Death knell for agriculture?

Water shortages, high levels of salinity, and desertification appear to have badly affected agricultural production this last winter, according to officials from the Iraqi agriculture and water resources ministries.



“We are suffering from a real and serious water crisis,” Mahdi al-Qaisi, undersecretary in the Agriculture Ministry, told IRIN in Baghdad. “We are not expecting winter season crops to meet local demand, and summer crops will probably be affected as well,” al-Qaisi said.



Precipitation levels this past winter were only half the normal average, he said, adding that the situation was made worse by a reduction in the amount of water flowing into the Tigris and Euphrates from Turkey and Iran.



“We are counting on the Ministry of Trade to fill the gaps… by importing wheat and barley and distributing them through its food programme [state-run food rations scheme],” he added.



The winter harvest data are not yet available.



“Very scary”



Decades of war, UN sanctions, underinvestment, military operations, and the cutting down of trees for firewood have paralysed Iraq’s agricultural sector and increased salinity and desertification to “very scary levels”, al-Qaisi said.



According to the Agriculture Ministry, salinity is affecting at least 40 percent of agricultural land, mainly in central and southern Iraq, while 40-50 percent of what was agricultural land in the 1970s has been affected by desertification.



According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. It is caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations. Desertification does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts. It occurs because dryland ecosystems, which cover over one third of the world‘s land area, are extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation and inappropriate land use. Poverty, political instability, deforestation, overgrazing and bad irrigation practices can all undermine the productivity of the land.



Fadel Ali al-Faragi, head of the desertification control division in the Agriculture Ministry, said - in a presentation available on the UNCCD website - that 92.5 percent of Iraq was subject to desertification. “Our concern is big and unprecedented,” al-Qaisi said.



Salinisation



Al-Faragi said the salinisation of agricultural land had been exacerbated in recent years by the use of salty water to irrigate land and poor drainage, rendering the land less productive. The problem had become acute, he said.



Salinisation is the process that leads to an excessive increase of water-soluble salts in the soil. The accumulated salts include sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, chloride, sulphate, carbonate and bicarbonate. Primary salinisation involves salt accumulation through natural processes due to a high salt content of the parent material or in groundwater. Secondary salinisation is caused by human interventions such as inappropriate irrigation practices, e.g. with salt-rich irrigation water and/or insufficient drainage, according to the European Commission land management and natural hazards unit.



The plains area of central and southern Iraq, renowned for its fertility in the 1970s, had turned into salinised land. It is estimated that about 25,000 hectares annually are affected by salinisation and becoming too saline for major agricrops to grow.



“Things are slipping from our hands” 



Alarmed by the drought, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources held a three-day conference at which experts described the water situation in Iraq as a “tragedy.”



The 19-21 April conference recommended irrigation rationing; the use of modern irrigation systems; exploitation of recoverable ground water in the plains area; and immediate water-sharing agreements with neighbouring countries.



“Things are slipping from our hands,” said Mohammed Ali Sarham, a water expert in Iraq’s southern province of Diwaniyah. “We are entering the third year of drought; water levels are falling all the time, and nothing is being done about it,” Sarham said.



“Swaths of land are being turned into desert; farmers are leaving the countryside and heading to the cities or nearby areas. We are importing almost all our food, though in the 1950s we were one of the few regional cereal exporting countries,” he said.



“The challenges are beyond the government. The agricultural sector needs huge sums of investment in modern technology before any results will be seen,” he said. “And this can only be achieved by private sector and foreign investment.”



Last year, the government introduced compulsory irrigation rationing, and permitted summer planting only of strategic crops - rice, corn, sunflowers, cotton and vegetables. The rationing meant that only 70 percent of agricultural land in Diwaniyah and Najaf provinces could be used for wheat and barley. The northern provinces were not included in the scheme.



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