Norway gives Iraq much-needed help to save arable land

Last summer, NRC provided agricultural training in Basra for farmers aged 16-22, focusing on modern agricultural production techniques.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Vulnerable sector. An Iraqi farmer plants Jasmin rice in the Mishkhab region in central Iraq. (AFP)
Vulnerable sector. An Iraqi farmer plants Jasmin rice in the Mishkhab region in central Iraq. (AFP)

DUBAI - The UN Environment Programme estimates that Iraq loses about 250 of arable land every year due to climate change but now Norway is stepping in to lend a helping hand.

The loss of arable land is expected to trigger new displacements in the region of up to 4 million Iraqis in the next eight years, Iraqi officials said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is providing programmes to help Iraqi farmers and young people empower their businesses.

Last summer, NRC provided agricultural training in Basra for farmers aged 16-22, focusing on modern agricultural production techniques such as agronomic practices, vertical gardening, greenhouse production, agro-processing, post-harvest handling and other methods based on local needs.

The programme was designed to promote economic resilience within households and increase people’s capacity to secure their livelihoods in the long term.

“We do more now,” said NRC Iraq Media Coordinator Tom Peyre-Costa. “We are developing our sector of empowering youth and the people of Basra.”

He said most foreign governments understand that core reasons behind protests in southern Iraq are linked to poverty that is a consequence of a lack of basic skills in working competencies.

“Part of the youth in Basra comes from villages around the city and there’s a lot of migration from the city’s outskirts,” Peyre-Costa noted. “This is because, in the past year, there has been a huge water crisis and farmers have more and more difficulty to crop and farm.”

Drought has threatened agricultural production in many rural areas, contributing to the displacement of nearly 4,000 people in August 2018.

However, there is potential. Iraq’s Zubair and Safwan areas have about 3,500 farms, which plant tomatoes in autumn and supply two-thirds of Iraq’s needs.

The NRC’s programme outcome for farmers was positive and, although it is not expected to resolve the crisis, it identified the issue as one of the top needs in the area.

“Once you start with a group of farmers, then this knowledge is being shared through the community fabric,” Peyre-Costa explained. “Communities are very close in the area and, once you train their leaders, they will themselves train the youth and this is how it spreads. By targeting specific populations, you can manage to train a big chunk of people.”

Peyre-Costa spoke of growing competition over resources between farmers and shepherds because of the number of water buffalo herds that graze on areas surrounding crops. This increased tensions between communities, which pushed locals, notably young people, to move to Basra.

“Once there, they have no skills professionally,” he said. “This is why the NRC has identified vocational training and business empowerment as a strategic activity implementation.”

Basra has the potential to become one of the richest cities in Iraq because of its oil fields. However, because the local population is not involved — partially due to a lack of professional skills — they miss out on crucial job opportunities.

Peyre-Costa mentioned a lack of political will to involve local citizens. “They just go for the easy solution, which is hiring competent foreign staff,” he said. “It’s faster and makes so much money that they don’t bother taking the time to train and empower the youth that critically needs it.”

Although Basra could be the wealthiest region of Iraq, it is one of the poorest because of its water crisis and because oil revenues are not shared equitably with the local population. Peyre-Costa said he has seen no improvement since July.

“What could have been a positive outcome is that rainfall was four times higher but, despite that, there was still a water crisis in Basra,” he said. “The issue isn’t the quantity of water but the quality because most of it is unsuitable for consumption, even for farming. It’s polluted, the salinity level is way too high, there are some algal outbreaks and oil spills and there is no waste management in the city.

“So you’ll see people littering the canals because there is nowhere else [to dispose of refuse], which goes into the main Shatt al-Arab river, which is where the drinking water is pumped from.”

NRC recently started new livelihood programmes that include vocational training of young people, as well as targeting existing new and small businesses by training proprietors to develop their businesses.

In September, a youth programme was created to empower people. “It’s also about resolving the water crisis with more investment in water treatment plants, water management and improving the waste management system,” Peyre-Costa said, “but, as long as the government doesn’t prioritise empowering the youth and equally reinvesting the wealth from oil fields in the area, the situation won’t change.”

Peyre-Costa called for concrete measures for waste management because canals are reportedly only cleaned before elections take place.

“This doesn’t work,” he said. “The population needs to be made aware of the environmental impact of littering and dropping garbage in canals. If they don’t have any other solution, how can you tell them not to do it?

“It’s a lot of factors that need to be prioritised and the shocking aspect is that there is definitely the money for it — it’s just unfortunately not prioritised.”