By Ronald P Verdonk, Agricultural Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
In my last piece I made mention of a sizable irrigation equipment purchase by Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture and underscored the role the private sector needs to play to contribute to the revitalization of the agricultural sector. In this edition of the blog, I’d like to address areas where government has an important role to play in supporting Iraqi farmers.
While much of the cropland north of Kirkuk receives sufficient rain, almost everywhere southward is irrigated. Without question, the irrigation infrastructure would benefit from a well-planned modernization program. One of the most pressing challenges is to ensure adequate water flow at the level of pumping stations, a number of which need new hardware, including the pumps themselves. In addition, it is generally accepted that considerable irrigation water is lost due to canals that are not lined to prevent seepage. Soil salinity and waterlogging must also be dealt with by rehabilitating drainage systems and on-farm canals.
And moving from the “big water” coming off the rivers to the “small water” at the farm level, producers would also be helped by increased electricity supply that can run the irrigation pumps necessary to move water into the fields, in addition to powering refrigeration equipment that would keep produce, meat and fish chilled or frozen. These are some of the fundamental services government can provide, and without a doubt, the Government of Iraq is spending huge sums of money to expand the country’s electricity supply, though it will take a few years to catch up to rapidly increasing demand.
As critical as the availability and quality of water and seed, another fundamental challenge for the Iraqi Government concerns fertilizer supply. For the past few years, the Government of Iraq has cited electricity shortages as a reason for fertilizer plants in Basrah and Al Qaim to run on a part-time basis, and the facility in Bayji has been out of production for at least four years. Iraq has the potential to emerge as a net exporter of fertilizers, but the country is currently dependent on imports, and the import volume not proven sufficient for optimal crop production.
I’m not advocating government fertilizer imports; that’s best handled on the private side, but it is clear that many of Iraq’s development challenges are interrelated. The agriculture sector will benefit as the electricity shortfall is addressed and fertilizer production expands to meet local farming needs.