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Severe water shortages strain wheat harvest in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) – Salah Chelab crushed a husk of wheat plucked from his farmland south of Baghdad and inspected its seeds in the palm of one hand. They were several grammes lighter than he hoped.

“It’s because of the water shortages,” he said, the farm machine roaring behind him, cutting and gathering his year’s wheat harvest.

Chelab had planted most of his 10 acres of land, but he was only able to irrigate a quarter of it after the Agriculture Ministry introduced strict water quotas during the growing season, he said.

The produce he was growing on the rest of it, he fears, “will die without water”.

At a time when worldwide prices for wheat have soared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iraqi farmers said they are paying the price for a government decision to cut irrigation for agricultural areas by 50 per cent.

The government took the step in the face of severe water shortages arising from high temperatures and drought – believed to be fuelled by climate change – and ongoing water extraction by neighbouring countries from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. All those factors have heavily strained wheat production.

A tractor transfers the harvested wheat grain onto a trailer in Yousifiyah, Iraq. PHOTO: AP

Wrestling with the water shortage, Iraq’s government has been unable to tackle other long-neglected issues. Desertification has been blamed as a factor behind this year’s relentless spate of sandstorms. At least 10 have hit the country in the past few months, covering cities with a thick blanket of orange dust, grounding flights and sending thousands to hospitals.

“We need water to solve the problem of desertification, but we also need water to secure our food supplies,” said Essa Fayadh, a senior official at the Environment Ministry. “We don’t have enough for both.”

Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for nearly all of its water needs. Both flow into Iraq from Turkey and Iran. Those countries have constructed dams that have either blocked or diverted water, creating major shortages in Iraq.

Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed told The Associated Press that river levels were down 60 per cent compared to last year.

For Chelab, less water has meant a smaller grain size and lower crop yields. In 2021, Chelab produced 30,000 tonnes of wheat, the year before that 32,000, receipts from Trade Ministry silos show. This year, he expects no more than 10,000.

His crops are both rain-fed and irrigated via a channel from the Euphrates.

Due to low precipitation levels, he has had to rely on the river water during the growing season, he said. Government officials said change is necessary.

The current system has been inefficient and unsustainable for decades. Water scarcity is leaving them no choice but to push to modernise antiquated and wasteful farming techniques.