Iraqi farmers fight to save cattle from drought

As farmers see costs soar, the price that their cattle fetch is collapsing.
Tuesday 07/08/2018
Buffalos are seen in an empty riverbed in Umm Abbasiyat, some 60 kilometers east of Najaf, Iraq. (AFP)
Buffalos are seen in an empty riverbed in Umm Abbasiyat, some 60 kilometers east of Najaf, Iraq. (AFP)

Iraqi farmer Sayyed Sattar, surveying his herd bathing in a dwindling pond close to the holy city of Najaf, said he knows he will soon have to let some of his buffalo go.

As southern Iraq suffers through a punishing drought, desperate cattle breeders are selling off animals to keep others alive. Sattar, 52, has already seen some of his buffalo die of thirst. To stop any others being lost, he's forced to say goodbye to some of his prized beasts.

"With the money, we will be able to buy water and hay for the rest of the herd," he said, his head covered with a traditional black and white keffiyeh scarf.

Local authorities estimate that 30% of cattle across southern Iraq have been lost during the drought, either dying from thirst or sold off for slaughter. That is a major blow for the estimated 475,000 families who make their living from livestock across the south of the conflict-hit country.

Herder Ali, 24, said he understands only too well the challenges being faced because he must travel ever greater distances with his flock to find water. Canals have run dry and the cracked earth, empty water pipes and dead grass testify to how few options farmers have.

To quench the thirst of their animals they must pay and the price of water has shot up, he said.

The lack of water is painful in an area that once formed part of the so-called fertile crescent. Dubbed the "country of two rivers" due to the presence of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates, Iraq has seen its water supplies shrinking for years.

This year rainfall has been particularly scarce and reservoirs currently stand at only 10% full. Beyond the natural causes there is a human factor worsening the problem -- the sharing of water resources on a regional level.

Neighbours Iran and Turkey have, in effect, rerouted several rivers and tributaries that used to help irrigate Iraq. The recent filling of Turkey's Ilisu Dam on the Tigris provided another blow for Iraqi agriculture and in June the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry suspended the growing of rice, corn and other cereals that consume a lot of water.

To help keep livestock watered, trucks are making the rounds in southern Iraq, offering to fill plastic tanks around cattle sheds for $20.

As farmers see costs soar, the price that their cattle fetch is collapsing. Animals that once could have gone for up to $5,000 a head are selling for as little as $1,500, meaning that cashing in on a buffalo can only cover the herd for two months.

To make ends meet, many farmers have resorted to taking out loans at banks and going into debt. Unable to pay off their bills, a group of farmers recently took to the streets in southern Iraq asking for delays in their payments.

"Never in its history has Iraq known such a catastrophe," said Ahmed al-Issawi, head of the agricultural cooperative in Najaf. "Our animals are forced to drink water where even mosquitoes can't survive."

The drought has seen other problems increase -- disease, worms and epidemics. Animals "contaminate each other very quickly and die," Issawi said.

The Mesopotamian Marshes, one of the biggest wetlands in the region, have long been considered one of the jewels of southern Iraq but now they no longer help guarantee an income for those who live there, meaning people have started to move away, with others planning to follow.

"There will be an exodus," Issawi warned.

(Agence France-Presse)