Desertification and war impacting farmers in Syria and Iraq

According to the reports, desertification threatens up to 90% of Iraq's total land area, and drought and land degradation endanger 45% of the country's agricultural land.
According to the reports, desertification threatens up to 90% of Iraq's total land area, and drought and land degradation endanger 45% of the country's agricultural land.

In 2014, in western Iraq, specifically in the Ramadi area, Fatima Khaled was forced to flee her home, fearing for her life after the terrorist organization ISIS took control of the area. Fatima lost her husband during the war, and she was forced to abandon her farm and livestock in order to save her life.

Years after ISIS withdrew from the area, Fatima returned to reclaim her agricultural property with her three children who had lost their hands in the war, only to face a new war: water scarcity.

According to the reports, desertification threatens up to 90% of Iraq’s total land area, and drought and land degradation endanger 45% of the country’s agricultural land. Furthermore, the rapid and high rates of loss of arable areas are concerning and may drive Iraq to the brink of a new crisis.

According to Khaled Suleiman, an expert in environmental issues and climate change, several factors cause desertification in the region. 

The land has concentrated more salt, due to a lack of rain and a lack of water flow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Loss of vegetation cover due to climate change and urbanization created even more difficult conditions.

According to the Atlas of Water Risks of the World Resources Institute based in Washington, DC, Iraq is considered one of the countries that suffer from the most severe water crisis, Iraq is among the countries that suffer from a high water stress rating of 3.13. 

The per capita share of water reached 4,427 liters/day in 2015, representing a decrease of more than five liters from 2014, which reached the per capita share of drinking water from 9,466 liters/day, according to the report of the Iraqi Development Plan.

According to the National Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), Iraq had a stable water situation until 1970 because of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. However, the country lost around 40% of its water after that year.

This was owing to neighboring nations’ (particularly Turkey’s) policies against Iraq, In addition, the high temperatures and low rainfall rates had a catastrophic impact on Iraq’s reservoirs, from which around 8 billion cubic meters of water evaporated every day.

Fatima and her peers endure the costs of climate change in Iraq, in addition to policies implemented by neighboring countries Turkey and Iran, which cut off the flow of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers entering Iraq, the second-longest river in Southwest Asia.

Fatima, who paid a terrible price for the war by losing her husband, now pays a higher price by having her farm deserted and her livestock dying as a result of the salinity of the water. She cannot find another source of money to spend on her children who have lost hands as a result of the war.

Desertification takes a hold: “Everything we plant dies”

In 2020, the annual revenue of the Tigris River, which represents the amount of water entering Iraq at the Turkish border, decreased to 11.44 billion cubic meters of water, down from 31.29 billion cubic meters in 2019.

Likewise, the total amount of water received from the tributaries of the Tigris River (the Lower Zab, the Upper Zab, the Great Zab, and Diyala) decreased by more than half in 2020, as the total water received reached 29.39 billion cubic meters of water, down from 76.52 in 2019.

“Everything we plant dies,” Muheeb Ahmed says of the situation in the Iraqi city of Basra. Muheeb and his companions are farmers living on agriculture; they have no other occupation. 

However in recent years, their property has just turned into a completely barren desert, and they have lost their ability to provide for family expenses. Muheeb and his siblings, like many Iraqis, rushed to the city in search of any work that would provide for their families.

The situation is similar in the Al-Jbayish district of Iraq, east of the city of Nasiriyah, where Khaled Kanaan is compelled to flee every four months in search of potable water for his four animals, which are his sole assets. Khaled had already lost a sheep due to the excessive salinity of the water.

The variability in the amount of rain that falls on all Iraqi governorates, as well as the rise in temperatures that reach record levels, exacerbate the problem in Iraq; last year saw the highest temperature in Baghdad, which hit 52 degrees Celsius. 

Between 1970 and 2004, the average annual temperature rose by 1-2°C, aggravating droughts. According to the Iraqi government, average annual rainfall has been less predictable since the 1970s, falling by 10% in the last 20 years over the last three decades.

Scientists predict that rainfall in Iraq would reduce by 25% by 2050, worsening desertification and water scarcity. The greater temperature also increased evaporation, significantly diminishing available water levels.

According to the report of the Iraqi National Development Plan, about 4095377 dunums of Iraqi land are threatened by desertification, most of it in the Nineveh Governorate alone with about 33,851 acres.

Moving to the cities

The area of desert lands in Iraq is already 507,675 acres, saline lands are about 50,378 acres, sand dunes are nearly 5,147 acres, and desertified lands are already about 60,852 acres.

