Water and Wheat: ISIS Weapons?

By John Schnittker, Chief Economist at Schnittker Associates, and former Ministry Advisor at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

With much of Iraq’s wheat production coming from Northern Iraq and nearly all of Iraq’s water resources flowing through areas under ISIS control, Iraq’s food security may be facing a severe threat.

Iraq has about two thirds of this year’s wheat crop harvested, but this will not be adequate without additional imports, aside from the questions and logistical problems that are implicit given the current security and political crisis.

When and if the wheat harvest is completed in coming weeks across northern Iraq, around half of Iraq wheat crop will be in areas now under ISIS control. The remainder of the wheat crop will be stored in Ministry of Trade sites across southern Iraq. Iraq’s wheat production is blended with imported wheat, milled into flour and distributed as part of Iraq’s food ration or Public Distribution System.

Security concerns will likely severely impact the movement of wheat from storage sites to flour mills and ultimately to Iraq’s Public Distribution System (PDS) recipients. Regrettably those most in need of the PDS ration will be most affected. Imported wheat, used for blending with Iraqi wheat to improve both quality and appearance will also be affected, as it seems unlikely that the Ministry of Trade will be able to continue trucking shipments under current conditions into areas north and west of Baghdad. The potential exist that Iraqi citizens dependent upon the PDS across northern Iraq will face disruptions unless current situation is resolved.

The Euphrates and Tigris rivers enter Iraq in Anbar and Ninewa provinces respectively. Both of these provinces are under ISIS control. Dams on both rivers create the circumstances where the release of water can be severely cut back of cut off. It is also the case that water from both rivers can be diverted and stored before it reaches the major cities of Central and Southern Iraq.

Summer irrigation requirement s across Iraq are very high and could be disrupted. Drinking water will take priority over irrigation if water supplies are affected. Summer rice and vegetable crops stand the highest chance of facing irrigation water restrictions.

Water and wheat are the lifeblood of Iraq, ISIS control of the major rivers and dams and much of this season wheat crop has the potential to better define what currently is at stake.

Mr. Schnittker can be contacted at [email protected] 

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