06 January 2021

Desertification dries up economy and instigates crime in South Iraq

Desertification in Basra Governorate is classified as "very severe”. At this level of severity, the land becomes barren, arid, and filled with sand. Soil salinization is one of the most widespread and dangerous consequences of desertification.

Ibrahim Jasem, who is 71 years, remembers his agricultural lands, which were full of palm trees and seasonal vegetable crops, in Abu Al-Khaseeb District in Basra Governorate. He used to export part of the crops to Kuwait before desertification started to eat into his land, its soil salinized and productivity decreased.

The ten thousand square meter farm used to provide a good income. “It produced more than 2000 kilograms of Al-Barhi dates, which are known for their high quality and which, in addition to large quantities of the okra crop, I used to export annually to Kuwait until 2006.” With a sigh that conceals deep sorrow, Jasem adds: "The productivity of the farm began to drop annually, and the effort it required was no longer worth it, so I divided it into residential lots which I then sold cheaply for residential homes to be built on them. I moved to the city in 2008 where I have been living since then."

Jasem's loss is not limited to losing the land he inherited from his father fifty years ago, but also includes losing the connection he had with his three children, who scattered in Iraqi cities in search of work after losing their father's land. While the loss Jasem and his sons suffered might have been limited to losing their land, Ahmed never imagined when he left his desert-stricken village, that he would be forced out of desperation to commit the crime of theft and end up in Basra Central Prison.

33-year-old Ahmed who grew up between palm orchards and the waters of the Shatt al-Arab, was accused of participating in an armed robbery of a commercial shop in Basra. The 7-year-prison sentence he received left his two daughters without a breadwinner. Ahmed’s older brother, Hasan, says: “we had to. In the past two decades, the palm trees were no longer economically viable. ‘The land’s familiar face has started to change’, as goes the expression, so I went with my family to the city in search of work and stability.” Hasan adds, “my brother was angry and looking for a quick win. He was drawn to people who tempted him to take part in their heist. He should not have committed that crime, but I feel how difficult it is to make a living, especially when you do not have a job or the means to earn your livelihood. We are farmers. This is what we are good at, but we found ourselves left by the wayside.”

Many abandoned their orchards and farms, which used to provide them with their sustenance and livelihood, following the spread of desertification in Basra Governorate in southern Iraq, the drying up of dozens of rivers, and the absence of governmental interest in facing the repercussions of the problem.

The head of Southern Region Environmental Protection and Improvement Directorate, Walid Al-Musawi, attributes the causes of desertification in Basra to several factors, "foremost among which is the rise in temperatures due to global warming, and the greenhouse gases emissions caused by oil extraction operations and other operations that are not environmentally controlled."

Impact on local economy 

Bulldozing orchards has severely affected agricultural areas, turning them into residential ones. The previous wars, especially the first Gulf War (1980-1988), had a negative impact, not to mention poor water management, according to Al-Mousawi. He also believes that “the phenomenon of desertification has cast its shadows on the economic reality in the governorate. Many citizens who earn their living from agriculture, planting crops and picking fruit, have left their places of residence In large numbers after they were no longer able to adapt to these conditions.”

"Wheat, barley and date production has dropped to about 40%. While salinization of the soil that accompanied desertification eliminated 95% of the henna farms"

The impact of desertification on the economy is evident in the eastern regions of Basra Governorate, where the cultivated areas have continuously shrunk and the productivity per agricultural dunum of wheat and barley has dropped to about 40%, while date production, for which Basra is famous, has dropped by almost the same rate.

The economic researcher at Basra University, Haider Karim, says the salinization of the soil that accompanied the phenomenon of desertification eliminated 95% of the henna farms. Most henna trees were destroyed and the production of henna powder stopped locally. At the same time, the soil of the western plateau in Al-Zubair District, famous for growing tomatoes and vegetable crops, have gone through “severe wind erosion accompanied by spreading sand dunes.”

According to Karim, the scarcity of primary resources has contributed to the disappearance of some local crafts and a reduction in the volume of internal trade generated by these crafts. “This has destroyed the production capacities of the local economy. These conditions forced many farmers and shepherds to leave their areas of residence and settle in the city in search of a new life. As a result, the number of the unemployed in Basra Governorate has increased.”

The number of the unemployed in Basra is estimated at more than 1,350,000 citizens, according to the local government’s data, while the population of the province is just over 4 million people. Because of this high number of the unemployed, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that "the percentage of the poor and those below the poverty line in Basra reached nearly 40%."

"Environmental problems in Iraq are closely related to economy and stability. Desertification is one of the main factors hindering social and economic development and exacerbating economic difficulties, which, in turn, worsen the security situation"

As exemplified in Ahmed's story, statistics show an increase in the rates of crimes committed due to economic and social motives. Security expert Anwar Al-Asadi believes that desertification is one of the main factors hindering social and economic development and exacerbating economic difficulties, which, in turn, worsen the security situation. Environmental problems are closely related to the economy and the stability of the security situation, in that order. “During the years 2005-2010, the crime rate in Basra increased by a greater extent compared with the years that followed the fall of the former regime in 2003. In addition, the number of crimes has doubled in recent years, and the crimes committed changed from traditional theft to armed robbery, drug dealing and human trafficking.” What Al-Asadi says is consistent with the statements made by Basra police in their periodic announcements of civil crimes arrests made daily. This indicates the increase in the number of crimes taking place in Basra. 

Given worsening desertification and its economic and security repercussions, the environmental activist, Qasim Al-Mashat, with a number of his colleagues, continue a journey they started years ago to address this phenomenon by planting wild drought-resistant plants, such as Pulicaria, Calligonum, Caper, Rhanterium epapposum, and Senna bushes, in order to stop the advance of desertification. These are new plants that “suit Basra's environment so that farmers can introduce them to their agricultural activities.” Among these plants, Al-Mashat says, are fruitful papaya trees. The experiment of growing papaya was successful, and farmers have begun to plant these trees and sell their produce in the local markets as a first step.

According to the ten-year National Action Program to Combat Desertification in Iraq, launched in 2008, the volunteer projects to plant this kind of trees in Basra remain initiatives with little impact in the face of the problem of desertification and soil salinization threatening to affect about 92% of all lands, coupled with a decrease in vegetation in agricultural lands by 8% during 2020.  The Programme ended in 2018 without tangible results. The former head of the Agricultural Engineers Syndicate in Basra, Alaa Al-Badran, says that the recommendations of the program have not been translated into reality, explaining that "the problem of desertification requires real solutions based on creating a green belt and carrying out afforestation campaigns."

Basra’s local government follows with "great concern" the phenomenon of desertification invading its lands, as confirmed by Basra’s deputy governor, Muin Al-Hasan. The Basra government relies heavily on competent institutions and community organizations to present their own proposals to address the problem of desertification. Al-Hasan says, “we will support their proposals and work to implement them within the budget of the next year, 2021. Basra needs a large national project to confront the problem of desertification.”

By Ammar Al Salih, a journalist from Basra. This article is supported by PSI - FPU media fellowship. This article is also available in Arabic.  
Photo credit: Richard Allaway/Flickr