How Iraq’s agricultural heartland is dying of thirst

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One day in June, a giant irrigation pump deep in the Mosul Dam Lake sputtered briefly into life. The successful test brought a rare moment of celebration for the facility’s supervisor, Assem Abdel Rahman, and his small team of engineers from Iraq’s Water Resources Ministry.

The pump had lain idle since 2014, when ISIS fighters swept into Nineveh, then a lush province capable of producing almost a quarter of Iraq’s wheat. When Iraqi forces and their allies drove out the militants three years later, the pump was out of action and the irrigation canals it supplied were in ruins. That June test showed there was hope for the pump, at least.


“If you could have seen this area before, it was full of green as far as your eyes could see,” said Abdel Rahman, gesturing toward the barren land.

Getting the pump to work is only a beginning. This year the rains failed, too, and a new Turkish dam threatens to reduce flows from the Tigris River into the Mosul Dam Lake. Nineveh is becoming a dust bowl, and farmers, who came home after ISIS fled, say they feel abandoned by Iraq’s leaders.

Hani Habib Youhanna, a farmer from the Christian town of Qaraqosh, said he had poured his savings into planting wheat on his 125 hectares of land this year, but the crop was disastrous. “Support? There is no support from the government here at all. No irrigation, just nothing,” he said.

Iraqi farmers work in their fields north of Mosul. (Reuters)
Iraqi farmers work in their fields north of Mosul. (Reuters)

His complaints are echoed across a country overwhelmed by the cost of rebuilding from its war with ISIS and struggling with water shortages that have led to street protests this year. Much of the city of Mosul, 30 km to the northwest of Qaraqosh, is still rubble more than a year after the militants were expelled. In Iraq’s long-neglected south, there have been angry demonstrations over water shortages. The government has promised to release funds to help. It estimates the total cost of Iraq’s reconstruction at $88 billion.

Nineveh’s farmers say for them time is running out. In interviews, a dozen farmers and grain traders said government wheat production forecasts for 2018 were hopelessly optimistic. Some farmers said they were considering leaving the land. Others have joined local militias to get a regular wage.

“If farmers are pushed to look for another way of life, all the choices will basically be bad, whether it is smuggling, turning to extremism and militancy or migration,” said Fadel al-Zubi, the Iraq representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), based in Baghdad.

Drought could be mitigated by irrigation but, critics say, Iraq’s political leaders are too consumed by infighting to pay attention to the needs of farmers in places like Nineveh. Zainab al-Taaey, a member of the outgoing parliament’s Committee on Agriculture, Water and Resources, said the Ministry of Water Resources was not doing enough to tackle water shortages. The ministry responded that it was working to clean up the water supply in Nineveh and dig wells to help farmers.

Other critics say inefficiency and corruption are starving Nineveh of funds. Iraq ranks 169 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index. Another committee member, Sherouk al-Abaigy, said successive governments had failed to come up with a comprehensive water plan. The ministry said the security situation across Iraq, where ISIS still poses a threat, and a lack of funds were complicating its efforts, but it continued to work in Nineveh. It said its engineers were capable of implementing big projects and noted that Minister of Water Resources Hassan Janabi was a technocrat with a PhD in water management.

As farmlands diminish, Iraq’s wheat import bill will rise. That’s extra spending the country can ill afford. This year, the state Grain Board expects to import around two million tonnes of wheat at a cost of around $1.5 billion. The Farmers Union reckons the board may need to bring in an additional one million tonnes because of the poor harvest.

War and dictatorship

The pump in the Mosul Dam Lake sits at the start of the North Al-Jazeera irrigation system, built three decades ago on the order of Saddam Hussein. Abdel Rahman has worked there since the beginning. North Al-Jazeera was part of an ambitious irrigation project, the biggest at the time in the Arab world, that was to include a southern and eastern facility. Had it been completed, it would have watered 250,000 hectares of the Al Jazeera plain.

But Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to UN sanctions, and foreign firms involved in the irrigation project, such as South Korea’s Hanyang Corporation, left Iraq. Plans for the east and south facilities were abandoned.

Working as a standalone, the north pump provided thousands of farmers with a steady supply of water, enabling them to grow summer vegetables and winter grains. The irrigation system reached 60,000 hectares of land, around a quarter of Nineveh’s potentially fertile land.

When a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the area where the pump is located was relatively unscathed. Some US troops even used it as a base because of its concealed location inside a hill, Abdel Rahman said. “When the Americans came here in 2003 and saw the control panel inside the hill, they joked, ‘What is this, a nuclear station?’” he recalled. The panel, which is still on display in the control room, was replaced by two laptop computers in 2012.