According to Khaled Suleiman, an expert on environmental issues and climate change, desertification would have an impact on the life of farmers and livestock keepers because there will be no natural materials or water remaining.

Livestock farmers often sell their animals and move to cities if their localities lack animal food, Suleiman explained. In addition, the scarcity of water and pastures, as well as excessive temperatures, drive rural migration to cities in Iraq.

According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, 21,314 Iraqis were internally displaced in Iraq's southern and central governorates in 2019 owing to a lack of potable water. Although agriculture provides less than 5% of total domestic product, it employs approximately one-third of Iraqis who live in rural areas and rely on agriculture.

Excessive water consumption and desertification are fueling strife among tribes in southern governorates like Maysan and Dhi Qar. Drought is already a major source of local conflict. 

According to the UN, practically daily episodes of confrontations, involving fighting or verbal disagreements were documented in 38 locations in Baghdad alone in 2013. Water disputes erupted in Kirkuk between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens.

Suleiman believes that the solutions lie in modern environmental policies, with regard to irrigation and water confiscation, reforestation of areas covered by desertification and not covered by vegetation, and management of water basins and irrigation in a modern manner, not to mention making regional agreements with both Syria and Turkey as upstream countries (Tigris and Euphrates Rivers)

The farmers in Syria share the tragedies of the farmers of Iraq due to desertification and severe climatic changes affecting the country.

When war turns surplus into a deficit

In al-Hasakah governorate, which is under the control of the Kurdish administration, in northeastern Syria, Abdul Baqi is complaining about the wheat crop this year. In previous years, he used to run his family life at the price of selling the crops, but this year the crop did not grow from the ground up due to drought and the lack of water to irrigate it.

Abdul-Baqi is not an exception, as figures released by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and Reform indicated a drop in wheat output in the country, reaching 900 thousand tonnes, while the local need is evaluated at two million tons.

Dr. Riad Qara Falah, a professor at the Department of Geography at Tishreen University in Syria, says that food security in Syria has declined as a result of the widening gap between local production and internal food needs.

The professor of geography adds that due to desertification, wheat was the most prominent affected cultivation, as nine varieties of the world’s desired Syrian wheat became extinct. 

Large crops such as wheat and barley are concentrated in the countryside of Aleppo, Daraa, Hasaka and Deir el-Zor, the conditions of the war prevented any chances of the survival or continuation of these crops. 

The vast fertile areas became barren. The external forces in the eastern regions burned a large number of agricultural seasons and lands planted with wheat, while drought exacerbated the problem. This resulted in food shortages and high prices.

According to the United Nations, desertification affects 80% of Syrian lands, with Badia accounting for 55% of the Syrian land area. It is classified as a dry area if the annual precipitation totals less than 200 mm.

Desertification burdens Syria

According to the geography professor, the most prominent reasons for desertification in the Syrian Badia are early and qualitative overgrazing for some trees, encroachment on trees, cutting them down for Tahtib equipment, as well as the elimination of forests that consolidate the land's soil.

Dr. Riyad Falah adds to these reasons; the recurrence of dust storms due to drought conditions —especially last summer—, which can be very dangerous. 

All of this has had a detrimental impact on farmers, since over one million people, the majority of whom are herders and small farmers, are suffering from poverty and drought. According to the UN, over 59,000 small farmers lost the bulk of their herds, while 47,000 farmers lost 50 to 60% of their animals.

Due to a severe lack of rainwater during the 2018-2019 harvest season, which resulted in a noticeable decline in average crop production, many farmers' source of livelihood was lost. As a result, many farmers were forced to relocate to cities, and agricultural regions were abandoned due to drought.

According to Dr. Riyad Falah, the war not only contributed to the displacement of people, but it also caused forest destruction by burning, cutting, and destroying fruitful trees. The worst thing they were exposed to were the fires that erupted at the end of last year —which were the worst in Syria's history— resulting in the loss of over two million trees.

This story was originally published on Arab Lite, with the support of Climate Tracker.

Eman Mounir
Eman is an independent investigative journalist from Egypt. Keenly interested in scientific, environmental, and feminist stories, she’s received an award in New Media from the University of Bournemouth in the UK, and other award in scientific journalism from the German Goethe Institute. She’s currently nominated for the True Story Prize in Switzerland, and previously nominated for Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award. Eman studied Data Journalism with a 6-month diploma by ICFJ and ARIJ Network for Investigative Journalism. Currently, she is a fellow to ONE WORLD MEDIA foundation in United Kingdom.