Preparing the groundwork for a more sustainable Iraq

Published: Jan 10, 2022 Reading time: 5 minutes
Preparing the groundwork for a more sustainable Iraq

Tucked away in the northern half of Iraq is Salah al Din governorate, one of the most agriculture dependent areas of the country. It lies at the crossroads of climate and politics; the ever decreasing water flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers putting a strangle hold on local efforts to push on from the conflict. Locked in an increasingly desperate struggle with their ecosystem, our recent visit to the region revealed a resilience of spirit which, with a little external support, may be the deciding factor in sustaining the ancient connection between the members of these agricultural communities and their lands.

“The war affected us generally, but especially in agriculture,” said Ahmed, a 26-year-old farmer from Tikrit. “Roads were closed, it became hard to find materials. In that time, agriculture decreased.”

Today, a slower and more devious enemy is affecting farmers in the area. “Drought leads to a decrease in water levels in the wells we use for agriculture, which is causing us a lot of problems and weakens us as farmers.”

In partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP), People in Need is currently engaged in a project to enhance the food security and resilience of vulnerable women and men returned to Salah al Din. For Ahmed and over 30 other farmers in the area, this partnership provided them with 9 by 50 metre greenhouses, complete with irrigation networks and “kits” full of seeds and small equipment necessary to get them started. 

“Before, we didn’t have the capacity to buy a greenhouse,” said Iyad, 44-year-old farmer from Alkhazmayeh, “but since the organization provided us with one, our farming will develop. We will have more energy and capacity; our spirits will get higher as we continue to develop and work harder.”

“The greenhouse will provide protection for the crops from sunlight in summer, reserve the humidity, provide shade and protect the crops from dust and birds,” said Iyad. “In winter, some crops need heat, which will be provided by the greenhouse during the cold weather.”

In November 2021, Iyad’s farm only had some onions growing and greens to feed his animals. Thanks to this greenhouse, he now plans to plant okra, tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers during their off seasons. Iyad believes he will be able to increase his income by 75 percent by selling produce outside their season.

“When we use a drip irrigation system we don’t waste any water,” said Iyad. “With this system in the greenhouses, we can reduce the usage of water by 50 percent.”

Farmers are facing huge problems with access to water. Just a few years ago, the historic Tigris and Euphrates rivers supplied people with all their needs. Now, people are forced to dig ground wells, which are often too salty for use. “The main reason is the lack of rain, and its decreasing from year to year. Less rain will even affect the level of water in the well.”

A crucial element of this WFP-PIN partnership is the cleaning, rehabilitation, and construction of critical agriculture infrastructure. In addition to the installation of greenhouses, the cleaning of canals and farm land to the installation of irrigation networks and water pumps and will improve access to water and decreasing salinity in the ground.

“We have 38 workers out here cleaning the fields,” said Ali, 26, from Salah al Din. “We go to the fields and cut the long grass to help local farmers and increase the productivity of the field.” Ali is the team leader of the workers, a part of a cash-for-work scheme to employ people from the impacted community.

“There is a second group cleaning water canals,” said Ali. A majority of the existing canal infrastructure in the area are above surface, meaning they run a high risk of water waste. Tall weeds and overgown bushes smother the waterways, camouflaging their very existent, while inhibiting water flow and increasing salinity levels. Piles of multi-colored plastics, garbage and debris bring an insufferable odour. “But after the cleaning, the situation will be different and farmers will get a decent amount of water to water the land.”

Apart from increasing access to water for farmers, this activity gives a short income boost to local families – most of whom typically work in agriculture themselves but have been unable to do so because of the deteriorating climate and economic situation. 

“The economic situation in Iraq is bad,” said Bushra, 41, from al Batama. “We are all tired.” Bushra usually works in farming and livestock, but these days it’s simply not enough to support her and her five young children. “It is difficult because I have a baby and I need to breastfeed him and take care of him; he needs to stay with me all the time.” 

Like Bushra, many other women in the local area are forced to be the breadwinners for their family despite caring for young infants, or pregnant. “Most of the women don’t have any one to support them, and all of them need this job,” said Bushra. According to her, she estimates nearly 70 percent of the children in her area are forced to work to help support their families, some as young as 10 years old. “Also, there are many young people who have university degree and work with us because there aren’t many job opportunities,” she added. “Iraq hasn’t risen on its own two feet yet.” 

Ali is one of these young people. He has a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but was never able to find a job in his field. “I work in this project to support my family and fulfil their needs because of the hard-economic situation,” said Ali. “I will pay some debts, and with the rest I will do something to develop myself in the future.”

For Bushra, she wishes to use the income from this project to continue her traditional work as a farmer. “I will try to do any investment, such as buying livestock and selling it. We will buy seeds and tools and develop our situation as farmers.”

Farmers and agriculture workers in Iraq need support. Years of conflict and displacement left land destroyed or unattended, and the economy in shambles. Trying to recover from this while facing the climate crisis is a nearly impossible situation.

"Each Iraqi has dreams,” said Ahmed, “but dreams are hard to achieve in the current situation.”

Special thanks to funds from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development for allowing some of these farmers to dream and invest in their own futures once again.

Author: Megan Giovannetti