Farmers abandon fields and livelihoods as climate change ravages Iraq

Report reveals 60 per cent of farmers are struggling with water shortages and reduced crop yield

Climate change has had a devastating effect on agriculture in Iraq. Photo: NRC
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A leading international aid organisation has raised alarm about the impact of accelerating climate change in Iraq, urging the government to improve management of water resources.

“Iraq’s climate is changing faster than people can adapt,” Anthony Zielicki, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) interim country director in Iraq said in a report published on Sunday.

“For the 1.2 million still displaced by conflict, and the millions who have returned home, resettled or relocated, recovery from years of conflict is being crippled by extreme drought, and undermining hard-won gains in livelihoods and income security,” Mr Zielicki warned.

The NRC conducted a survey in July and August in which it interviewed 1,079 people in Anbar, Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salahaddin provinces in northern and central Iraq. Among those, 40 per cent were women and 94 per cent were residents of rural areas.

These provinces have sustained severe destruction and displacement during ISIS' onslaught in mid-2014 and the ensuing military operations that ended with declaring the terrorist group militarily defeated in late 2017.

The NRC found that 60 per cent of farmers cultivated less land or had to use less water due to extreme drought while four in five had to reduce food expenditure.

The survey showed that one in four small scale farmers in the town of Sinjar and Baaj, located outside Nineveh provincial capital Mosul, said they were forced to give up farming.

In Baaj, one in five respondents linked climate change to increased social tensions, and one in four are thinking of moving because of drought, it added.

“All my neighbours have left,” farmer Abu Rashid, who has left his farm and works as a day labourer, told the NRC.

Ten years ago, he hired 35 people to work on his farm. “This year, I could not even afford to feed my own family,” he said.

“If this continues, I too will have to move soon. You know what happened here, the world knows what happened here. Today, the bullets have stopped but we are still scared of losing our home,” he said.

The NRC also warned that the adverse climate conditions have “impeded access and functionality of market systems, exacerbated social tensions, and increased risks of secondary displacement”.

“In areas where decades of conflict have caused substantial damage to infrastructure, rising temperature and water scarcity have contributed to mounting inequality in water access among communities,” it said.

It called on the Iraqi government to “take steps to monitor, regulate and allocate the country’s water resources more effectively”.

Ahead of Cop28 in the UAE this week, the NRC urged donors to increase funding for "climate resilience" in conflict contexts.

Iraq is ranked fifth on a list of countries most vulnerable to climate change, the UN said. It is experiencing its worst drought in decades, with temperatures exceeding 50°C last summer.

One of the most pressing issues is dwindling water flows in Iraq's main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, due to upstream dams in Turkey and Iran, mismanagement and environmental degradation.

Desertification affects 39 per cent of the country and 54 per cent of its agricultural land has been degraded, mainly due to soil salinity caused by historically low river levels, rain scarcity and rising sea levels.

Updated: November 27, 2023, 10:44 AM