Agriculture, Environmental Challenges, Food Security
Agriculture is the livelihood of an estimated 11 % of Iraqi families (WFP, CSO, KRSO 2017). The country’s food security largely depends on it. Among the agricultural households, roughly 75 % of them engage in crop production as a major source of income, while the remainder rely on livestock or mixed crop and livestock activities (Lucani 2012). Inland fisheries and poultryraising provide additional and important income sources. The agricultural economy contributes 9 % to the total GDP. It is also one of Iraq’s biggest employment sectors, although farms are small, mainly family run, and most of the jobs are for semi-skilled and skilled workers. These small farming systems are characterised by low crop yields, but also low inputs, such as advanced seed varieties and technology (UNESCO 2019: 12-13).
Agricultural production unavoidably depends on geographic variations in climate. Central and southern Iraq have a sub-tropical climate with warm, mild winters and very hot summers, while in the north a Mediterranean climate prevails, with mild to cold winters and hot summers. The majority of the country classifies as arid to semi-arid, leading to only 27 % of the national surface considered suitable for farming (FAO Iraq, 2019), of which 50-67 % is then actually farmed (FAO 2019). The overall area under cultivation is well captured by the map depicting the Long-term Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), derived from satellite imagery. Agro-meteorological conditions sustain rain-fed wheat and barley production in the north-east and irrigated mixed crops in the centre and south-east, sustained through irrigation by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Recent mapping data from 2018 suggest that the strongholds of wheat and barley production are the north-eastern Districts of Nainawa, Salah aldeen, Duhok, Erbil and Sulaimaniya and the south-eastern ones of Wasit, Qadisiya, Maysan and Muthanna.
Iraq’s agricultural potential is affected by a number of threats. First, weather extremes bring both drought and flooding at different times of the year (WFP, CSO, KRSO 2012) and the average temperatures are rising at around 0.5 - 0.7o C every 10 years (WFP RBC 2018). Climate warming and its extremes are likely to impose substantial challenges to agricultural production in the near future. For example, drought is increasing in frequency in the hottest regions of central and south-western Iraq and recent droughts have reduced agricultural production by 30 % on average and contribute to desertification of arable land (CSO, 2018; USAID 2017). Water scarcity poses additional threats, as availability in the Tigris and Euphrates declines due to drought (USAID 2017).
A second major challenge for agriculture is land degradation, driven by climate warming and other shocks, such as urbanisation on agricultural land, increased soil and water salinity, pollution and conflict. Mapping based on satellite imagery identified 4 % of the national land as degraded, with degradation mainly in the Kurdistan region, around Baghdad-Babylon-western Wasit, and in southern Maysan-Thi-Qar. In the same period, 7 % of the nation showed a favourable change in vegetation, concentrated along a wide corridor running from Salah al-deen to Thi-Qar-Maysan, including some strongholds of wheat production.
Conflict has been a third major constraint for agriculture through farmers’ displacements, damage to irrigation infrastructures, land lost to explosive hazards contamination, land degradation and pollution. Tons of pollutants were released over extensive areas of farmland and rangelands, especially affecting Qayyarah and Al-Shirqat Districts. Agricultural statistics show that the sector grew rapidly in the years directly preceding ISIL and fell by 30 % thereafter (FAO, 2016), while farmers in the “bread basket” Governorates, such as Salah al-deen and Kirkuk, reported disproportionately low areas under cultivation compared to the pre-conflict era (FAO Iraq 2019; WFP, CSO, KRSO 2017; FAO 2016).
A severe consequence of conflict that directly and indirectly affects agriculture is the three-dimensional impact of explosive hazards, i.e., improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded or abandoned ordnance and landmines. Partnerships between the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan regional government and the United Nations support ongoing monitoring of the distribution of explosive hazards throughout the country. Mapped data from these sources illustrate the extent of recorded hazardous areas to be less than 1 % for the majority of the Governorates and Districts. It is notable that in Governorates like Diyala and Kirkuk where explosive hazards are still present (around 1 to 2 % of the total area), the wheat production for 2017/2018 has considerably dropped compared to pre-2014 levels (CSO 2018). In a few Districts, between 2.5 and 12 % of the surface area have been classified as hazardous ─ as in Erbil, Wasit, Sulaimaniya, Thi-Qar, Maysan, Diyala and Baghdad. Outliers, defined as hazardous area sizes greater than 24 percent of the total surface, appear in Basrah (Fao and Shatt Al-Arab Districts) and in Babylon (Al-Musayab District), signalling the need to re-survey and reduce the extent of hazardous areas that remain legacies from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s as well as more recent conflicts.
Hazardous areas also prevent displaced persons from returning to their agricultural land. A February 2019 survey among internally displaced persons (IDPs) led to compelling conclusions: 25% of those not intending to return home cite the perceived presence of explosive hazards as the main reason for their decision (42% for Sinjar District and 28% for Kirkuk Governorate).
Also, 77% of IDP households reported damage to their home (100% for Anbar), which highlights the long-term impact of explosive weapons and devices and is a proxy indicator for the presence of unexploded hazards remaining from the most recent conflict (REACH 2019).
In addition, when observing the numbers of casualties, it is evident that the size of the recorded hazardous area alone does not indicate the severity of hazard: for instance, in Nainawa where ISIL forces held urban areas, the number of causalities from explosive devices registered from the beginning of 2018 into the first months of 2019 (318 persons) was the second highest in Iraq (see figures in Chart) even if the physical hazardous areas are estimated at only 0.4 % of the total provincial surface. Intense efforts and resources are required to clear these contaminated areas.