U.N. Developing Olive Groves and Mills in Drought-Prone Areas of Iraq

The Middle Eastern country is also working to rejoin the International Olive Council, which would further develop the nascent sector.
Tigris river in Iraq
Jun. 2, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

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A restored irri­ga­tion project in Iraq has just been offi­cially launched by local author­i­ties and United Nations offi­cials from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Its recov­ery and reopen­ing will impact a large agri­cul­tural area near the Syrian bor­der. The announce­ment comes as an intense and pro­longed drought plagues large swaths of the coun­try, accel­er­at­ing deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and threat­en­ing crops.

We pro­duce approx­i­mately 200,000 liters of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil, but we intend to con­tinue the expan­sion of our pro­duc­tion as we are focused on involv­ing more farm­ing areas.- Ahmad Ali Tamas, owner, Rasan Factory

The new project, largely financed by the European Union, was ini­tially launched by the north­ern gov­er­norate of Al-Jazīrah in 1990.

However, the infra­struc­ture was heav­ily dam­aged dur­ing the self-pro­claimed Islamic State (ISIS) occu­pa­tion, to the point that local farm­ers ceased oper­a­tions in an area already hit by the con­se­quences of cli­mate change.

See Also:Olive Cultivation Is Expanding in Georgia

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the recov­ery project included the recon­struc­tion of the water pump­ing sta­tion at Tel Al-Hawa, and the rebuild­ing of 11 bridges, 17 power trans­mis­sion tow­ers and 21 water con­trol gates.

The mas­sive restora­tion required the clean­ing of irri­ga­tion canals from silt and debris engag­ing 1,250 house­holds through a cash-for-work scheme and pro­vid­ing spare parts to 150 lin­ear-move irri­ga­tion sys­tems.

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Even though the most rel­e­vant por­tions of the Iraqi econ­omy are related to oil and gas, farm­ing rep­re­sents the third most rel­e­vant eco­nomic activ­ity.

It is believed that more than 200,000 peo­ple from the town of Rabia and the sur­round­ing areas will ben­e­fit from the resump­tion of agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties.

Local author­i­ties are strug­gling to main­tain water secu­rity for the pop­u­la­tion and farm­ing in large areas of the coun­try.

The World Bank esti­mates that more than 40 per­cent of the coun­try is cur­rently desert and sparsely pop­u­lated because of the harsh cli­matic con­di­tions, which include the wors­en­ing phe­nom­e­non of heat­waves and sand­storms.

Among the cur­rent chal­lenges, the bank’s experts cite the reduced avail­abil­ity of good qual­ity water due to the wide­spread salin­ity.

Desertification and water scarcity due to river flow fluc­tu­a­tions ren­der Iraq vul­ner­a­ble to the adverse effects of cli­mate change,” World Bank offi­cials wrote.

Areas once known for their farm­ing activ­i­ties, such as the south­ern Iraq palm tree plan­ta­tions, have slowly lost land to deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and salin­iza­tion. The ongo­ing drought exac­er­bates the exist­ing fragility of the agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment has recently opted to halve the amount of water that can be used for farm­ing activ­i­ties, a deci­sion due to the reduced amount of water flow­ing in from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

At the begin­ning of May, the Ministry of Agriculture warned that deser­ti­fi­ca­tion risk is now cov­er­ing 90 per­cent of the coun­try due to cli­mate change effects and the cur­rent dis­putes with Iran and Turkey about the use of com­mon water river resources.

According to Al-Monitor, the min­istry warned that the rate of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion is increas­ing with grow­ing con­se­quences for food secu­rity. A min­istry offi­cial told the mag­a­zine that mil­i­tary con­flicts, exces­sive use of water by farm­ers and cit­i­zens, drought and cli­mate change are the main dri­vers of the cur­rent cri­sis.

Since the 1950s, tem­per­a­tures in Iraq have steadily risen. According to the U.S.-based Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy, the fre­quency of heat­waves reach­ing 50 ºC or more is increas­ing and it is believed that sur­face tem­per­a­tures will rise by two or three degrees by the end of the cen­tury.

In this con­text, the gov­ern­ment is sup­port­ing the launch­ing of new farm­ing activ­i­ties by pri­vate entre­pre­neurs in chal­leng­ing areas.

With the ambi­tion of becom­ing the most rel­e­vant olive oil pro­ducer in the coun­try, Rasan Factory was launched in 2018 in the Kirkuk gov­er­norate near Halabja, more than 200 kilo­me­ters north of Baghdad.

Since the begin­ning, we aimed not only at mak­ing excel­lent high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil but also to offer job oppor­tu­ni­ties and pro­mote busi­ness on a local and regional level,” Ahmad Ali Tamas, owner of the com­pany, told Olive Oil Times.

Our coun­try used to have so many olive tree plan­ta­tions once, but there was no real cul­ture on how to man­age the trees and how to keep them healthy,” he added. It was low-qual­ity pro­duc­tion which would have no place on the inter­na­tional mar­ket.”

According to the Iraqi olive oil pro­ducer, the price dynam­ics in the local mar­ket have changed so that it is now eas­ier for olive farm­ers to earn a suf­fi­cient income for their work.

There has been a rel­e­vant shift in the way con­sumers approach qual­ity olive oils,” he said. The pop­u­lar cul­ture once per­ceived them as specif­i­cally use­ful for med­i­cine or cos­met­ics.”

Now, peo­ple are both more aware of the health pro­file of extra vir­gin olive oil and more inter­ested in using the higher qual­ity olive oil for cook­ing,” Tamas added.

One of the most rel­e­vant qual­i­ties of the olive trees for local farm­ers is related to the high resilience of most cul­ti­vars to drought and water deficits.

In the last few years, sev­eral inter­na­tion­ally-sup­ported pro­grams have been started in sev­eral areas of the coun­try in order to har­ness olive tree resilience.

Only a few months ago, the U.N. World Food Program par­tic­i­pated with local author­i­ties and the local asso­ci­a­tion of olive oil pro­duc­ers in the open­ing of a new state-of-the-art olive oil mill in Bashiqa, in north­ern Iraq.

The aim of the ini­tia­tive is to restore local olive pro­duc­tion, involve farm­ers in a project of social and eco­nomic devel­op­ment and con­nect olive oil pro­duc­tion to the local and inter­na­tional mar­kets.

Due to the work of sev­eral non­profit orga­ni­za­tions and the sup­port of local author­i­ties, the U.N. Development Program is behind olive devel­op­ment projects in the area of Haditha, one of the major cities of the gov­er­norate of Anbar, a largely desert area in the cen­tral-west­ern part of the coun­try.

The project began with recov­er­ing infra­struc­ture and land which had been dev­as­tated by the ISIS occu­pa­tion. In the last few months, more than 250 hectares lost to deser­ti­fi­ca­tion were con­verted to sus­tain­able farm­ing.

Besides olives, local farm­ers have been sup­ported with saplings from cucum­ber, pis­ta­chios, aloe vera and date palms.

Given the revived inter­est and abil­i­ties in olive oil pro­duc­tion, Iraq has recently opened nego­ti­a­tions with the International Olive Council to return to the coun­cil, a move that would greatly enhance the sec­tor’s expert train­ing and tech­nol­ogy exchange oppor­tu­ni­ties.

The local sce­nario might be extremely chal­leng­ing, but Tamas empha­sized how local farm­ers know that work­ing day by day in the right direc­tion will yield opti­mal results.

Today, we pro­duce approx­i­mately 200,000 liters of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil, but we intend to con­tinue the expan­sion of our pro­duc­tion as we are focused on involv­ing more farm­ing areas,” he con­cluded.



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