Ali remembers when he and his four brothers worked on their family farm in the village of Salolh, outside of Badra town in Wasit Province, and less than two miles from the Iranian border. Then, their plentiful date trees, pomegranates, lemon trees and vegetables were nourished by the Al Galal River, flowing from the foothills in Western Iran and finishing in the Howr al-Shuwaicha marshlands north of Al Kut city. Ali remembers, as a young man, swimming in the Al Galal. He says that he enjoyed “feeling he was surrounded by a tropical greenery on each river bank.” But, that was before the Occupation.
Even before 2003, the flows from the foothills had started to decline, and the demands of Iranian agriculture and development were putting a heavy demand on the water supply. Shortly after the U.S. invasion, Iran built a dam on the Al Galal, and cut off the water supply to Ali’s family farm. From that time on, everything changed. The trees stopped producing fruit, and then died. The greenery turned to desert, and the river that Ali had swam in was now just a dry bed. Ali says: “It’s sad to see your farm is not flourishing any more. What little rain we get, and the water from the wells, will not bring our farms back again.” Now Ali only works as a part-time farmer, moving his small herd of cattle from place to place in search of grazing. His brothers have found other jobs. They are the lucky ones. Most of the farmers of this area have not been able to find alternative work. Ali says: “Some farmers are now happy to get a different job, in the army or the police or working as porters at the border post between Iran and Iraq, but most of them are miserable, having neither their fruitful farms nor new work. They spend their time staring at their dying farms and river. It’s a dreadful degradation.” When asked what the government is doing about the situation, Ali answers: “Some NGOs drilled wells and set up small desalination plants, but the water from these plants is tiny compared to what’s needed. The government set up an irrigation system, bringing water from the Tigris River to many towns close to Al Kut city, but that’s far from our land. The government should spend more money to link our town and village to that system.”
Ali’s situation is far from atypical. The Iran/Iraq border is crossed by 42 rivers and streams. Increasing annual temperatures, encroaching desertification, rapidly increasing population, the demand for irrigation water and hydroelectric power, have forced the Iranian government to build dams and reservoirs on many of these rivers and streams, leading to a collapse in agricultural production on the Iraqi side of the border. The political chaos in Iraq, since 2003, and the effects of ten years of sanctions before that, have left Iraq in a very weak position vis a vie negotiating water rights with those countries upstream of it. Iraq has been unfortunate in that nearly all of its main waterways originate in other countries – particularly Turkey, Syria and Iran. All of these states are under acute pressure from desertification and population increase, and do not feel themselves to be in a position to be overly generous with what they consider to be “their water.” Already, dams built in Turkey and Syria have decreased the water flow in the Tigris and the Euphrates by 40%, and more dams are planned. The effect of such a catastrophic water loss cannot be overestimated. Iraq, the cradle of civilization, is in very real danger of being turned into a single desert.
Iraq does have large stocks of ground water, particularly under the Mesopotamian Plain, but, with the decrease in fresh water flows from the rivers, the ground water has become so salty as to be practically useless for irrigation and drinking water. As Ali mentioned above, some effort has been made to build desalination plants but these efforts have been so small as to be insignificant in relation to the scale of the problem. Nor is the water itself the only problem. Rivers and streams carry huge quantities of the silts, carbons and plankton needed to sustain agriculture, wildlife and fish stocks. Much of these vital materials are now blocked behind dams, where, instead of doing good, they often lead to serious flooding with loss of life and property. Desalination is not an answer in itself. The solution lies in the reintegration of the single hydraulic system, which crosses international borders.
One gleam of hope is the fact that the state still undertakes the work of providing irrigation water to farmers in Iraq, and still holds itself responsible for the conduct of agricultural development. Only the state has access to the vast economic, political and human resources needed to turn things around for Ali and the rest of Iraq’s farmers, and thus the health and well-being of the nation as a whole. Holding the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, Iraq is not a poor state. However, its efforts have been held back by an unfortunate contradiction in state ideology. The National Development Plan, largely written by non-Iraqis, has made it an article of faith that Iraqi agriculture should be set on a free market basis, with the leading role given to the private sector. And yet, there is absolutely no indication that either the Iraqi or the international private sectors have either the interest or the capability to undertake the massive task of building Iraq’s agriculture. A 2012 report entitled “Iraq: Agriculture Sector Note,” prepared under the auspices of the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations states the contradiction very clearly: The high exchange rates associated with the currencies of significant oil exporting countries make it highly unlikely that agriculture can be organised on a free market basis in these countries. Having stated this fact, the report then goes on, for 72 pages, to act as if the fact simply did not exist, and that Iraq can well expect to have a free market economy in agriculture, with Iraqi farmers able to produce at, or below, world market prices without subsidy support. This despite the fact that the average European Union farmer gets 75% of his income from state subsidies, and U.S. farmers also enjoy a generous subsidy regime.
Ali and his fellow Iraqis cannot afford to indulge in such intellectual gymnastics. Vegetation density in Wasit Province is now less than 50% of what it was in the 1970s. There have already been inter-tribal killings over water, and considerable tension is already building at the international level. In a very real sense, Iraq is fighting for its life. With 80% of Iraq’s food supplies already being imported, Iraqi legislators would do well to look to achieving a reasonable level of food self-sufficiency rather than harbouring dreams of free markets and an agricultural export economy. State Owned Enterprises need to become more, not less, active in agriculture, and schemes like the Public Distribution System developed rather than monetized. Giving citizens cash rather than food rations will only increase the propensity to import cheap foreign produce, to the further detriment of Iraqi agriculture.
Needless to say, development of agriculture depends on sufficient water supply and efficient utilization. Iraq cannot go it alone, no matter how much oil money it has. A common agricultural and water policy between Iraq and Iran deserves serious consideration. Both of these countries have much to offer each other, in terms of economic and political support, and, as we see above, nature has made them a single ecological system.
When asked about the future, Ali answered that he “hoped to see the river of his youth flowing again and the fruit trees blooming,” but he didn’t think the political will existed. Despite the destruction of agriculture around Badra, oil has been found and land prices are going up. It seems that’s all that some people care about.