The Climate Crisis Is Wreaking Havoc on Farmers in Iraq

This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.

After decades of devastating political instability, Iraq is still in danger. The agricultural workers of the war-torn country have to wrestle with a new and equally destructive force: climate change.

In 2020, the United Nation’s Environment Programme declared the Middle Eastern country the fifth most vulnerable nation on Earth to the longterm effects of climate change. The cradle of civilisation is under threat from droughts and dust storms. Temperatures are rising and agriculture is an increasingly difficult proposition. Just like everywhere else on the planet, it is the poorest people in Iraqi society who are most at risk from the life-changing effects of the climate crisis. 

Farmers who found themselves displaced during the 2014-2017 conflict with ISIS slowly began to rebuild their lives, only to find out that it was no longer possible to pick up their old jobs. Agricultural land across the country is in danger. Climate breakdown is here and it is wreaking havoc. 

Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey are to some extent dependent on water from the Tigris and Euphrates basin, which is used for domestic consumption, agricultural irrigation and for generating mighty hydroelectric power. The basin has long been a point of geopolitical tension and is now experiencing catastrophic water shortages due to global warming. While the effects of these shortages are felt across the region, it is at its worst at Lake Hamrin in Diyala, an eastern region of Iraq that sits on the border with Iran. 

Lake Hamrin, an artificial river with a reservoir which is the main source of water in the province, has dried up. A dramatic drop in water levels means the lake’s irrigation canals – which used to supply water to the surrounding countryside – cannot function. Many villages in the area have very little water for crops and livestock

Fadhili Hamad Salem, a 34-year-old farmer from Diyala, lost all of his grapes as a result of high temperatures this summer. He says that even after he sold his car to pay for a new well, the water he has access to is insufficient. “We work in agriculture to feed our children, but this year, it was much more difficult than in the past years,” he says. “All the land died due to lack of water supply. We cut half our personal and family expenses to keep the farm alive.”

The lack of water is directly linked to the soaring temperatures caused by the climate crisis. In Iraq, temperatures this summer reached 51 degrees celsius, and the average temperature has risen by 2.3 degrees celsius since the end of the 19th century – twice what the rest of the world has witnessed. 

In October this year, Iraq’s agriculture ministry announced that it was reducing the area of land used for winter crop planting by 50 percent in an attempt to preserve water. None of this land is in Diyala, and farmers in the province will remain reliant on the region’s 160 wells for both irrigation and drinking water. 

Farmers across the region are facing up to the difficult fact that their way of life is in imminent danger of extinction. The crisis has affected Mohamed Al-Mayahi’s drinking water supply and has killed 20 percent of his flock of sheep – his main source of income. He is contemplating leaving his land and life as a farmer to find another job.

“We lost about 20 of our sheep. The last five months were very difficult as there was no water at all,” says Al-Mayahi. “A lot of the sheep died as there is no water to drink, and the water has a bitter taste. This is the land of my father and grandfather, but if things continue like this we will have to leave.”

Having been displaced for three years as a result of the war with ISIS, and then returned to Diyala, 49-year-old farmer Mohamed Adnan is considering moving on again. “This is the hardest year we’ve ever been through,” he says. “Due to the lack of usable water, we haven’t been able to harvest anything this season. I live on farming and everything is dying. It wasn’t like this a few years ago – water was never a problem before.”

Ahmed Ashkiti Ajil, a 51-year-old farmer and rancher, is just as desperate. “All my sheep are dead because of the lack of water. The only source we have left is salty,” he says. “I never expected there would be no rain or water. If I had known it would end like this, I would have sold the sheep and worked in another career, but there are no jobs anyway. This is our land and we will stay here and die here.”

The agriculture industry accounts for nearly 20 percent of the Iraqi workforce. It is the second largest contributor to the country’s GDP after oil. The ongoing water scarcity crisis will have ramifications for the country on social and economic levels. 

On a financial level, it is causing problems in the here and now. Fatima Awad Saleh, 60, is a mother in rural Diyala whose farm and property were attacked during the war with ISIS, causing two of her daughters to have permanent disabilities. These require financial costs in addition to the family’s regular, ongoing bills, which she simply can’t afford.

Farmers in poor rural areas in Iraq are likely to continue to be severely affected by water shortages caused by climate breakdown and ineffective water management. Many farmers say that if things continued as they are, they would not want their children to work in agriculture, but rather encourage them to find other, more stable jobs.

Natiq Jassem Sabiya is a case in point. The 60-year-old farmer from Diyala wanted to pass on the farming traditions he had inherited from his grandfather to his two sons, but they had to find work to help with the expenses. “We used to produce different types of wheat and vegetables but didn’t grow anything this year. I inherited this land from my grandfather. But there is simply no more water for farming.”

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