At the gateway to the Iraqi desert, thousands of young date palms stand in line as far as the eye can see. They are at the heart of a great challenge: to preserve this national symbol and develop the culture of an ancestor that was once threatened.
It is an understatement to say that this mega-project, funded and managed by a prestigious religious institution in Karbala (center), stands in contrast to the rest of the Iraqi palm groves.
Previously, the country was at “30 million palm trees“, as Iraq was nicknamed, produced more than 600 varieties of dates.
But repeated conflicts, especially the war with neighboring Iran (1980-88), then environmental challenges (drought, salinization, etc.) have affected the sector, which must reinvent itself.
Seen from the sky near Karbala, date palms are planted at regular intervals on plots dotted with water reservoirs. Despite the small size of the trees, bundles of green dates are already hanging in the middle between the twigs.
“The date palm is Iraq’s symbol and pride“, boasts the commercial director of the Fadak palm grove, Mohamed Aboul-Maali. The goal of the project launched in 2016:”restore this culture to its place from before“.
Its palm grove provides shelter “more than 90 varieties of date palms, Iraqi but also Arab species“, coming from the Gulf or Maghreb countries.
Iraqi varieties, among “rarest and best“, has been “collected in most provinces“of the country,” he explains.
Of the 30,000 trees, more than 6,000 are already producing fruit, Aboul-Maali adds. “This season we expect a harvest of more than 60 tons”He adds, which is 40 tonnes more than in 2021.
In a land plagued by desertification and drought, a drip irrigation system – supplied by a tributary to the Euphrates and ten wells – has replaced the traditional abundant irrigation.
The contrast is striking with the Basra region, which borders Iran, in the southernmost part of Iraq. Here the slender trunks of felled palms stretch for miles. On the ground, withered twigs.
However, we are on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Baghdad razed entire areas to prevent the enemy from infiltrating. No longer needed, irrigation canals have been blocked – often with truncated trunks.
“It looks like a cemetery“says agricultural engineer Alaa al-Badran. The number of palm trees has dropped from six million before the conflict to less than three million today,” he said.
And according to the engineer, another challenge took over: “salting of the waters of Shatt al-Arab and of the country“.
“The solution would be drip irrigation and desalination systems. But it can be expensive“, Recognizes Ahmed al-Awad. His family once owned 200 date palms. Today there are only 50 trees.
However, the Ministry of Agriculture defends its action.
“In the last ten years, we have gone from 11 million palm trees to 17 million“said the minister’s spokesman, Hadi al-Yasseri, referring to a plantation promotion program.
The initiative was launched in 2010 and was discontinued in 2018 due to lack of budgetary provisions, he acknowledges and promises that the next government budget – not yet adopted – will include funding.
Iraq says it exported nearly 600,000 tons of dates in 2021. This fruit is its second-largest export, right after oil, and it brings in more than $ 120 million annually, according to the World Bank.
“As global demand grows, ongoing quality improvement initiatives in Iraq must continue“, Recently assessed the institution and called for diversification of the species produced.
“Almost half of Iraq’s dates are exported to the United Arab Emirates (…). They are then packed and exported again at a higher price.”The organization lamented.
In eastern Iraq, still on the Iranian border, there is no shortage of complaints in Badra. In the middle of the palm trees, the felled trees abound. Here, too, the ravages of war.
Local officials have lamented a difficult water supply for more than a decade, the Iranian neighbor has been accused of having diverted upstream the watercourse that watered the Badra: Mirzabad River, locally called al-Kalal.
“The date of Badra is incomparableSighs Moussa Mohsen, a resident of Badra who owns about 800 palm trees.
“Before, we had water from Kalal, which came from Iran“, remembers Mr. Mohsen.”Badra was like an ocean“, he said. “For now watering, we are primarily dependent on wells“.