A Hot Dusty Crossroads: How Waves of Environment-Related Displacement are Transforming Rural – and Urban – Iraq

A Hot Dusty Crossroads

– Peter Schwartzstein

How waves of environment-related displacement are transforming rural – and urban – Iraq.

Not so long ago Abu Mohammed al-Ghanem could barely venture from his front door without trampling a neighbor’s crops. To his immediate north, a cousin grew wheat. Just to the south, his friend Tarek cultivated everything from eggplant to pomegranates. Along the flanks of Ghanem’s own orchard, and between most houses, the village of Besmaya al-Qadeema boasted a dazzling bunch of neatly pruned date palms.

In this photo taken Friday, May 9, 2014, shoppers buy fresh vegetables in Jamila market in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

But that was then. Since 2016 these men – and their agricultural pickings – have gone.  

Ghanem is seriously considering joining them. Like almost everyone who works the land, he’s reeling from insufficient water and excessive costs. He’s also struggling to get much to grow – so much so that in recent years he’s planted for his own family’s consumption alone. One more bad year and he says he too will have no choice but to try his luck elsewhere. 

“No one wants to leave here. We are sons of this land,” he said. “But when you have more and more problems, it’s not always up to you.”

Rural Iraq is withering under a combined onslaught of environmental degradation and poor governance, and in few places is this more evident than among the fields and fast-expanding districts of peri-urban southern Baghdad.

Rural Iraq is withering under a combined onslaught of environmental degradation and poor governance, and in few places is this more evident than among the fields and fast-expanding districts of peri-urban southern Baghdad. Deteriorating agricultural conditions have driven out many of its original, largely agrarian inhabitants. Even worse farming troubles in the far south of the country have brought in huge numbers of new arrivals to an already battered landscape. Together, these parallel waves of environment-related displacement have reshaped the area and its people in almost every way imaginable.

A woman walks on a dry field on the outskirts of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani)

For the newcomers to Besmaya and its environs, about six miles southeast of the Iraqi capital, migration has been both traumatic and empowering. Torn from their extended family and tribal safety nets, many of these men and women are finding life in their new homes every bit as challenging as they did in their native villages. 

While locals blame some of the struggling southerners for a surge in petty crime, drug use, and land grabbing, many of the more entrepreneurial-minded new arrivals have been highly welcome. Proximity to Baghdad’s brighter lights, as well as the opportunity to start afresh, have allowed them to establish new businesses and spur a private sector renaissance of sorts. 

But though generally much less understood, the impact of this in-migration on the host communities, such as the villages around Besmaya, has been no less profound. A growing population and the subsequent increased demand for water has meant there’s less available for irrigation. That has hammered some farmers, who have felt compelled to migrate themselves, and made fortunes for others, who’ve been able to convert their fields into prime real estate.  Diminishing state capacity has also sent the quality of government services tumbling – even as bribe-seeking from local security officials mounts.

All this at a time of dramatic changes in the composition of the population, with mostly Shia migrants settling in what was previously a mixed Shia-Sunni district, has helped transform the area into a powerful microcosm of the volatility, desperation, and mostly unrealized potential that characterizes so much of contemporary rural Iraq.

 “I cannot tell you how angry I am, how tired I am,” said Hassan Alwash, a longtime resident of Al-Gaara and mechanic on the Baghdad-Kut road. 

Here, as in other parts of the world, the precise choices and drivers governing migrant movements are seldom clear. But the environment appears to underlie many of them, and that’s a trend that brings Iraq to a terrifying crossroads as its natural landscape and fossil fuel-dominated economy waver.

As an environmental journalist, I have followed displacement around Besmaya since 2014, interviewing a wide array of residents. Here, as in other parts of the world, the precise choices and drivers governing migrant movements are seldom clear. But the environment appears to underlie many of them, and that’s a trend that brings Iraq to a terrifying crossroads as its natural landscape and fossil fuel-dominated economy waver. If the country manages rural displacement, or (better yet) furnishes those who rely on farming and fisheries with the capacity to succeed in the countryside, it might weather the dislocation of climate change. Failure may mean that many of these villages become even greater nodes of discontent. 

What’s happening here, in the shadow of Baghdad, might be considered a high stakes litmus test for the country’s very long-term viability. 

A RAPID COLLAPSE

Twenty years ago, residents of the village of Sheikh Hatif al-Dilaie lived fairly conventional rural lives. They saw a few more foreigners than most, with the Arch of Ctesiphon to their south. They certainly saw a good many more security officers, too. The nuclear research center at Tuwaitha still stands a few miles to their northwest. But central Baghdad itself, roughly 30 minutes’ drive away on a good day, was such a world away that some locals had never even visited it. 

In this June 26, 2018 photo, a farmer removes dead scrub trees from his fallow field , in the Iraqi town of Mishkhab south of Najaf. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

“We were a quiet country people living a quiet country life,” said a man who gave his name only as Mohammed, one of the few remaining vendors in what was once a thriving agricultural goods market along the Diyala river. “No one would ever have believed what this place looks like now.”

