that run through the fields are dry and cracked.

Azzawi Selman Abdullah crumbles fistfuls of soil from his water-starved farm to demonstrate what the drought has done to his land. The 47-year-old farmer says this field should be lush with cucumbers he planted in the spring. He adds that instead, everything on his 150 acres is dying — even the weeds.

Fellow farmer Hamad Mehdi Hamad says his 50 acres have fared no better.

"This drought is worse than the violence. How can we survive without water?" he says.

The lament is a common one across Iraq these days. Iraq's water minister says some people in the north who rely solely on rain to irrigate their farms have had to abandon their villages because there's no water.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, is sympathetic.

"It really is heart-wrenching to see the Iraqi people be driven to go through so much," he says. "They've had multiple wars, they have had this insurgency and terrorist action, and now they've got to contend with the drought."

Hertling says his troops, the State Department and American farm experts are trying to help. He says Iraqi and U.S. security forces are working on ousting al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents who have contributed to farmers' woes by diverting their canals and burning their fields.

But he adds that the Iraqi farmers need to help themselves, too, by using less water.

"They're used to the canal system of just pulling water off the Tigris River or the Euphrates River or out of the Hamreen lake, and they don't have that option this year," he says. "So our agriculture reps from USAID and the State Department are trying to get them some new technologies. We're doing the same thing. We're working with Texas A&M University to get some experts in the field of how to grow crops with saving water."

The water minister, Abdul Latif Rashid, agrees that water conservation is a must.

"I'm afraid in Iraq we don't have that culture yet," he says. "I don't hide it, there is a lot of waste, but we have started taking actions."

For one, Rashid says, this year they have rationed water to farmers and asked them, in turn, to plant only 70 percent of their land.

He says his government can't do much about the lack of adequate rain and snow, which has depleted reservoirs and groundwater. Nor can officials quickly revamp 53,000 miles of canals damaged by decades of neglect and war, he adds.

He has, however, been trying to improve relations with Iraq's neighbors. He says he wants to ensure that they don't cut off rivers and tributaries.

"Now we have some serious consultations with Turkey and Syria," he says. "With Iran, I'm afraid our contacts and our cooperation has not reached the necessary level."

Hertling dismisses widespread Iraqi fears that Iran and other neighbors are holding back water as "urban legend." He says those countries are plagued by the drought just as Iraq is.

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