Iraq will cut irrigated areas it uses to plant wheat by half in the 2018-2019 growing season as droughts grip the country, a major grain buyer in the Middle East.
“The shortage of water resources, climate change and drought are the main reasons behind this decision, our expectation is the area will shrink to half,” Deputy Agriculture Minister Mahdi al-Qaisi told Reuters in an interview published on Tuesday.
“We expect that the irrigated wheat area falls to half of what it was last year,” he added.
Qaiso also said it was still too early to tell if rainfall could make up for some of the shortfalls but remained hopeful.
“We will follow a few programmes to increase the crop, like raising yields and bringing Nineveh province back to more production … that can partly make up for shortfall,” he said.
However, only 100,000 tonnes of wheat was procured from the plains of Nineveh this year, an area which once produced nearly 1 million tonnes annually before the rise of ISIS in 2014.
Earlier this year, the Iraqi government placed a temporary ban the cultivation of water-intensive crops like rice, corn, sesame, and sunflowers because “the quantities of water needed for these cereals are not available”.
Iraq is heavily dependent on water sources which originate from beyond its borders, yet it uses significantly more water than its neighbors in Syria and Turkey – largely because of poor infrastructure after decades of conflict, outmoded irrigation, and the prevalence of water-intensive crops.
Farmers in central and southern Iraq are being forced to sell their cattle and abandon their land as Iraq’s water crisis turns the once fertile soil to desert sand.
With the latest decision, wheat imports are expected to rise significantly.
Iraq already has an import gap of one million tonnes of wheat per year, with an annual demand of between 4.5 million to 5 million tonnes.
“Imports will go up as a result of cutting down on production and also as a result of population increase,” said Fadel al-Zubi, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Iraq Representative.
About 70 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
However, the once mighty Tigris River has shrunk to a trickle, squeezed by drought, mismanagement, and by major dam projects upstream in neighboring Turkey.
The level of water in Iraqi strategic water stores has fallen by eight billion cubic-meters amid a continued row over shared waters between Iraq, Turkey, and Iran and also due to climate change.
Wheat imports to Iraq are imperative to supply a rationing program established in 1991 due to UN economic sanctions which also includes rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil and baby formula.
The responsibility for procuring the commodities for this program, including wheat, falls on the trade ministry.
Officials from the trade ministry were not available for comment.