niqash | Wahid Ghanim | wed 10 aug 11
Many believe the original Garden of Eden, as described in both the Koran and Bible, is located in Basra. Increasingly though climate change, water shortages and urban sprawl mean Basra’s farmers are coming to doubt that story.
War and conflict have led to the loss of many farms and crops in the northern state of Basra. Increasingly saline water supplies and drought have added to agricultural woes here, and have transformed what might once have been a Garden of Eden into an arid desert and an urban sprawl.
The agricultural adviser to the governor of Basra, Muhsen Abdel-Hay Disher, firmly believes that climate change has played a part in the decline in agriculture in the area. According to official statistics, 70 percent of what was arable land in the 1970s is no longer useable. Other records indicate that average rainfall has fallen to one sixth of what it used to be in the 1970s. Additionally Disher told NIQASH that in northern Basra, a quarter less land was planted with wheat in 2010 compared to the previous year. Due to drought the total area planted was only 44,000 dunums (4,400 hectares as each dunum equals 2,500 square metres).
The politics of water as played out by neighbouring Middle Eastern countries have also had a devastating effect on Basra. To the east, Iran has built dams on rivers that bring fresh water into the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The less fresh water flowing into the Shatt al-Arab, the saltier – and less useable - the water gets on Basra’s farms.
“The saline levels in the Shatt al-Arab water increases when the fresh water levels decrease,” explained Abed Mahdi, the owner of a palm farm in the Faw district. “Which leads in turn to increased salt in the streams that irrigate the palms.”
Additionally Iraq’s Turkish neighbours won’t allow an unimpeded flow of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the country; now water from those all-important rivers barely makes up 20 percent of what agriculture in the area needs.
It is difficult to get exact numbers but the number of palm trees has certainly decreased in the area. In 1989, official figures indicated that there were around 1.9 million palm trees in Basra. Around half of these were not fruiting. In 1977 there were around 13 million.
Mahdi has his own proof. Of the 600 trees he farms, he has lost 60 and he knows more will die off soon. Mahdi inherited his farm from his father but believes he won’t be able to hang onto it much longer. “There is a real crime being committed against Basra farmers,” he said.
It is not only outsiders that farmers are blaming for their woes. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the new Iraqi government halted previous agricultural subsidies and protectionist policies. So now Iraqi agriculture has had fierce competition from other lands too, especially Iran.
Every day hundreds of trucks loaded with vegetables, fruits and different types of dates cross at the Shalamjah border, 30km east of the economically important state capital of Basra; they’re bringing their produce to the state’s markets and local farmers see them as a threat.
The director of agriculture for the Zubair district, Saleh Hasan al-Luaibi, told NIQASH that “al-Zubair farms produced 250,000 tonnes of tomatoes this year. That’s a good harvest,” he said, “but the farmers have problems on the market.”
A farmer from Zubair, Salman al-Salihi, said tomatoes from Basra used to supply all of the country’s needs, around seven months a year. “But [after 2003] the government didn’t consider tomatoes a strategic crop and didn’t support the tomato farmers,” he said. “So ever since 2003, we have been suffering losses continuously.”
The local government denies this. It says it helps local farmers but that this help is now less tangible. It subsidises seeds and fertilizer by as much as 60 percent and provides farmers with cheap loans to invest in agricultural land. Disher says that the local government plans to introduce a pest management scheme as well as a new species of drought-and-saline resistant tomato. They also plan to establish palm tree laboratories and provide locals with special training around these crops, he adds.
What is certain is that before 2003, the Baath party-led government used to buy a 30kg box of tomatoes from farmers for around IQD15,000 (about US$12). Now the same box is sold for IQD3,000 (about US$2.5). And that price change has been a shock for farmers.
Another issue for Basra’s agricultural sector is the fact that huge tracts of farm land are being used for purposes other than agricultural. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime destroyed thousands of hectares of palm and vegetable plantations in order to set up dangerous mine fields. The same regime also drove farmers, who were seen as opposing Hussein, out of their homes in the southern marshlands and south of Iraq. According to state officials, around 1 million out of the 2.7 million who live in Basra now came to the area from further south and many of these people settled on former agricultural land, transforming it into residential.
That immigration into Basra continues today because according to Disher, the state hosts some of the most important industrial and commercial projects in Iraq and its capital, also called Basra, is one of the richest cities in the country.
The local government has tried to prevent urban sprawl, by relying on laws against the misuse of what is intended to be agricultural land. Local legislation says that the land, allocated for agriculture, should be planted. “If not, then the government has the right to confiscate the land,” Disher explained. However, as Disher said, the government has not even begun to act upon these laws because “of political and social pressure and influential investors”. And all of that is further complicated by the fact that many of the farms around the Abu al-Khasib and Shatt al-Arab districts are owned by citizens of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Alaa Hashim al-Badran, head of the union of agricultural engineers in Basra, feels that part of the problem is due to a “sharp transition from a controlled, communist-style system to a more free capitalist system.” And all this has happened, al-Badran says, while old fashioned and overly bureaucratic practices still hold sway over government departments.
“There are some officials and cadres who have spent more than 30 years working in some of the agricultural departments,” he argues. “Rotating responsibilities and introducing new blood would be a good way of overcoming these bureaucratic hurdles and combating corruption.”
Al-Badran also believes that the complex bureaucracy not only discourages foreign investment in the area, but also locals’ efforts. “More than 30 specialists graduate every year from the fisheries department of the agricultural college,” he points out. “However to start a fish farm in Basra, one needs years to get the right approvals.”
In fact, al-Badran says there are many examples where centralized planning of agriculture in Basra has not had the desired results, mainly because experts – local farmers and agricultural associations – were not consulted.
Among these were two US-funded projects in 2007. One project had 140,000 palm seedlings distributed to farmers free of charge and the other promoted the planting of henna trees. However both projects eventually failed because of where they were located and because of the increasing saline levels in the water in Basra.
“The private sector should be involved in these big projects and manage them, albeit under state supervision,” al-Badran notes.
Meanwhile the local government’s agricultural adviser Disher argues that the only way forward is to look at each individual problem and find a suitable, contemporary solution. “We must save our agricultural land – these areas are becoming limited - and use modern irrigation techniques and greenhouses,” he concludes.