Among olive groves that were once a front line between ISIS militants and Iraqi forces, Yunis Salman and a few fellow farmers are harnessing what they believe should be the future of Middle East agriculture: the power of the sun.
Solar panels installed last year between his family’s 1,500 olive trees help to power water pumping and irrigation, providing enough for production and several hours of electricity each day for their home.
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The solar energy has replaced the several barrels of fuel oil a day that they used to consume, Salman said.
“My brother Omar got the idea after researching green energy online,” Salman said at the farm near the northern Iraqi village of Fadhiliya, outside Mosul. “He thought this was perfect for Iraq, where we get so much sun.”
Omar Salman bought solar panels for $12,000 and then appealed to the United Nations Development Program, which has funded and expanded the project, he said.
Salman believes solar power should be the future of agriculture and energy in the Middle East, where stifling summers are getting longer and hotter.
“We suffer every summer, so why not at least use it?” Salman said.
In Iraq, a dilapidated national grid often provides only a few hours of power each day, leaving many Iraqis to swelter through temperatures that regularly surpass 50 degrees Celsius.
Iraq is trying to recover from decades of conflict, international sanctions and mismanagement. Some of the most devastating fighting took place in the battle to defeat ISIS group militants, who took over around a third of the country in 2014.
Fighting around Mosul in 2016-2017 destroyed vast amounts infrastructure, including in this rich agricultural area where buildings have been flattened by air strikes.
Iraq, one of the world’s largest oil producers, relies on crude oil exports for around 95 percent of state revenue. It is trying to improve the capture of gas released during oil production to become more energy self-sufficient, but with limited success.
Gas imports from Iran fuel the national grid and periodically halt when energy consumption increases. Baghdad owes Tehran billions of dollars for power imports, and under US sanctions must currently pay those debts in food and medicine supplies.
Solar power, Salman believes, could help solve all those problems for Iraq. At little cost beyond the initial solar panels set-up, his farm produces some 40 tonnes of olives a year. Some of the produce is sold in Turkey and the Gulf.
The only downside, Salman says, is the initial cost.
“Most ordinary Iraqis couldn’t afford to spend such a lump sum. It should come from the state.”
Iraq has signed several deals for solar power plants, including with companies from United Arab Emirates, Norway, France and China.
The Iraqi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Progress on expanding sustainable energy has been slow so far, but international aid officials hope projects like this one can help to change attitudes, especially in official circles.
“Decades of conflict and legacies of past environmental policies mean Iraq’s transition to renewable energy sources will not happen overnight,” said the UNDP’s Iraq representative Zena Ali Ahmad.
“Solar energy for agriculture is a relatively new concept in Iraq, so while it did take the authorities a little convincing, what we are now witnessing is a gradual culture shift, and a greater acceptance toward transitioning into clean, renewable energy sources,” she said.
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