Al-Karkhi had stopped his agricultural activities in Suleiman village, located to the north-east of Baqouba city, “waiting for the Iranians to allow Iraqis water to irrigate our orange trees.”
Fifty one-year-old al-Karkhi said that he and his fellow farmers were optimistic when Saddam Hussein’s regime was first toppled because they thought that they would be able to expand their activities and export oranges to neighbouring countries. However, the scarcity of rain, Iran’s attempts to divert the rivers flowing into the country and the building of dams and other barriers by Turkey and Iran is now threatening their livelihoods they say.
According to Samira al-Shibli, a Diyala province spokesperson, “a delegation from the local council visited Iran last month and reached an agreement upon which Iran committed to release water from al-Wand river in order to prevent an environmental and agricultural disaster in the province.”
Al-Shibli says he hopes that the Iraqi government will pursue the “good understandings” reached with Iran in order to help farmers survive.
Diyala, known by many Iraqis as the country’s “fruit basket” is famous for its orange trees, in addition to other fruits and vegetable. But the drought and the diversion of river flows have paralyzed all agricultural activities.
While the Iranian decision to release more water through the Wand River has helped ease the situation, other important rivers flowing into Iraq from Iran continue to suffer sharp decreases in their water levels.
This week another Iraqi delegation, headed by Abdel Latif Rasheed, the country's water resources minister, visited Tehran and conferred with Iranian government officials on the water issue. Rasheed has demanded the formation of a higher technical commission from the two countries to resolve the water sharing problems.
According to Abdul Salam Khudayr, an official at Diyala’s agriculture directorate, “Iran has built dams on joint rivers and diverted the flow of some of these rivers in violation of international agreements.” Khudayr told Niqash that “the building of dams has led to the complete destruction and failure of agriculture in the province.”
“Diyala suffered the loss of 43 percent of its agricultural lands in the first year of the drought and this percentage has now risen to 80 percent,” said Khudayr.
The province’s agriculture directorate says that 3.5 million dunnums of land have been affected by the drought, killing hundreds of orange trees.
In an attempt to solve the water shortage the provincial administration started to dig water wells last year but the project has not met with great success.
Not only has the drought damaged the agricultural land, but it has also led to an unprecedented exodus of farmers to the cities in search of work.
According to a source at the agriculture directorate, more than 70 percent of Diyala’s inhabitants depend on agriculture as their main source of income and hundreds of farmers have now been forced to abandon the land and find work as porters or drivers in the cities. Other farmers have sold their land to property developers who have begun building residential complexes in a step which could threaten the province’s long-term agricultural prospects.
Abdul Sattar Khalifa, responsible for the agricultural lands across the province, told Niqash that “banning agricultural land owners from using their lands for housing purposes and for other purposes is needed to preserve Diyala’s agriculture sector.”
While the recent step by Iran has brought farmers like al-Karkhi a brief moment of respite, they remain pessimistic about their situation saying that much more needs to be done if they are to survive the crisis.