x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'Not sure how long we can carry on'

After two years of severe drought, the family farm is on the brink of collapse; as the rains have dried up, financial losses have mounted.

For three generations, Abu Marvin's family have farmed the Ninewah plain of northern Iraq, growing wheat and hops in an area renowned for its fertile soil and regular, reliable rainfall. After two years of severe drought, however, the farm is on the brink of collapse; as the rains have dried up, financial losses have mounted.

"I've always been a farmer, my father was a farmer and so was my grandfather," says Abu Marvin, 41. "I've seen droughts before and there have been hard times but it has never been this bad for this long. We used to plant the land and we would always harvest a crop. I can't even be sure of that any more." Last year he and the five labourers he employs sowed 60 tonnes of wheat seed, typically enough to produce between 300 and 400 tonnes of wheat for harvest. The entire crop was wiped out by drought.

This year, with rainfall slightly increased from 2008, the numbers were marginally improved - from 37 tonnes of seed the farm produced 32 tonnes of wheat for harvest - but still fell a long way short of profitability. "We rely on rain and although there has been some this year the situation is really bad," Abu Marvin says. "Four years ago we were making things work but it suddenly got much worse and it has been bad again this year.

"Lots of the other farmers have left the land fallow again because there's just no point wasting any money trying to grow anything. I'm not sure how long we can carry on if things stay like this." Most farmers in Iraq are facing similarly desperate conditions, a result of two years of drought and falling river levels. Groundwater supplies are at record lows, wells are running dry and remaining water reserves are often spoilt by salinisation - the result of drawing out unsustainable amounts and not allowing aquifers to replenish themselves. Each problem exacerbates the others, in a cycle from which it becomes harder and harder to break out: a lack of water begets a greater lack of water.

Ninewah is among the worst affected parts of the country, in part because large numbers of farmers there are reliant solely on rain to water their crops, with no back-up irrigation available. "The drought added extra burdens to farmers who already had more than enough problems to cope with and Ninewah embodies that situation perfectly," says Malik Ibrahim, an inspector with the Ministry of Agriculture. But conditions are worse in southern Iraq, he says. "Wasit province used to be a place where important crops were grown but with water supplies being cut back everything is increasingly dry. A third of the agricultural land near the Iranian border has just dried up."

The Tigris, which begins in Turkey before flowing south through Ninewah and Baghdad en route to the Arabian Gulf, also passes through Wasit. Farmers and fishermen who rely on its water say it is increasingly dirty, salty and running low. "In the past the environment was much better," says Minar Khalaf, the 58-year-old head of a farming community on a small river island near Aziziyah city. "There was less polluted water, and the river was higher. Now there is so much pollution coming down from Baghdad and it's destroying the river, it's destroying the island.

"The water level is lower than I've seen it. I think Turkey has dams that stop it coming down here, and the government poisoned the river by adding water from a salty lake. The water is bad enough that we can't drink it. We have to buy bottled water in the town and bring it over here." As with fellow farmer Abu Marvin from Ninewah, Mr Khalaf says that he would continue to work the land until it became impossible. "Things are difficult but we will not leave. This is our home and we have nowhere else to go."

psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae