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Iraq's Kurdish farmers in anguish as drought kills harvest season

Severe water shortages, caused by a drop in rainfall and regional policies, put agriculture and drinking water at risk in Iraqi Kurdistan
Kurdish farmers say there is not enough pasture to feed their herds. Photo taken at the foot of a mountain near Barroy village in Sulaymaniyah on 16 April 2021 (MEE/Dana Taib Menmy)
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Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Kurdish farmers look over their crops with dread. Every day without rainfall is another day when the reality that their agricultural season is prematurely over further sinks in. 

A combination of a critical decline in rainfall, which some say has been unprecedented, and hostile water policies in neighbouring countries, has left farmers in Iraq's Kurdistan region feeling hopeless. Adding to their anxiety is the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) failure to either compensate their losses or deal with Iran and Turkey restricting river flow into the region. 

'In my memory I have never seen such a drop in rainfalls, which has critically affected our livelihoods'

- Ramazan Ghalib Khurshid, farmer

"Our area has been severely affected by drought and a decline in rainfall, both of which have hit our wheat and barley crops and water springs," Ramazan Ghalib Khurshid, a farmer in the Khwelen village of Sangaw district, told Middle East Eye. 

Several regions in Iraq have suffered a harsh drought for years, but this year farmers say the region has witnessed a much more severe drop in rainfall.

"I have never seen such a drop in rainfall. It has critically affected our livelihoods, which depend on agriculture and breeding sheep and livestock. We lack enough pasture to grow our herds," Khurshid said.      

Iraq is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The Kurdistan region falls within the Mediterranean climate zone. According to a 2020 analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Mediterranean basin has already been widely affected by global warming, and seasonal rainfall could fall by 40 percent over the next three decades.

The decrease in this climate hot spot is particularly serious as many here depend on winter rains to fill the reservoirs that sustain them through the hot and dry summer. 

A battered season

The agricultural season in the Kurdish region starts in early November, with the first rainfall, and the harvest season starts in mid-May and lasts until the end of June. 

This season, the decline in rainfall has undermined farmers' ability to grow food in Iraq and the Kurdish region, affecting the lives of millions of people who are already suffering from water stress.

In Sangaw sub-district, some 70km southwest of Sulaymaniyah, the overall rainfall level reached only 182 millilitres by 10 April, in comparison with 532 millilitres in the same period last year, according to statistics  released by the Directorate General of Agriculture in Sulaymaniyah. 

Iraq drought
A harsh drought has hit regions across Iraq in the past few years. In this 2 July 2018 photo, an Iraqi man stands on a dry field in an area affected by drought in the Mishkhab region (AFP)

Most Kurdish farmers depend on rain to cultivate their wheat and barley crops, which are the main winter crops in the region. However, rainfall in all areas of the Iraqi Kurdistan region has significantly dropped this year compared to the previous season; warmer areas like Garmian, Kalar, Sangaw, and Kifri were the most affected.  

Mohammed Rahman, a Kurdish farmer from Khidran sub-district in Dukan, around 109km northwest of Sulaymaniyah province, who cultivated nearly 85 dunams (8.5 hectares) of wheat this season, is feeling increasingly hopeless.

"Farmers in the Kurdistan region are suffering losses as a result of the drought. The soil that relies on rainfall is now mostly infertile or producing crops of very bad quality and quantity," he said.

Rahman added that people had lost hope that the KRG would help farmers get through the crisis.

"Our water springs will soon dry up because of the lack of rain and snow this year. This will cause a vast shortage in water supply for our own uses, our orchards and cattle," he said.

Dry springs

The drought has even hit the region's mountainous areas, including Hawraman, which is usually well watered and a beautiful tourist destination. 

"Wheat and barley crops are maturing now, and they need a lot of water. Rainfall would have been useful for winter crops until early May," Zenadin Sahib Mohammed, a retired agricultural engineer from Sargat village in the Hawraman area near the border with Iran, told MEE in a phone call. 

'The low rainfall coupled with the dams being built by neighbouring Iran has affected our water supplies to the point where most of our springs have gone dry'

- Zenadin Sahib Mohammed, agricultural engineer

"The low rainfall coupled with the dams being built by neighbouring Iran has affected our water supplies to the point where most of our springs have gone dry. Meanwhile, water levels have decreased in the few remaining ones."

Although most Kurdish farmers do not expect to get either a good harvest or any financial compensation from the regional government, KRG authorities have still not decided whether to announce that the Kurdistan region is officially going through a drought.

"The [KRG] has not yet officially announced the region has been hit by a drought. However, we have had several meetings on how to deal with this issue and raised our report to the KRG council of ministers, which is expected to convene this week and make its decision in this regard," Hussein Hama Karim, spokesperson of the KRG Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources told MEE via a messaging application.

Iran and Turkey have built several dams on rivers flowing into Iraq and the Kurdistan region for the purposes of irrigation and generating hydroelectricity, bypassing international laws and good-neighbour policies.

The rivers of Little Zab, Upper Zab, and Sirwan all flow from Iran and eventually feed into the Dukan and Darbandikhan lakes, which generate hydroelectricity and supply drinking water for millions of citizens in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, and Diyala provinces, as well as water for irrigation on the plains of Kurdistan and the middle region of Iraq.  

The worst is yet to come

"The [KRG] and the spokesperson for Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources have accused Iran of rediverting the Tigris River in the north and violating international law that prohibits harmful disruptions in natural river flows," Banafsheh Keynoush, a foreign affairs scholar, wrote in a recent research paper published by the Middle East Institute. 

"But from Tehran's point of view, its actions are legal, given that the Little Zab and Sirwan rivers in the KRG originate from Iran's northwestern Zagros Mountains. Iran continues to divert the Little Zab to feed Lake Urmia, while the Sirwan River is diverted for irrigation projects in the Sarpol Zahab border region of Iran."

Environmental experts and journalists have cautioned that in the few next years all these rivers might dry up.  

Iraqi Kurdistan faces water 'catastrophe' as Iran cuts off rivers
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"The negligence by Iraqi and Kurdish officials has accelerated the threat of rivers drying up across Iraq," Dlpak Ahmed, an environmental expert and lecturer at Garmiyan University told MEE. 

"As soon as Iran completes all of its projects on Sirwan and Lower Zab, the two rivers will completely run dry within several years, creating the biggest environmental catastrophe, as well as deep social, and economic issues in the region.”  

Khaled Sulayman, environmental journalist and the author of Water Guards, Drought and Climate Change in Iraq, said that more than 60 percent of Iraq's water resources come from upstream countries like Turkey and Iran, which do not recognise international laws on water sharing, particularly international rivers like the Euphrates.

"There is not yet any inter-regional agreement to ensure equal sharing water," Sulaiman told MEE via Twitter. 

"Huge dams have been built on the Euphrates, the Tigris in Turkey, on Karun, Sirwan and other rivers in Iran, and these have caused a lot of damage in Iraq."

Sulayman said the situation was further complicated because these projects are part of local water policies that Iraq has no say over. 

"[Iraq] is actually suffering from a lack of water and an uncertain future," he said.

"To avoid security risks related to climate issues, a strategic plan of mitigation, efficient water management and restoration of lands is needed to ensure the future of the country."