Iraq’s food situation is running into increasing problems. Its farm sector is declining and running into more difficulties due to government interventions and environmental changes. That is increasing dependency upon imports. At the same time the most vulnerable Iraqis are facing food shortages. Baghdad has worked with the United Nations and others to try to come up with plans to address these issues, but is not funding them to make them successful. That means these issues will continue to worsen.
Iraq’s food supplies are adequate, but there is still the issues of food security and nutrition. The number of undernourished people increased from 6.5 million in 2002 to 10.2 million in 2016. There is a high level of child wasting and poor nutrition for newborns and women. Nutrition related illnesses are also high especially amongst children and women, such as anemia. These are directly related to poverty and the problems with the country’s food supplies.
First, the country’s agriculture is not keeping up with demand and population growth. Iraq has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the Middle East. According to the CIA’s World Factbook Iraq had an estimated population of 40 million in 2018. 58% were 24 years or younger compared to just 7% being 55 years or older. The large numbers of births and growing population is putting increasing pressure upon food resources. Farming however is small and declining. That has made Iraq dependent upon imports to feed its people. In 2015 for instance, it imported 99.8% of its sugar, 82.9% of its cooking oils, 50.3% of its dairy products, and 15.6% of its rice. Many of these products go into the food ration system, which has major inefficiencies and does not target those most in need. It and other government policies also undermine domestic production. For example, the government gives subsidies to buy feed for livestock, but then imports huge amounts of livestock products like milk cutting prices for those goods sold by Iraqi farmers. The increasing population and declining agricultural sector means that the country will become even more reliant upon imports to feed its people. Ironically its policies also are making the situation worse.
Second, climate change is having a major effect upon farming. The temperature is increasing 2 centigrade per year in Iraq. That will decrease the annual rainfall by 9% by 2050. As a result, Iraq will become more dependent upon river flows that are controlled by its neighbors. They are already building major dams reducing the water coming into Iraq. In turn that will mean more heat waves and droughts. The most recent of the latter hit in 2018 and led the government to cut winter crops by 55%. There will also be increasing desertification, and declining agricultural production. 38% of Iraq’s land is affected by desertification, and 54% is under threat. Iraq is already being hit by droughts and more dust storms, and these will only increase in the coming years because of changes in the environment. It also has no control over its major tributaries making it even more vulnerable.
Third, Iraq is facing increasing salinity, salt levels, which is decreasing the amount of farm land available. It’s estimated that this is costing Iraq $300 million a year in lost farm production. Along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for instance, there has been a 40-65% drop in output. Only 28% of Iraq’s land is arable, and it’s believed that there will be a 5% annual loss of cultivated land due to salinization. This is another issue that Iraq has faced for decades and not taken adequate measure to counter despite plenty of government plans. Baghdad simply isn’t committing the money necessary to counter this problem.
Finally, poverty is another major cause of food insecurity. Officially, 22.5% of the population lives below the poverty level. That reaches up to 40% in some areas. Another 30% of people are vulnerable to poverty. 13% of the population is also unemployed, but that rises to 22% for Iraqis 15-29 years old, and whopping 56% of women. Women have a higher chance of being impoverished due to gender inequality. Women for example, don’t get an equal education that limits their abilities to find a job and being independent. They also have a very low rate of working. The declining state of agriculture is also increasing poverty in rural areas of Iraq. These are the people most vulnerable to not getting adequate food and the related health problems. The government’s food ration system could help, but is not aimed at helping the poor.
The Iraqi government has planned for these on going crises, but it is not committing the resources to implement them. Iraq has been working with the United Nations and other groups for years on agriculture and water, but nothing substantive has come of it. Its national development plan for instance, includes investing in land reclamation, research and development into agriculture, services and investment in farming, and working on international water rights. The Health Ministry has strategies to deal with nutrition. The Water Ministry has a 20 year plan to modernize infrastructure. None of this is being adequately funded. Development is simply not a priority for Baghdad. It spends most of its money on salaries, pensions and security, and has little left over for anything else. The Iraqi bureaucracy is also mired in red tape and inefficiencies. That means it would be challenged to follow through with any of these strategies if the government made them a priority. During the summer of 2018 this was exposed when Turkey started work on a new dam which greatly reduced water to Iraq and Baghdad had no response even though it knew about it for twelve years. That means continued degradation of Iraq’s farm land and agriculture, growing dependence upon food imports, and food insecurity for Iraq’s poor will go unabated.
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook
Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks, “Iraq Climate-related security risk assessment,” August 2018
Middle East Monitor, “Iraq: 22.6% of under 30s are unemployed,” 8/23/18
Reuters, “Iraq to cut winter crop area by 55 percent on water shortages,” 10/4/18
World Food Programme, “National Strategic Review of Food Security and Nutrition in Iraq,” October 2018