BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Frequent dust storms and scarce rains are stifling Iraq’s efforts to revive a farming sector hit by decades of war, sanctions and isolation.
Wheat and rice production has suffered from a severe drought in the past two years, due in part to rising temperatures, along with a dearth of water in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The U.N. Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit (IAU) says water levels in the two rivers -- Iraq’s main water sources -- have dropped to less than a third of normal capacity.
“The tendency of rainfall in general is continuously declining. The same for temperature ... you can see there is a rise,” said Deputy Environment Minister Kamal Hussein Latif.
Farmers like Akram Mousa now face a struggle to keep their land cultivatable in the once fertile country watered by rivers that nurtured Mesopotamia’s ancient civilizations.
“The temperature rise has deformed our crops. They either don’t grow properly or wither. It has made me abandon half my farms,” said the 65-year-old who owns seven farms of tomato, cucumber and melon in Zubair, in the southern province of Basra.
Farming is one of Iraq’s biggest employers, but contributes less than 3 percent of state revenue and gets little investment compared to the oil sector, the source of 95 percent of revenue.
Iraq is among the world’s top 10 importers of wheat and rice, purchased mostly for a huge public food ration scheme.
As temperatures creep higher and water levels remain low, desertification is swallowing arable land and hurting crop yields. Mousa said fertile land in the region where he farms had shrunk considerably in his 35 years of cultivating.
In October, the IAU reported a drop in crop cover on almost 40 percent of farmland, especially in the north, in 2007-09.
Nevertheless, somewhat better rains helped Iraq produce 1.7 million tonnes of wheat in 2009/10, up from 1.25 million the previous season, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Output in the previous three years averaged 2.4 million tonnes.
Iraq’s population of about 30 million consumes about 4.5 million tonnes of wheat a year, most of which is imported.
Desertification and soil erosion, due partly to climate change and partly to mismanagement, are blamed for the dust storms that have multiplied in recent years, disrupting life in Baghdad and posing health risks for its 7 million people.
Winds blow the dust, mostly from the western desert and north, to the capital, said Amer Shaker Hammadi, deputy head of an Agriculture Ministry committee on combating desertification.
Baghdad endured 122 dust storms in 2008 and 82 in 2009, up from only three or four a year recorded in the 1970s, Latif said. In the former era, the choking tempests lasted no more than 12 hours. Now they can envelop the city for up to 36 hours.
Thanks to its rivers, Iraq is one of only two Arab countries that will pass the water scarcity test of 1,000 cubic meters per person in five years’ time, according to a report this month by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development.
That forecast, however, assumes no disruption to river flows from Iraq’s upstream neighbors Syria and Turkey.
Tension over water has surfaced, with Iraq accusing Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria, of restricting flows from the Euphrates with hydroelectric dams and irrigation schemes.
It has urged Turkey to release more water, saying Iraqi farmland and drinking water supplies are at stake.
“Climate change, the change in temperatures, drought, have made (upstream) countries depend on irrigating their land from the rivers. As a result, it has affected Iraq’s water share from the Tigris and Euphrates,” Ali Hashim, director general of the state commission operating water and drainage projects, said.
According to the IAU, 92 percent of Iraq’s total freshwater is used for irrigation and food production.
The Agriculture Ministry has prepared a $70 million plan, approved by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to improve irrigation on 2 million acres of wheat-growing land.
Combating and adapting to climate change require efforts of a different magnitude. But Iraq, beset by insecurity, power shortages and many other problems, has yet to tackle the issue in a coherent way -- it has taken politicians eight months just to break a post-election deadlock on forming a new government.
In the meantime, some farmers are adapting by themselves.
Hamza Attiya, 45, said he had switched to crops requiring less water on his farm at al-Meshkhab, south of Najaf.
“I have planted Indian pea instead of rice as it doesn’t need as much water. We didn’t get much income from it this year, only enough for our daily food,” the farmer said.
Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Khalid Farhan in Najaf; writing by Serena Chaudhry; editing by Alistair Lyon and Janet Lawrence