Iraq’s date palms at risk from climate change

Hope had grown in recent years of reviving the ailing sector battered by decades of war, water shortages and excessive salt

A farmer collects dates from a palm tree at a date palm orchard during harvest. Reuters
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Iraqi farmer Abdullah Abdul Nabi, 32, is confused.

He has gone to great lengths to care for his palm trees, but their sweet date fruit has started to wilt, affecting not only its quantity but its quality.

“I still don’t know the reason why the dates are fading before harvest, but that is probably because of the unprecedented heatwaves and lack of water we experienced,” the father of one said.

“It’s really painful and heartbreaking.”

Worsening extreme heat and dust storms linked to the climate crisis, as well as drought and increased concentrations of salt in water, have taken a toll on date farmers in Iraq this year, experts said.

Many farmers say extreme conditions have dimmed expectations of a good harvest season.

Some of these disease and mites disappeared in Iraq but unfortunately they are making a comeback
Prof Nassir Al Radhi, University of Kufa

Hope had grown in recent years in Iraq of reviving the ailing palm industry, which has been badly battered by decades of war, mismanagement and neglect.

Iraq used to be the world’s top producer of the fruit, between the 1950s and 70s, producing nearly one million tonnes of dates a year.

The country had roughly 32 million date palm trees.

But those numbers started to drop as the Iraq-Iran war broke out in the 1980s, followed by the 1990-91 Gulf War to expel Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait and the UN-imposed economic sanctions.

By 2003, Iraq only had roughly nine million palm trees and the annual date production stood at about 200,000 tonnes, Agricultural Ministry figures show.

In 2005, the government established the Date Palm Board and offered subsidised fertilisers and insecticides and soft loans to farmers to plant their orchards, as well as facilities for exporters.

Today, Iraq has about 20 million palm trees, said Hatam Kareem Abbas, general director of the Agricultural Ministry’s orchards department.

Last year production stood at about 800,000 tonnes of dates. Out of those about 650,000 tonnes were sold to clients abroad, Mr Abbas said.

Production was about 735,000 tonnes in 2019 and 600,000 tonnes in the previous year, the ministry’s figures show.

Dates are Iraq's second largest product after oil, with exports generating $120 million in 2021, a bank report showed.

A final figure for this year's production is still unclear as the harvest season is still under way, but officials and experts are bracing for a decline given the climate crisis, scarcity of water and salinity.

Mr Abdul Nabi has more than 250 palm trees in on his farm measuring about five dunum (10,000 square metres), in Abu Al Khasseeb District, in the southern province of Basra.

The highly-prized Barhi dates make up nearly 80 per cent of the crop. Other varieties are Hillawi, Khidrawi, Hasawi and Braim.

His last date harvest was about five tonnes, but this year the harvest is expected to decline by up to 40 per cent. The size of the dates is also shrinking, he added.

To cope with the rising temperatures and lack of water, he buys drinking water to mix with the river water and irrigate his plants ― an expensive and unsustainable plan.

“I’m worried about the next year,” he said. The amount of salt his trees absorbed could badly affect the crops next year or even make it disappear.

Over the past three years, Iraq has experienced record temperatures that exceeded 50°C in many places.

Basra had the highest temperature this summer at 53.8°C, making it among the worst-affected areas in the world.

Also this year, a flurry of dust storms hit Iraq, enveloping the country for days, sending thousands to hospital and forcing flights to remain grounded while colouring skies blood-red.

“The continuous heatwaves, drought, water scarcity and dust storms put the plants under harsh conditions,” said Nassir Al Radhi, a professor at the Agricultural College in the University of Kufa.

“There is no doubt that this condition will impact the crops.”

“There is more dust now because of climate change, the rise in temperature is unbearable and there is also a new kind of infection and mites we are noticing that we haven’t seen for decades.”

Top among these diseases and pests, he said, are the “date palm bunch fading disorder” and a kind of date spider mite transmitted by dust storms. Known locally as Ghabar spiders, they affect up to 40 per cent of the harvest.

“Some of these diseases and mites disappeared from Iraq but unfortunately they are making a comeback and they are most harmful and dangerous now to be honest,” he added.

Layers of dust, Prof Al Radhi said, block sunlight and affect the fruit, making it to lose up to 30 per cent of its weight as well as its nutritional content.

Iraq experienced low rainfall levels in the 2021 rainy season and in the spring, in addition to the reduced river waters flowing from Turkey and Iran.

About 90 per cent of the water feeding Iraq’s two main rivers ― the Tigris and Euphrates ― originates in Turkey or Iran. Turkey is building several dams, while Iran has diverted tributaries that feed the Tigris.

For decades, Iraq has failed to convince both countries to reach agreements on how to ensure a fair share of water. Both argue that they, too, suffer from scarcity of water and that Iraq follows outdated irrigation methods.

The worst-hit area is Diayala province, north-east of Baghdad, where farmer Sameer Ali Hassan is counting his losses.

The upstream dams in Iran have shrunk the Tigris tributaries going through Diyala, including Al Wand river on which Mr Hassan’s farm depends on.

“Water decreased to 20 per cent this year at Al Wand and that its hard to get water for irrigation at that level,” Mr Hassa, 40, said, adding he had to dig a well.

He is expecting to lose his entire harvest this season, which stood at about one tonne last year.

“This year was the worst not only because the shortage of water, but also the heatwaves, dust storms, diseases and the absence of government support,” he said.

“It’s getting worse day after day and it sounds that no solutions can fix this situation.”

Updated: October 07, 2022, 6:00 PM