Economics

Drought and Neglect Have Decimated Iraq’s Breadbasket

Kurdish farmers, a key to independence, feel abandoned.

Farmland on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, on Oct. 18. The region once contained some of the most fertile land in the country but is now polluted by municipal waste, illegal oil drops, and fetid sewage water.

Photographer: Alex Potter for Bloomberg Businessweek

East of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, malls and high-rise apartments give way to cement-block factories, warehouses, and junkyards. Tucked among a freeway, a gravel pit, and a trash heap as tall as a barn, Mohammed Osman plucks herbs from four acres of gray, cracked earth fed by sewage from a nearby drainage pipe.

Fifty years ago, Osman says, his family farmed more than 10 times that area, harvesting rice, watermelons, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Much of the land was seized by local officials to make way for factories—without compensation, he claims. What remains is barely fit to produce animal feed. “Honestly, I’m just keeping myself busy now,” Osman says. “This year, I rented three pieces of land and I paid 5 million dinars ($4,300)—and so far, I’ve only made 1 million back.”

Osman.
Photographer: Alex Potter for Bloomberg Businessweek

Osman’s is a common sort of story in Iraqi Kurdistan, where farmers face a dizzying array of problems, from drought and polluted water supplies, to ruthless urban expansion and an influx of cheap imports. Endowed with a temperate climate and fertile soil, the Kurdistan region was once known as Iraq’s breadbasket. In 1980 the area supplied about half of the country’s wheat, as well as barley and a variety of vegetables. Today the main wholesale market in Erbil, the regional capital, is packed with trucks from Turkey and Iran and produce from as far as China. “We get zero support,” one Kurdish farmer says as he unloads tomatoes.

The agricultural sector’s decline has become a key vulnerability for the region of about 6 million people as Kurdish leaders plot a path from autonomy to independence. In a Sept. 25 referendum, more than 90 percent of voters chose to secede. The internationally condemned vote backfired when the Iraqi army seized the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, held by Kurdish troops since 2014, striking a blow to Kurdish dreams of economic independence. Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005, resigned following the debacle. Tensions between the two sides remain high, with the Iraqi Supreme Federal Court annulling the results of the vote on Nov. 20, calling it unconstitutional.

Turnips are one of the few crops that can grow in Sulaymaniyah’s polluted fields.
Photographer: Alex Potter for Bloomberg Businessweek

Food security is a paramount issue in a region that depends heavily on other countries for produce, meat, and dairy. About two-thirds of onions and tomatoes, and more than a third of potatoes, were imported in 2015, according to the Kurdistan Region’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources. Large amounts of fruits such as oranges, bananas, and apples also come from abroad. Turkey and Iran are key suppliers, and both oppose the region’s secession because they fear it will embolden their own Kurdish minorities. 

After the September referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Iraq’s Kurds would “not be able to find food” if Ankara closed the border. That’s an overstatement given that the region is still self-sufficient in key crops such as wheat. Still, a blockade would almost certainly cause price spikes and shortages.

Farmland in Sulaymaniyah, next to the city dump.
Photographer: Alex Potter for Bloomberg Businessweek

In addition to imports, Iraq’s Kurdish farmers must also contend with climate change-induced drought and rising soil salinity caused by outdated irrigation methods. A study published this year by Sweden’s Lund University found that croplands have become steadily less fertile in the region’s Dohuk province over the past decade. “Basically, the land is becoming less productive, which is a problem in the whole Middle East in general,” says Lina Eklund, who co-authored the report.

When the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds had a chance to channel their share of the federal budget into rebuilding an economy ravaged by more than a decade of international sanctions and an internal blockade. Instead, local politicians used the funds to extend their patronage networks, doling out government jobs and construction contracts to supporters. The resulting building boom has swallowed up acre after acre of arable land around the area’s cities. The Lund University study showed that about a quarter of land once used for cereal cultivation in Dohuk had been converted to other uses or lay fallow. Those farmers who have clung to their livelihoods have had to contend with a flood of imports subsidized by neighboring governments since the embargo ended in 2003.

At the same time, government subsidies for seeds, pesticides, animal vaccines, and other official aid have all but vanished, a victim of plunging oil prices and a festering dispute between authorities in Erbil and the Iraqi government. After Saddam’s fall, the Kurdistan Region was supposed to receive 17 percent of the federal budget, but the deal largely collapsed after the Kurds began developing their own oil industry, in defiance of Baghdad’s wishes. Payments dried up altogether in 2014, after Islamic State’s advance into northern Iraq forced government forces to retreat from the area. Kurdish troops took advantage of the power vacuum to seize Kirkuk province.

Taban Ahmad cuts up green beans to sell to women who prefer to buy local food, rather than from a supermarket.
Photographer: Alex Potter for Bloomberg Businessweek

In an interview on Oct. 17, as Iraqi forces embarked on a successful operation to retake control of the oil-rich province, the Kurdish government’s agriculture minister, Abdul Sattar Majid, said recent events had driven home the importance of supporting the region’s farmers. “We can’t just rely on the oil and gas sector,” said Majid. “As we see now, oil can be cut off and its prices can decrease.”

Majid noted that his ministry’s budget for farm programs has been shrinking gradually from an already-low base of 65 billion Iraqi dinars ($55 million) in 2014 to just 17 billion dinars last year. This year, 20 billion dinars was budgeted, but no funds have been disbursed at all.

In the eyes of many Kurdish farmers, the loss of Kirkuk is less damaging to the region’s independence prospects than the years of neglect that preceded it. Osman Fattah, a farmer working a small field near Sulaymaniyah, says politicians showed only superficial interest in local problems such as pollution and drought over the years. “The promises continue until elections. Then, after we vote, we never see them again,” he says, leaning on a mud-spattered shovel as black smoke pours from an oil refinery down the road. Such complacency, he says, left the region too poor to effectively press for secession: “Everyone would like to have independence, but not an independence that makes you starve to death.”

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