Drought and Neglect Have Decimated Iraq’s Breadbasket

“This year, I rented three pieces of land and I paid 5 million dinars ($4,300)—and so far, I’ve only made 1 million back.” Osman’s is a common sort of story in Iraqi Kurdistan, where farmers face a dizzying array of problems, from drought and polluted water supplies, to ruthless urban expansion and an influx of cheap imports.
“We get zero support,” one Kurdish farmer says as he unloads tomatoes.
The agricultural sector’s decline has become a key vulnerability for the region of about 6 million people as Kurdish leaders plot a path from autonomy to independence.
Turkey and Iran are key suppliers, and both oppose the region’s secession because they fear it will embolden their own Kurdish minorities.
That’s an overstatement given that the region is still self-sufficient in key crops such as wheat.
In addition to imports, Iraq’s Kurdish farmers must also contend with climate change-induced drought and rising soil salinity caused by outdated irrigation methods.
A study published this year by Sweden’s Lund University found that croplands have become steadily less fertile in the region’s Dohuk province over the past decade.
In an interview on Oct. 17, as Iraqi forces embarked on a successful operation to retake control of the oil-rich province, the Kurdish government’s agriculture minister, Abdul Sattar Majid, said recent events had driven home the importance of supporting the region’s farmers.
“As we see now, oil can be cut off and its prices can decrease.” Majid noted that his ministry’s budget for farm programs has been shrinking gradually from an already-low base of 65 billion Iraqi dinars ($55 million) in 2014 to just 17 billion dinars last year.
Such complacency, he says, left the region too poor to effectively press for secession: “Everyone would like to have independence, but not an independence that makes you starve to death.”

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