The Impact of ISIS on Iraq’s Agricultural Sector

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With Iraqi forces planning to retake Mosul and the remaining strongholds in Iraq of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the coming months, UN agencies and their partners have mobilized to address what has been expected to be the largest and most complex humanitarian crisis in the world27. Given the scale of destruction and displacement, the need to provide urgent, life-saving assistance has overshadowed eventual reconstruction efforts. Postconflict development efforts will be critical, however, as they offer an opportunity to restore livelihoods and prevent a return to radicalization26.

Restoring agriculture should be a central component of reconstruction efforts. While the oil industry dominates Iraq’s economy, agriculture may have recently employed up to one third of the population and has the potential to drive future growth. Agriculture driven growth also has the potential to improve food security, increase self sufficiency, and benefit poor populations in both rural and urban areas disproportionately.

The conflict has left the sector in disarray, and understanding and measuring the scale of the damage in order to rebuild is a complex task. This owes in part to the fact that agriculture and the conflict in Iraq have been inextricably intertwined, with agriculture often being used as a weapon of war. Throughout its occupation, ISIS has looted harvests and agricultural equipment, sabotaged storage facilities, and poisoned land as a form of collective punishment. In the most extreme cases, agriculture itself has been militarized as irrigation pipes have been appropriated to make Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and agrochemicals and fertilizers have been used to make weapons and bombs. Less dramatically, ISIS has sought to distort agricultural markets by controlling and reallocating resources. Finally, agriculture has also helped fuel the conflict, with ISIS encouraging production in some areas to generate revenue, even as it has neglected or sought to destroy it in others.

Assessing damage and needs is even more complex given pre-existing challenges. Iraq’s agricultural sector has suffered from years of previous conflict and sanctions, and it has often been neglected in Iraq’s overall economic growth strategy. While ambitious plans to increase the sector’s productivity had already been outlined or initiated at the time the conflict with ISIS began, they were stymied by fighting. Efforts to rebuild will have to simultaneously address recent damage and account for long-term neglect. In other words, given the challenges that existed before the conflict, efforts to simply restore the sector to its previous state will ultimately backfire in the long term as they will fail to address urgently needed reforms. Thus, on understanding recent damage and losses as well as pre-existing challenges ultimately offers an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past and build back better.
To date, it has not been possible to fully assess and measure the impact of the conflict on production and damage and losses caused by fighting as there is only limited data. In the meantime, the available secondary data and anecdotal information that is available provide the only indication of the effects of the conflict on agriculture and food production. A review of the limited data that does exist is informative, however, as it is indicative of the scale and nature of the challenges that lie ahead.
Accordingly, this brief has several goals:

  • To analyze the role that agricultural sector has played in Iraq’s economy
  • To understand the capacity of the agricultural sector, including key trends and challenges that existed before the most recent conflict
  • To summarize the types of damage that have taken place as a result of the conflict with ISIS
  • To provide preliminary recommendations on how to measure and address damage and losses following the conflict

With these goals in mind, this brief aims to provide a summary of the challenges that lie ahead as well as a preliminary examination of the role that agriculture could play in Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.