Ravaged by Conflict, Corruption and Water Scarcity, Iraq’s Food Security Remains Vulnerable


Phoebe Sleet,
Research Analyst,
Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
Background The Iraqi Government has revealed plans to halve the irrigated area it plants with wheat and other winter grains. Cereal production for 2018 is predicted to be 4.3 million tonnesbelow average. The decision comes in response to water shortages that have helped to drive months of protests in southern Iraq. Baghdad hopes that alternative measures, such as increasing yields from cultivated areas, will at least partly ease the burden of decreasing cropped land. Production in Nineveh, the former “bread-basket” province, however, has fallen from one million tonnes of wheat in 2014, to 100,000 tonnes last year. The change is largely the result of heavy conflict in the area. Comment This is not the first time Iraq has reduced the amount of land dedicated to agriculture this year. In July, it banned a number of summer crops from its fields, including corn, and strictly limited how much rice could be grown. According to a representative of the Ministry of Water Resources, the country only had enough water to irrigate half of its agricultural land. Although damming on the rivers that feed Iraq constitutes a significant threat to water supplies, part of the problem comes from Iraq’s out-dated irrigation system. Iraq is largely dependent on flood irrigation systems, which not only use significantly more water than other methods, but also increase soil salinity. This has decreased the amount of land available to grow crops. Food security in Iraq has not only been threatened by water scarcity, but also by conflict. Although Iraq claimed victory over Islamic State (IS) within its borders, the aftershocks of the intense conflict pose a risk to food security. This is, in part, due to the high number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who are at increased risk of food insecurity (53 per cent of residents were vulnerable in 2016, compared to 66 per cent of IDPs.) People returning to their homes are also at heightened risk of food insecurity, with 43 per cent of Nineveh’s returnees reporting that they had been forced to use negative food-based coping strategies (such as decreasing meal size or frequency). The conflict with IS was also responsible for damage to irrigation, infrastructure and agricultural equipment, as the group used hunger as a weapon to maintain control over occupied territory. Security concerns have also led to roads being blockaded during disputes and conflicts, which inflates food prices by reducing availability. Many of the barriers Iraq faces in relation to its food security are caused by its weak and fragmented political system. As national food production has faltered, Iraq has come to rely heavily on imports, especially from Turkey, leaving it vulnerable to external shocks, which can force an increase in food prices. Additionally, in rural areas, employment is most commonly found in the food production chain. One-third of Iraqis depend on agriculture for income, making heavy reliance on imports over local production, a further barrier to food access. Corruption and poor governance is rampant; Iraq is recognised as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This acts as a barrier to employment, as it creates obstacles to foreign investment, while also impeding the provision of public services. A lack of access to affordable inputs, such as fertilisers, has also put pressure on rural incomes, following the suspension of government subsidies. Disputed territories are especially vulnerable to this sort of political neglect, as stakeholders are often unwilling to invest already limited funds in areas that they may not control for long. The first post-conflict elections earlier this year ought to have been an opportunity to begin rebuilding the embattled country and face its deeply rooted corruption.  Instead, little has been done, as various factions have fought for power in the aftermath of an uncertain electoral outcome.  The success of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc indicates that corruption reform is popular with Iraqis. As turmoil continues in Basra, however, it is clear that if political will is not enough to mitigate the joblessness, poverty and water scarcity that is endemic in the south, it is unlikely to enact more complicated reforms elsewhere. If Iraq hopes to bolster its vulnerable food security, it must address its rampant governance problems, along with ongoing water and security threats.
Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
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