People walk in front of grain silos destroyed by the battles in the city of Mosul. (Reuters)
People walk in front of grain silos destroyed by the battles in the city of Mosul. (Reuters)

In the summer of 2014, ISIS fighters arrived, and Abdel Rahman fled to the safety of Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq. He said the militants tried to make the pump work but they didn’t know what they were doing and damaged the equipment. Fighters looted cables from the station, and most of North Al-Jazeera’s smaller subsidiary pumps, bridges and canals were wrecked in the battle for Nineveh that started in 2016. When that conflict subsided, another threatened: The pump sits in territory also claimed by Iraq’s Kurds. In Oct. 2017, Iraqi forces launched another offensive and took back control of the area.

When the fighting stopped, Abdel Rahman was eager to resume his work. But he found a scene of destruction. One hundred of the irrigation system’s 280 canals are still out of commission, according to the United Nations. Many are filled with debris and explosives planted by the militants in an attempt to keep government forces at bay. Thirty of the 38 metal bridges have been blown up and 800 sections of elevated canal have been destroyed.

The UN set about fixing North Al-Jazeera with the help of international donors. The cost is estimated at over $9 million, excluding repairs to a local factory that manufactured components for the pipes. Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources has cooperated with the UN on technical details but hasn’t allocated any of its own funds to the effort. Ministry adviser Zafer Abdullah said the North Al-Jazeera project needed a large budget and the ministry was prioritizing “needs that touch people’s everyday lives.”

The first phase of repairs – demining, restoring power and fixing the main pumping station – is due to be completed by the end of 2018. The UN says more work will be needed to get water flowing to the subsidiary pumps and into the network of canals. “Within two years or so we hope to have it functional,” said the FAO’s Iraq representative Zubi.

‘Nothing will ever change here’

Farmers say they can’t wait that long. When ISIS fled, Nineveh’s farmers began returning, hoping to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Some, like Qaraqosh farmer Youhanna, who came home last year, are already giving up. “I’m not going to plant anything anymore. Where will I get the money from?” he said.

ISIS burned Youhanna’s home and stole his equipment. He found his tractor in Mosul amongst a pile of goods looted by the militants. Youhanna’s teenage son lost three fingers when a mine exploded as they set about rebuilding their home. Like several other farmers, Youhanna now relies on a salary from a local militia.

“I know that in terms of politics, it is all the same. Nothing will ever change here. But I support them because they are the ones who are supporting me now,” he said.

Another Qaraqosh farmer, Sami Nissan Yessi, said his equipment too had been ransacked and his barns burned. His prospects are poor. “My kids are in Germany and Canada. I returned with my wife and younger child. This is me, I’m a farmer. What will I do abroad?” he said.

Only two farmers in Qaraqosh managed to grow wheat this year. One of them, Tawfiq Abosh, 70, credited the small irrigation system he built eight years ago. When ISIS left his family’s farm, they stole or destroyed irrigation equipment, including the motors needed to power the pumps. Abosh sold the family’s gold and took out loans to rebuild the system. Today it is working once more, watering Abosh’s melon and cucumber crops.

An Iraqi engineer Assem Abdel Rahman, director of North Al-Jazeera irrigation system, speaks with Reuters in Mosul. (Reuters)
An Iraqi engineer Assem Abdel Rahman, director of North Al-Jazeera irrigation system, speaks with Reuters in Mosul. (Reuters)

He said he spends roughly $250 a month on petrol and electricity to power the pumps, an outlay he says he can no longer afford without government help. During two visits by an Agriculture Ministry official in December and March, Abosh said he asked for financial help to keep his farm going. He said he has yet to hear back. The Agriculture Ministry told Reuters it was supporting farmers, like Abosh, by giving them subsidized seeds and fertilizer and by paying them good prices for their crops.

Knowing there will be a long wait to restart the North Al-Jazeera project, some farmers have moved closer to the reservoir. Small-scale farmers planting summer vegetables have paid the government to be allowed to connect pipes to the reservoir as makeshift irrigation systems.

“What else can we do?” said Naif Mohammed Khalaf, a farmer who was planting tomatoes and watermelon on rented land.

Farmers say cumbersome government practices compound their problems. Farmers eligible for back payments for grains sold to the Trade Ministry since 2014 are checked to make sure they have no ties to ISIS, delaying the release of money. Some farmers say they are still waiting for payments for 2014 crops. The head of the state Grain Board, Naeem al-Maksousi, said only around five percent of farmers were still due money from 2014 because of the security checks.

Authorities have ruled that fertilizer distributed to farmers in Nineveh must be free of urea, a chemical used in explosives. Sometimes the government provides urea-free fertilizer, but often it simply adds dust to the urea fertilizer to make it safe. That also makes the fertilizer less effective, farmers say. And government fertilizer often arrives late. The Agriculture Ministry said it was sometimes late distributing fertilizer because of the security situation. It said it checked the quality of fertilizer it supplied and disputed that it was ineffective.

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