Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate Today
National & International News

Iraq can only cultivate about half of the farmland it usually does due to drought

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Iraq, a prolonged drought has dried up lakes and brought rivers to such low levels that the Iraqi government says the country can farm just about half the land it normally would. The United Nations Environmental Program says Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change. NPR's Ruth Sherlock traveled to a rural province there to hear how farming communities are surviving.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: In Iraq's Diyala province, an hour northeast of the capital, Baghdad, much of the farmland looks abandoned.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING GRASS)

SHERLOCK: We walk over dry grass to meet a group of farmers that stand beside a cultivated patch of ground near a home-dug well.

HAMEED ALI MATAR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Before, this land was known as the food basket of Baghdad. Farmer Hameed Ali Matar says now it's like a desert. I ask him what he would normally grow at this time of year.

MATAR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: NPR's translator, Awadh Altae, interprets.

MATAR: (Through interpreter) Normally, in the previous years when you came here, you can see it's all green - different kinds of corn and cucumbers - everything is green here. Well, this year is totally different.

SHERLOCK: He says what he grows now isn't even enough to feed his family of 10.

MATAR: (Through interpreter) We never buy anything. We have everything, like milk, yogurt, bread. But now, we buy 90%.

SHERLOCK: Matar is one of thousands of Iraqi farmers struggling to cope in a prolonged drought. There's been less rainfall for several years now. But this year, they say, is the worst they can remember. In a call with NPR, Hamid al-Nayif, the spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, lays out the scale of the problem.

HAMID AL-NAYIF: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says, last year, the country cultivated 16 million dunams - or 160,000 hectares - of land. This year, they expect to grow on only a third of that land, maybe half if there's rain.

AL-NAYIF: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: The lack of rainfall is the big problem. It's led Turkey and Iran to draw more from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and that means there's less water when these rivers flow into Iraq. There are local reasons for the water shortages, too, like inefficient irrigation systems and cracked pipes. But the Agriculture Ministry and climate experts working with them all tell NPR, climate change is exacerbating the crisis, with Iraq experiencing longer, drier and hotter summers and less annual rainfall. In Diyala province, in mid-October, the temperature is still almost a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

We're here on what's a relatively cool day in Iraq, but it is still so hot. The air is thick with the heat. The sun is beating down. The air is dusty. Farmers say this is the first time they can remember that the lake that they rely on to water these fields is dry.

If you tap the ground, it's hard as rocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SHERLOCK: It's not just crops. Livestock are affected, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

SHERLOCK: We stop a herdsman, Saleh Jabbar, as cattle roam the terrain.

SALEH JABBAR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says, we have been destroyed by this drought. This summer, some of his cows and about 40 of his sheep died in the heat and from drinking brackish water. The crisis is driving farmers into debt. Jabbar says he's frightened by the climate change predictions he's hearing - that droughts like these are likely to get more and more frequent.

JABBAR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Unable to farm their land, he says he and others are forced to work as day laborers in Baghdad.

JABBAR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Its hard, irregular work for poor money, but he says he doesn't feel like he has another alternative.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Diyala province, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.