Farming continues to wither in Iraq

Baghdad, April 30: Iraq is planning to import 80 percent of its wheat and rice requirements in 2010, according to Hussein Ghazy, a spokesman of the state-owned Grains Company affiliated to the Trade Ministry.

Trade Ministry figures show Iraq imported 3.55 million tons of wheat and 1.17 million tons of rice last year – up from 2.54 million and 610,000 tons respectively in 2008.

Rising imports are being triggered by the low water levels in the Euphrates and the Tigris, which is causing reduced production, said Aoun Thiab Abdullah, a senior official in the Water Resources Ministry. He warned Iraq could face another difficult agricultural season this summer.

“The amount of water we receive from the Euphrates at the border with Syria is still low at about 250 cubic metres per second… As for the Tigris, we have seen a 50 percent drop in the flow rate from 1,680 cubic metres per second [in and prior to April 2003] to 836 cubic metres per second. He noted that reservoirs fed by the Tigris were at a reasonable level at present.

However, the three biggest reservoirs fed by the Euphrates – Haditha Reservoir, Mosul Dam and Habaniyah Lake – have severe water shortages, he said.

Because of water shortages and high levels of soil salinity, the government decided in 2009 to halve the area planted with rice, all of which is dependent on water from the Euphrates.

“This situation worries us, especially as the summer season is coming and it could even affect the beginning of the next winter season, when the first irrigation [in October and November] is needed,” Abdullah said.

Weak agricultural sector

Most of Iraq – 78 percent – is not viable for agricultural use. Almost half of the remaining 9.5 million hectares is marginal land used mainly for seasonal grazing of goats and sheep, according to a June 2004 report for the US Congress. Agricultural output accounts for only about 4 percent of gross domestic product.

Agriculture has been paralysed by decades of war and insecurity, underinvestment, and the unchecked cutting down of trees for firewood, which had worsened salinity and desertification. According to the Agriculture Ministry, salinity affects at least 40 percent of agricultural land, mainly in central and southern Iraq, while 40-50 percent of what was productive land in the 1970s has been affected by desertification.

A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report estimated that “one third of the Iraqi population resides in rural areas and depends upon agriculture for their livelihoods. However, this segment of the population suffers disproportionately from poverty and food insecurity as 69 percent of all Iraqis living in extreme poverty and food insecurity reside in rural areas.”

FAO noted that Iraqi wheat farmers saw a 55 percent reduction in production during 2008 due to severe drought conditions, and dependence on imports is estimated to have risen in 2008 to 74 percent for wheat and 69 percent for all cereals.

A joint report by FAO and the Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit (supported by major UN agencies and offices in Iraq) entitled Iraq Food Prices Analysis, said food prices in Iraq had risen at a steeper rate than global food prices, largely because of an 800 percent rise in domestic fuel and electricity prices in 2004-2008.

According to Mahdi Al-Qaisi, undersecretary in the Agriculture Ministry, Iraq produced 117,000 tons of rice and 1.281 million tons of wheat in the 2008-09 season. These figures are only for production communicated by farmers to the Trade Ministry, so they could be on the low side, al-Qaisi said.

Total consumption of wheat in 2010 is expected to be 4.5 million tons, and rice 1.227 million tons, Grains Company spokesman Ghazy said.