Despite the fact that he had been there many times, the old farmer found it almost impossible to get to the house of his brother: the whole house, in a village in the district of Hadar, Ninawa, was almost completely covered in sand.
“Today most of the green farmland that used to be here has gone – because of drought and desertification,” Haleel Ahmed, 60, who grows wheat, barley and maize and raises sheep on a farm about 23 kilometres southwest of here, told NIQASH. “We can’t even plant anything. Even if we irrigate the land with well water the sand just kills the plants before they grow,” Ahmed explains sadly.
“And the people don’t have enough money to drill more wells or buy fuel to operate water pumps,” he adds. These are just some of the reasons his brother’s house – and the houses and farms of others here - have been abandoned.
This is the result of desertification which Mosul University’s Remote Sensing Centre – which gathers information remotely, usually through aerial surveys – now says, affects around 166,600 square kilometres of Iraq. That is closing in on half of the country; Iraq is only around 438,000 square kilometres big. The Remote Sensing Centre says that this means more dust storms for everyone – about 300 days worth of them for some cities, they estimate.
Ninawa province has plenty of desertification to call its own. The province has very high temperatures, strong winds and high evaporation and transpiration rates. Climate change has also had an effect and as temperatures have risen, the districts of Hadar and Biaaj have been particularly badly affected.
Figures released by Ninawa statisticians indicate a decrease in the production of wheat and barley in the area between 2001 and 2010. Figures for the past years were not available but as Muhanna al-Tak, head of the local Department of Agriculture, said, “it’s no secret that wheat and barley production has fallen”. .
Despite this it seems that Ninawa’s local Ministry of Water Resources has refused to undertake a suggested project for improving local water supplies – even though the project is estimated to cost around IQD40 billion (US$26 million).
“Soil and water tests done in our laboratories indicate that the land here is suitable for a large number of crops, especially grains,” Sabbar Abdullah Salih, the head of the Natural Resources Research Centre at the University of Tikrit, said.
Salih accused Ninawa authorities of not being serious about the problem of desertification in the area.
On Oct. 10, the Iraqi parliament held a conference titled The Reality of Agriculture in Ninawa and Salahaddin. There Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, warned that the reasons why agriculture is suffering in Ninawa included “lack of subsidized help and administrative problems as well as environmental issues”.
Al-Nujaifi stressed the need for a proposed project to drill 400 more artisan wells in areas hit by desertification, the creation of green belts and the rehabilitation of abandoned villages. The governor also felt that all parties needed to cooperate to come up with a strategic plan for agriculture in the province.
Meanwhile locals blame corruption for some of the problems they are having.
Locals in Hadar’s villages agree that 90 percent of the farmers there have been forced to abandon their farmland and move to other areas because of desertification and drought.
“The people of the villages have spent all their savings over the past years,” Jihad al-Shammari, 43, the headman of Mukhtar village in the Biaaj district, told NIQASH. “Some have sold their cattle to buy seeds and fodder because they couldn’t get any government subsidies. Nor were there any job opportunities that would have allowed them to stay on their land or plant it.”
As for compensation or subsidies that are given out, farmers claim they’re going into the wrong hands. The money is apparently being handed out to the rich rather than the poor and to individuals who have forged proof of agricultural work or farm ownership.
A member of Hadar’s local council, Jassim Mohammed concurs, saying they have discovered around 50 such cases and blames Department of Agriculture officials for the problem.
The Department of Agriculture says that the forged contracts were discovered because of complaints from local farmers and that investigations are under way to find out who is behind the forgeries.
Meanwhile Jassim, a local seed merchant who did not want to have his full name used, said that he suspected that farmers, with better relationships with officials, were managing to get a bigger share of subsidized seeds – and then they were going on to sell the seeds on the black market.
“Political infighting, the fact that Ninawa officials don’t understand the situation properly and the tribal nature of relationships in this area has made things difficult for local farmers,” Mohammed explains the realities of farming in Ninawa. “Government support either goes to the district’s capital or to people who have nothing to do with agriculture or livestock. And that is because of the nepotism and corrupt official methods.”
All of the problems that local farmers face in Ninawa, as well as what they see as growing corruption, sees people like Ahmed, the farmer whose brother’s house was claimed by the desert, growing more worried.
Ahmed says that mostly they are afraid that things will return to a sort of feudal state, where wealthy Iraqis control all the land and others simply work on it. As a result, many local farmers are considering setting up their own committees to call for investigations into subsidized equipment and seeds that never reached those who needed them most.