Food Security after years of war and sanctions in Iraq

In order to understand Iraq and Kurdistan Region’s potential for developing food security in a sustainable way, it is important to look back at the political changes that have shaped Iraq’s food production in the past 30 years. This post is a brief summary of the events affecting food security in Iraq since the 1980’s, and I’ve written it mainly for myself to keep track of everything, but hopefully it can be useful for anyone else interested in the region.

Since the development of the oil sector in the 1930’s, a general urbanization process had started leading to a decreasing food production in Iraq. An increasing population growth in combination with limited land for agriculture and stagnating agricultural development in the 1960’s led to a food demand exceeding the supply, and Iraq became more and more dependent on food imports. However, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Iraq had a relatively high per capita food availability compared to other countries in the Middle East. Food items that were not produced locally was imported by the government and sold at subsidized prices, a solution that was possible with oil revenues

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, and the war lasted for nine years, until summer 1988. The motives for the invasion have been debated, and could be related to several border disputes between the nations, and also the desire of Saddam Hussein to establish Iraq as the dominant power in the region after the Iranian Revolution. The war was costly for both nations and much labor and resources were spent on war instead of on food production. After the war, Iraq was severely indebted, and many development projects were delayed because of lack of funds.


Old building in Erbil

At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi Government carried out a large scale genocide campaign under the name Al-Anfal consisting of a series of attacks against the Kurdish population in the northern governorates. In the Kurdish region the Kurdish Peshmerga (Kurdish armed fighters) were fighting on Iran’s side against Iraq, and the motive of the genocide campaign was therefore to curb Kurdish resistance and punish people supporting the Peshmerga (i.e. people living in villages where the Peshmerga were active). The attacks included chemical weapons, imprisonment, executions, forced migration to urban “collectives”, destruction of agricultural land and rural villages. Many people fled to Iran and Turkey, but faced persecution there too. The Duhok governorate was largely a rural area in the 1980’s where people were mainly engaged in agriculture. As large parts of the population in the governorate were forced to move to cities, and their villages and agricultural land were destroyed, people went from a lifestyle of production to a lifestyle of consumption. Mubareka and Ehrlich found in selected areas that much of the agricultural land around the time of Anfal had changed to pastures and fallows by the year 2000.

Just two years after the war with Iran and the genocide attack on the Kurds, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait, leading to the first Gulf War (1990-1991). The main (?) motive for this invasion was Iraq’s enormous debt after the war with Iran, when Kuwait had actually been supporting Iraq economically. Furthermore, Iraq had always considered Kuwait as their territory, as the small area had belonged to the Basra province during the Ottoman Empire, that later came to be part of Iraq in 1922. The invasion led to a quick response by the international community and a multinational force under the UN went into the conflict and expelled Iraq from Kuwait. The military intervention included bombings that destroyed important infrastructure, such as roads, electricity grids, sewage systems and water purification systems. The United Nations Security Council also adopted resolution 661 that imposed economic sanctions on Iraq that would last until 2003. These included a trade embargo that together with government policies led to hyperinflation, widespread poverty and food insecurity. In the first five years of sanctions, the monthly death toll from malnutrition and related diseases averaged 5750 people, and more than half a million Iraqi children were reported to have died (more info here). Oil exports were cut off, which severely affected Iraq’s economic ability to import food and agricultural inputs. Furthermore, many agricultural products were considered “dual-use”, such as fertilizers, machinery, pesticides, chemicals and material useful for repairing destroyed infrastructure, and were therefore banned. The combination of problems facing Iraq after the war led to a strong deficiency of food staples, and therefore a strong need to increase agricultural production. Due to lack of means to intensify agriculture, the only option was to extend agricultural areas geographically. Extensification was enforced by the government who threatened farmers with punishments and sometimes death if they couldn’t deliver their quota to state collection centers. 

Studying the changes in agricultural land using remote sensing of Landsat images covering an area around Baghdad, Gibson and Campbell (2012) did not find any large increase in agricultural area in the Gulf War and Early Sanctions period (1990-1993), but measured an increase of about 20% between the early sanctions and the late sanctions period (2000-2003).

The Iraq war also included Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that were expected to lead to a coup d’etat, but due to lack of the support that had been promised by the US, the uprisings were curbed by the government and almost 2 million people became refugees. By the end of the war, however, the coalition forces consisting of the US, United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and other states, created a no-fly zone over the Kurdish governorates to prevent bombings and use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi government on the Kurdish population. These no-fly zones were then transformed into an autonomous region that is today run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATanks at the Amna Suraka museum in Sulaymaniah

Due to the food insecurity and malnutrition that had come from the wars and the sanctions, Saddam Hussein created a food rationing system, the Public Distribution System (PDS) in 1991, that bought and distributed basic food staples to more or less the whole population of Iraq. Introduced in 1997, the Oil for Food Programme allowed the Iraqi government to export oil in exchange for food aid to the Iraqi population, expanding the PDS further. Malnutrition rates now decreased, but remained above pre-sanction levels.The sanctions and the Oil for Food Programme ended in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. This led to a quick resumption of food imports and the extension of the PDS by international aid organizations. Iraq’s agriculture was severely constrained by decades of war and sanctions, and the PDS did not help agricultural development since local farmers could not compete with subsidized imported foods.

Gibson and Campbell (2012) found that the US invasion of Iraq and its subsequent war coincided with a decrease in agricultural land area to less than pre-sanctions levels. Land unsuitable for agriculture, that had been necessary to cultivate during the sanctions period, were abandoned as imports resumed.


Upcycled helmet at Cafe11 in Sulaymaniah

Reliance on food imports is still high in Iraq and despite a record in wheat crop yields in 2013, Iraq still had to import 40% of its wheat. A food security survey in Iraq in 2008 showed that and estimated 3.1 % (930 000 people) can be classified as food insecure in Iraq. Furthermore, 9.4% (2.8 million) of the population is extremely dependent on the PDS, and would without it become food insecure. The recommendations of the report to improve the situation included more food aid and education, capacity building for government institutions and private institutions and an improvement of food availability by developing agriculture and rural areas in terms of water supply and sanitation.

In the Kurdistan Region, there are plans to develop the agricultural sector to attain food security and eventually to become an exporter of food. The climate and soils are well suited for agriculture, and perhaps Kurdistan could help improve the food security in Iraq. The potential of agricultural development in the context of sustainable development and climate change, along with the political aspects of exports, need further research focus.


Iraq’s economy

Click to access wfp192521.pdf

One thought on “Food Security after years of war and sanctions in Iraq

  1. Pingback: Conference Poster: The Anfal Genocide and Agriculture in Iraqi Kurdistan | Population and Environment in the Middle East

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s