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Iraqi farmers driven to suicide as drought steals livelihoods

The abandonment of parched fields, suicides among farmers and violent protests by jobless young men all point to a country that is struggling to recover from decades of war in the face of a worsening climate crisis.

5 minute read
An Iraqi Kurdish man walks with a mule loaded with firewood on its back in the village of Sarkapkan, on Jan 27, 2021. Photo: AFP
An Iraqi Kurdish man walks with a mule loaded with firewood on its back in the village of Sarkapkan, on Jan 27, 2021. Photo: AFP

The worst drought Abed Hameed al-Brahimi has ever seen has killed virtually everything around him: his rice farm, most of his livestock and chickens - and accelerated a rural exodus that is jeopardising Iraq's future stability.

His home now resembles a desert, rather than the green oasis it was a year ago. Without water to irrigate his fields, he has not planted a single seed of rice, which used to feed his family of four and provide a surplus he could sell.

His guard dog does not bark. Thirsty and famished, it barely tilts its head in the direction of the strangers traversing its domain, oblivious to the sounds and sights around it.

"What is happening to us has never happened before. We are completely destroyed," Brahimi, 45, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, standing next to his brown fields in al-Meshkhab, a town some 200km (124 miles) south of the capital Baghdad.

"This year our lives ended all at once."

The abandonment of parched fields, suicides among destitute farmers and violent protests by jobless young men all point to a country that is struggling to recover from decades of war in the face of a worsening climate crisis.

Iraq is in the midst of three-year drought that has devastated its agriculture industry and is robbing many farmers of their only source of income, said Hadi Fathallah, a director at Namea Group, a Dubai-based consultancy firm.

It is a recipe for social unrest, he said, as people are abandoning their farms to seek work in urban areas.

"You have a scary number of young men who cannot emigrate and cannot do anything. At the end of the day, they will blow up," said Fathallah.

"They can only protest. They have nothing else they can do and that will put a lot of pressure on stability and crime."

More than 560 people were killed during months of protests in 2019 over corruption and lack of jobs, which unseated the government.

Iraq has one of the region's highest youth unemployment rates, with more than a quarter of Iraqis aged 15 to 30 without work, according to the United Nations children's agency Unicef.

Frustrations have risen with a year-long political deadlock that left Iraq without a functioning government until Oct 27, when a cabinet was finally approved.

Although soaring crude prices have boosted oil revenues, the government has no budget to deal with its dilapidated water infrastructure, power cuts, dire public services and poverty.

At the edge of his barren rice field, Brahimi beat the dry earth with his plow to demonstrate how it had been hardened by the scorching sun. It hardly budged under his blows.

"We don't have clothes. We don't have 1,000 Iraqi dinars (about RM3) to give our sons to buy school copybooks," he said as his voice rose, the rage inside him barely contained.

"We are mentally collapsing."

Zero-sum game

Iraq is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Temperatures already often hit 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), while rainfall is dwindling, along with water levels in the two main rivers that irrigate most of its farmlands.

Demand for water is growing while supplies dwindle, worsened by upstream dams built by Turkey and Iran, forcing thousands of Iraqis to migrate in search of water.

The Tigris and the Euphrates are the twin spines running through Iraq, their tributaries moving water inland to the once lush plains that birthed some of humanity's earliest empires.

But their water levels are falling and the prolonged drought has forced authorities to make difficult decisions, said Hatem Hamid Hussein, Director General at the National Center for Water Resources Management.

Government rationing of limited water supplies has created a zero-sum game: supplying one area with water means depriving another.

"This year, the percentage of water in dams is only 11% of what we had in 2019," said Hussein, adding that the government halved the water allocated for farming nationally this year, which means the amount of land farmed also halved.

"If this winter is not rich in rain, it will be impossible next summer to even ensure drinking water," he said.

The farmers who grow Iraq's famous amber rice in al-Meshkhab were only allocated enough water to irrigate 5% of their farms this year. The remainder were unable to plant.

The long-grained rice - which takes its name from the perfume it emits, like that of amber resin - is a source of great pride and the foundation of national dishes like lamb quzi. It takes six months to grow in water-flooded paddy fields.

"Before this, in al-Meshkhab we grew the best amber rice," said Brahimi's neighbour, Haidar Serhan, 45, standing by his dried-out field.

"Now we cannot do anything. Everyone is leaving because of hunger," Serhan said, describing how many of his neighbours and friends have borrowed money or sold their assets to migrate to the capital in search of work.

"What can I do? I have put my fate in the hands of God. I can't go to Baghdad," he said, adding that migrating would be too difficult and expensive for him.

After decades of war, insurgency and displacement, WFP says 2.4 million of Iraq's 39 million people are in acute need of food and livelihood assistance.


Aqeel Abdullah Al-Fatlawy will not give up without a fight.

This year, he helped organise a series of farmers' demonstrations at the local water authority offices, demanding a larger cut of the water allocation.

"We are heading into a famine here," said the 48-year-old, describing how many of his friends cannot feed their families.

Almost all local employment is tied to farming and with its demise, jobs have disappeared, he said.

Agriculture is the second largest contributor to Iraq's gross domestic producer after oil, employing almost 20% of the workforce, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

The sector contracted by 18% last year because of drought and the rising cost of inputs, according to the World Bank.

WFP has called for more research and investment to help farmers handle adverse climate conditions, rather than abandoning their lands, which only drives up local food costs and shortages.

But it is not easy.

"I have no solutions," said Abdulkhalik Mohammad al-Mayali, 59, a local official who co-ordinates between al-Meshkhab and the central government, sitting behind a thick wooden desk.

Every day, farmers come to his office to complain about their dying animals or lost crops, he said.

"We have a lot of psychological and mental issues appearing in society," al-Mayali said, describing how the drought has forced people to abandon their homes and move into slums on the outskirts of town.

Crushed by debt, 10 farmers have taken their own lives by suicide in the last year in al-Meshkhab, a region of 180,000 people, he said.

Al-Mayali vowed to raise the farmers' concerns in the capital. But Al-Fatlawy was skeptical.

"He is a politician, he talks in slogans and does nothing," he said.

Back on the farm, Abed al-Hussein Kusayr worries that time is running out. He did not plant this year and sold half of his livestock because he could not afford the soaring price of fodder and feed.

If he does not plant in the coming season, he may permanently lose his farm to salinity - a common problem in arid lands where rainfall is too low to percolate through the soil.

"As time passes, this land will be over," said the 50-year-old father of four, surveying his dead rice fields.

"If there was water, there would be life. Now that there is no water, there is no life."