Everything began to change after 2003. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was followed by a wave of violence from jihadists and remnants of the regime that U.S. troops went all in on to stifle.

Everything began to change after 2003. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was followed by a wave of violence from jihadists and remnants of the regime that U.S. troops went all in on to stifle. They established rings of checkpoints around the city, but snarled traffic so much in the process that many farmers felt cut off from their principal market.

“Your fruit would spoil in the waits,” one Besmaya area resident told me. Soldiers patrolled the capital’s lawless rural hinterland, but in doing so they also chopped up dirt roads with their big, armored vehicles. This kicked up clouds of dust in the hotter months, and rendered some routes impassable after the winter rains. Fields of roadside alfalfa are so caked with grime that their growth has been stunted.

In a few instances, the military even downed palm groves to deprive militants of cover, a denuding of the landscape that has only accelerated in recent years as developers look to free up land for construction.

In this photograph taken during a U.S. Army organized media trip to the site, a U.S. 4th Infantry Division soldier walks past a crater at the scene of the recent airstrike against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at an isolated palm grove on the outskirts of Hibhib, near Baqouba in Iraq Saturday, June 10, 2006. (AP Photo/Joao Silva, Pool)

Significantly worse sectarian violence followed the initial occupation. Though Besmaya never saw anything like the horrors that struck urban Baghdad and other parts of its periphery from 2006 to 2008, some Sunni families say they began to fear for their safety. A number of them fled to Sunni-majority areas, or to Jordan and Syria, to be replaced, in part, by Shia families fleeing ethnic cleansing elsewhere. It was the beginning of the slow destruction of a close-knit communal fabric that had sustained these villages through decades of conflict, sanctions, and Saddam’s brutal dictatorship. 

All the while, agricultural conditions had begun to deteriorate at record speed across the country. In southern Iraq, water access dropped precipitously as the quantity and water quality of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers fell amid region-wide drought, upstream dam construction, and escalating pollution. Crop yields dropped by up to 40 percent in some villages around Amarah, about 200 miles downstream on the Tigris, villagers say. Tomatoes and other fruits withered as already crippling temperatures soared. 

With few alternatives to agriculture, villagers like Mohammed al-Mossefery, originally a pastoralist from outside Kut, reached their breaking points. “We had to move,” he said. “There we are dead but in Baghdad we have a chance of a life.” According to village elders, roughly 15,000 people from rural Maysan and Wasit, the governorates immediately to Baghdad’s southeast, settled around Besmaya between 2008 and 2018. 

But if these men and women had hoped to find respite from environmental turmoil in Besmaya, they would be sorely disappointed. Water releases from the Diyala river, a tributary of the Tigris, into Besmaya’s irrigation canals have been reduced from once a day to about once a week since 2015, even though greater heat calls for more water. 

This water insecurity piled misery on farmers already reeling from dust and sandstorms, which blanket the capital region for over half the year, and desertification, which is consuming around 100 square kilometers of Iraqi arable land a year. By late 2016, at least 160 farmers had abandoned their land in Al-Jisr subdistrict, according to a local agricultural official. Two thousand families from the wider Besmaya area migrated into urban Baghdad or abroad.

Things have been particularly grim since 2014. The war with ISIS and the crash in global oil prices delivered a double blow from which farmers have yet to recover. The jihadists cut off access to key markets, while government agricultural support, (which had been shrinking for some time) plunged in line with the drop in energy revenues. 

Weaned on a Baathist system in which the state provided most inputs and bought most outputs, Iraqi farmers have struggled to adapt to reduced assistance, not least when payment for their crops arrive up to two years late. To compound their misery, fertilizer purchases were so intensely monitored as to be almost prohibited in places following ISIS’s surge. The group repurposed agricultural products as bomb components, thereby sparking a fierce official suspicion of its use in farming.

THE MESSY STATUS QUO

These days, the people of Besmaya are as tired and angry as the surrounding landscape is sick.  On recent visits to the district, field after field lay fallow, too parched and salt encrusted to grow anything. Date palms have been left to rot. Irrigation canals are so clogged with trash that water often cannot find its way to the fields, even when it is made available.

The cost of production is so high and the price of imports from neighboring countries so low that they can’t compete, no matter how much water flows.

Unsurprisingly, area farmers are the unhappiest of all. The cost of production is so high and the price of imports from neighboring countries so low that they can’t compete, no matter how much water flows. 

Abu Mohammed al-Ghanem says he spends about 800 dinars for every 1000 dinars he earns, a sum that scarcely justifies backbreaking work. “Working many many hours under the sun for that? You can see why people seek the comfort of a desk job,” he said. 

Since we last met in 2019, another six farmers in his neck of Besmaya al-Qadeema have ditched their fields and migrated. They are the victims, he says, of a system and environment that’s almost setting them up to fail.

Other professions are not much better off, though. The public sector is already wildly bloated and has slowed hiring. Parts of the private sector are struggling to stay afloat under intensifying corruption, which appears to be hitting migrants harder than most. 

