Silverman: Drought, Agriculture, and Social Problems in Iraq

Adam L. Silverman, PhD, writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

The crippling sandstorms in Iraq, which disrupted the trip to that country of Vice President Joe Biden last weekend, underline the challenges confronting Iraq in the wake of two years of drought. The dry spell and poor policy choices have also, of course, badly affected agriculture. While deployed in Iraq, my teammates and I were stationed in a primarily agricultural area and we spent a lot of time, pre-mission and during the mission, studying agricultural issues in order to support our brigade’s economic and reconstruction initiatives. From that primary and secondary source research we learned that a significant issue for Iraq’s ongoing development is the lack of an active agricultural sector. While this is part of the larger problem with drought in the region, as well as food disruptions that got a fair amount of press coverage in 2008, the Iraqi problem set goes beyond the issue of access to food.

There are four overlapping areas that need to be tracked regarding agricultural disruption in Iraq. The first is the regional dynamic: both Turkey and Iran, in an attempt to deal with the effects of the drought, are drawing down the water supplies that ultimately run into Iraq, further depleting the water available for Iraqi usage. This is a problem of regional politics and stability. If Iraq is deprived of its fair share of water, it creates a new set of grievances that are ripe for exploitation and can further destabilize the region. While the US, the Iraqis, and their neighbors have invested a lot of time into the resolution of this problem, failure to settle it quickly, effectively, and definitively could have negative repercussions.

The second set of issues has to do with the actual physical terrain of Iraq. A great deal of Iraq’s breadbasket, where agriculture was essentially invented, is notable for two things: 1) a high saline content in the soil that is pushed down, locked in, and reduced through regular, repeated, and rotated planting of crops and 2) the use of canal and sluice irrigation – akin to the acequias of the Southwestern US and of Spain. The low river levels because of the drought makes it that much harder to get water into the irrigation canals, which in turn affects the ability to plant crops and mitigate the salinity issue. For each planting cycle that is missed because of lack of available water, the salinity levels increase, meaning that once water becomes available for planting it will take several years of planting “throw away” crops before anything can be produced that is usable. Additionally, the ongoing soil erosion leads to further desertification and increased heat and dust storms, which has a measurable negative impact on the quality of life of the Iraqis.

The third major issue is economic. Since the amount of water available is limited, placing a real limit on the amount of agricultural product that can be produced by the Iraqis, fruits, vegetables, and fish have to be imported. In our interviews with the Iraqi population of our Operating Environment (OE) we were repeatedly told that not only are the local produce and fish superior in taste, but that much of these food stuffs now have to be imported from Iran. Given that many Iraqis, both Shii and Sunni, accurately recognize that the Government of Iraq is being run by exile or domestic based political movements that were established, supported, or funded by Iran, the reliance on food imported from Iran also enhances the common Iraqi boogeyman: that the Iranians are trying to control everything. This is the Iraqi equivalent of the black helicopter fear for some Americans – it is used to explain away bad things that have no readily identifiable explanation.

The final issue, an outgrowth of the predictable economic concerns of higher food prices and lack of income is the human impact. The disruption to Iraq’s agricultural sector is also a major cause of disruption to the community and communal life of Iraq. Moreover, the lack of these traditional forms of employment, especially in the districts and provinces that ring Baghdad, contributed to the flight of individuals to the large cities, or even the smaller towns. This in turn overwhelmed the almost nonexistent social services. The influx of large numbers of Iraqis seeking employment, or just sheltering with more well off family members, is a major contributing factor to the political violence in Iraq. As is so often the case people moved to the more populous areas looking for work, but there was none. Or they fled violence in the cities and established themselves on largely empty land in more rural economic areas. In both cases this created Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) issues that exacerbated existing grievances, especially along sectarian lines.

Additionally, the displaced are more likely to seek any form of income and therefore become biographically available for recruitment to commit negative acts. Essentially the agricultural crisis has created an artificial life course for terrorism and political violence in Iraq. Large numbers of unemployed men, especially young men, many nursing resentments, are willing to take money to feed and house themselves and their families to build or emplace improvised explosive devices. It is from the same pool of desperate young men that the politically or religiously dogmatic interest entrepreneurs recruit their suicide bombers. One of the key solutions to the political violence problem in Iraq is to get the agricultural sector functioning again. By doing so it would function like a pressure release valve, drawing people from the cities and towns back to their villages, settlements, and farms, reducing the available pool of individuals for recruitment, reducing the potential for political violence over property and resources, and increasing the potential for the alleviation of the economic crisis in Iraq.

A key dilemma is that in order to fix the agricultural problem you have to fix the water problem, which is contingent on fixing the power problem – you can not pump water through the canal system without consistent electrical power generation. As a result of decisions made by the Coalition Provisional Authority and continued by the Iraqi Transition Assistance Office to leave rebuilding and renovation of the Iraqi power system to the Iraqis and the private sector over the next ten years, there is only so much that the US military and their civilian agency allies can do to alleviate the problem and the resulting societal pressure.


Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Social Science Advisor for Strategic Communications and a Staff Social Scientist for the US Army Human Terrain System and was the Field Social Scientist and Socio-Cultural Advisor for the 2BCT/1AD assigned to Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 in 2008. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army’s Human Terrain System, the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, the 2BCT/1AD, and/or the US Army.

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