BAQUBA — Farmers in the Diyala province in Iraq have been hit by just about every crisis possible. First the security disaster dried up supplies and markets, then lack of electricity cut irrigation, and now comes a drying up of water resources.
Nothing now seems more difficult in Iraq than the business of farming.
“The shortage of water is the biggest threat that Iraqi agriculture has ever faced,” an employee in the directorate-general of irrigation for Diyala province, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “It threatens not only food but also employment in this city (Baquba, capital of the province).
“The shortage of water can be ascribed to the shortage of rain and snow at the main sources,” the employee at the irrigation centre said.
Many farmers say that they fear that the northern Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq is facing a dry 2008. The mountains there, besides the mountains of southwest Iran and southern Turkey, form a large source of water for Iraq.
The government is doing little to help people over this crisis. “The directorate is impotent and can give nothing to the farmers,” the irrigation centre employee said. “Hundreds of thousands of acres are now desolate, and thousands of people jobless.”
Most villagers work in farming, and now that farming no more sustains people as it did, life there is badly hit. Agriculture in this area kept Iraq supplied, and also produced enough for exports. But now farmers sometimes have a hard time feeding themselves.
“The majority of our village farmers have quit and the rest will follow,” farmer Nasir Ibrahim told IPS. “This is because of obstacles like security, displacement, water shortage, lack of seeds, and lack of backing on the part of the ministry.
“Farming is our source of our living; it’s our job. We used to live in the village; we cannot live in the city to work in offices, even though so many farmers have become policemen.”
The degraded security situation in the province has left farmers with the option only of selling their fruit and vegetables in smaller markets, because accessing the central market has become too dangerous.
“Now, we sell in sub-markets on the outskirts of Baquba,” local farmer Aziz Helan told IPS. “So farmers are not obliged to go to the centre of the city to sell their crops. But there is also less to sell because very little is grown due to lack of water.
“One orchard that was producing 15-18 tonnes of oranges (per season) during the 1990s now produces only 200-400 kilograms. One farm that used to produce 40 tonnes of wheat now produces nothing.”
In desperate search of water, some farmers have installed private water pumps on the banks of the Diyala river which runs near Baquba.
“This big river passes on very low land, about 20 metres lower than the city,” the irrigation centre employee said. “All the sewage water leaks into the river. Water from this river is no good now for irrigation because of this pollution.
“I myself saw the sewage network of the public hospital of Baquba directed into the river; it’s too bad, and I do not think it will work for farmers to use that water.”
Iraq has started to import vegetables for the first time in its modern history despite a rich agricultural heritage that reaches back 6,000 years. Aside from the direct consequences of a failed military occupation, such as lack of security, fuel and electricity, U.S. occupation authorities have installed a neo-liberal free market system that has pushed Iraqi farmers out of competition as foreign goods flood the markets. That in turn is hitting the local economy and increasing unemployment.
Families are also suffering because the Iraqi diet relies heavily on local vegetables, which have become expensive and difficult to obtain. One consequence is that many local people have begun to plant their own vegetable gardens to feed their families.
(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East).