These people, such as Mahmoud Ibrahim, often lack local security contacts, while their identity cards attest to their origins and hence their vulnerable status. Having established himself as a trucker soon after his move to the Besmaya area, Ibrahim ought to be turning a handsome profit on the cheap fruit he drives over from Iran. But paramilitary groups have come to dominate the lucrative checkpoints on the border and around the capital, and their demands for kickbacks – at about 350,000 dinars per load per trip – have reached exorbitant levels. “We can deal with regular corruption, but not this,” he said. 

Worst of all, Besmaya villagers say, is the diminishing possibility of upward mobility. The decline in the quality of government services has struck the education sector especially hard. Locals see their families’ future at risk as more children flail in understaffed schools with crumbling buildings and enormous class sizes.

A man tries to fix a leaking potable water pipe near his home, Iraq (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

These stressors have lit some native villagers’ resentment of newer arrivals, whom they accuse of snaffling scarce resources. The dynamic has contributed to something of an ‘us versus them’ divide. In several instances, farmers have alleged that monied newcomers are bribing water officials to prioritize their needs. Plenty of other longtime residents accuse the southerners of expropriating farmland for housing. The reduction in shared family or tribal bonds, particularly in villages that have experienced a 50 percent turnover in residents, can make disputes trickier to resolve peacefully.

Amid the gloom, there is some hope – and much of it is coming from enterprising migrants. By injecting fresh energy, and, sometimes capital, into the moribund local economy, these men and women have introduced an inventiveness that many villages sorely lacked. 

These new arrivals have partnered with farmers to transform ‘dead’ land into warehouses, thereby earning themselves regular rents instead of very uncertain agricultural returns. They’ve introduced agricultural practices from the south that Baghdadis, used to slightly more forgiving climes, hadn’t always embraced, such as planting crops beneath canopies of trees. Recognizing from an early stage that people preferred shopping closer to home, particularly at the height of the insecurity, they’ve been quick to identify gaps in the consumer market.

Hamid and Ali Mohsen are cases in point. After migrating north with their widowed mother in 2016, the brothers initially tended to their neighbors’ crops, as they had back in rural Wasit. But the more they explored their new home, the more they noticed how few fishmongers served the villages. They now visit a nearby fish farm every week, and then go door-to-door selling their ice-packed wares from the trunk of an old Lada.

THE FUTURE

In some ways, Besmaya’s future has already been determined. As an accessible swathe of land on the edge of Baghdad’s low rise concrete sprawl, it’s seemingly only a matter of time before it is absorbed into the city. Developers have completed part of a long-planned, much-delayed satellite settlement there – which, in a sign of sectarianism’s diminished potency, has secured plenty of Sunni buyers. If government dreamers have their way, the Besmaya area may even host a new capital city one day. 

But even as it urbanizes, this area – and other parts of peri urban Baghdad – will likely remain a powerful bellwether for the health and wealth of rural Iraq for some time to come. The more unviable agriculture becomes here, the more inclined villagers will be to migrate, despite a keener awareness of the challenges that await them than some of their earlier kin possessed.

Over the past year, Besmaya residents say that migrants have traveled north in unprecedented numbers, propelled, it seems, by the pandemic’s economic fallout and intensifying climate stresses. Iraq is, by most metrics, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. This is particularly true of its south, which has high pre-existing temperatures, a very agrarian rural economy, and a near-total dependence on the two great rivers for its water needs.

Similarly, the more the Iraqi state struggles to provide elementary services, which are already  significantly more limited in rural areas, the more that its citizens will gravitate toward cities. Despite officials’ declared desire to diversify the economy away from energy, which currently provides over 90 percent of state revenues, the experience of Besmaya’s native and migrant farmers attests to the hollowness of that pledge so far. Accelerated urbanization also promises to compound governance woes, as surging urban populations continue to outstrip infrastructure and municipalities’ capacity to match their needs. Greater Baghdad, for one, has almost doubled in size since 2003.

Most importantly, perhaps, the fate of these rural communities may signal more significant challenges ahead. If the villages around places like Besmaya are left to fester with their dominant source of employment in tatters and resentment of government mushrooming, Iraq’s instability will persist and possibly intensify. Impoverished, grievance-riven villages in northern and western Iraq furnished ISIS with many of its fighters. Unless current trends are checked, Besmayans are fearful that their youth too could be drawn to wild, undirected expressions of anti-state rage.  

“They’re furious. They’re desperate. And look around you,” a local police commander said. “Can you blame them?”

 

Peter Schwartzstein is an environmental journalist and consultant, who covers water, food security, and conflict-climate issues across the Middle East and Africa. He mostly writes for National Geographic. He is the journalist-in-residence at the Center for Climate and Security and is a TED fellow.

Cover art: In this June 26, 2018 photo, a farmer removes dead scrub trees from his fallow field , in the Iraqi town of Mishkhab south of Najaf. Anmar Khalil/AP Photo.