IRAQ- Prolonged drought has caused rivers in Iraq to dry up, forcing Iraqi farmers to rely on groundwater for farming, which has translated to a bumper harvest and increased cultivation in the country.
Iraq’s government says this officially-supported shift to wells has allowed the country to double areas cultivated with wheat this year to about 850,000 hectares compared to roughly 400,000 hectares last year.
Wheat is one of Iraq’s most important crops, and yields have been affected severely by the drying rivers that were traditionally the source of water for agricultural pursuits.
According to the agriculture ministry spokesperson Mohammad Al-Khuzai, this shift has translated into a harvest of around 4 million tons of wheat – the largest in years and 80% of the needs of a country with a 43 million population who eat bread at almost every meal.
“It’s a golden year, a golden season,” remarks Amin Salah, an Iraqi farmer.
According to this farmer, this season has allowed him to use less water, spend less money, and get a bigger and better quality harvest while at it.
Watered by sprinklers fitted to wells dug more than 100 meters under the sun-bleached earth, Salah’s land now produces double what it did, compared to when he relied on ancient methods that flood fields with river water.
According to a report by Reuters, Iraq’s two main rivers, along which civilization emerged thousands of years ago, have lost more than half of their flow due to reduced rainfall, overuse, and upstream dams, thus prompting the shift the country is experiencing.
Drilling the desert for water is proving to be an immediate relief in a country that the United Nations says is among the five nations most vulnerable to climate change worldwide.
However, agricultural experts and environmentalists warn that heavy use of the wells could bleed desert aquifers dry.
This phenomenon has been evident in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which, in 2009 scrapped a 30-year wheat-growing program relying on desert wells that achieved self-sufficiency but depleted the kingdom’s scarce water supplies.
According to Karim Bilal, an agricultural engineer and former director of Najaf’s agriculture directorate, Iraq has more than 110,000 wells, but only a fraction, some 10,000, are fitted with modern systems that prevent water waste.
Hadi Fathallah, director of public policy at consultancy Namea Group echoes the same concerns, saying that is very desperate to go to desert wells.
“You are plugging into aquifers that have been gathering water for thousands of years and will disappear in a few years if used this way,” he said.
According to him, Iraq should focus on modernizing agriculture, engage in water diplomacy with its neighbors to increase river flows, and revitalize agricultural areas that are yet to recover from war.
“The government is trying to alleviate a lot of pain. But this is not an adaptation to climate change. It’s a kind of morphine,” Fathallah added.