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Commodity Intelligence Report
May 12, 2009

IRAQ: Drought & Irrigation Shortages Decimate Wheat Harvest in 2009/10

Iraq is experiencing its second consecutive drought-reduced wheat harvest owing to well-below normal rainfall and significant irrigation supply shortages. Crop area is expected to be much below normal in major northern rainfed provinces after poor autumn rainfall caused many farmers to abort sowing operations. Crop yields are also expected to be significantly reduced in major southern irrigated provinces this year owing to critical shortages of irrigation water in the Tigris and Euphrates river systems during the wheat growing season. Deficient moisture availability crippled many growers ability to salvage a decent harvest this season, with overall vegetative crop development as bad as or worse than last year’s severe drought. Total wheat production is expected to be little changed from last year, ranking as one of the worst harvests in the last decade. Given that winter grain crops usually account for 85 percent or more of total annual foodgrain production in Iraq, a significant domestic grain supply shortage is expected, requiring another year of above-normal grain imports in the 2009/10 marketing year.

Cumulative rainfall in most of Iraq’s provinces during the autumn 2008 and spring 2009 (2009/10 marketing year) winter grain growing season was only slightly improved compared to last year’s extreme drought. Total rainfall accumulations averaged between 25-65 percent of normal for most of the primary wheat producing regions. This amounts to an average of 4-8 inches of rainfall during the 8 months between September 2008 and April 2009. Well-below normal rainfall conditions predominated in all but a handful of upland and far eastern growing areas. In the major non-irrigated grain provinces of northern Iraq, rain-bearing weather systems were scanty and infrequent. Huge areas apparently went unplanted, as autumn rains failed to arrive in sufficient quantity to ensure seed germination. This adversely affected potential crop area in Ninewa, Arbil, and At Tamin provinces which collectively account for 35 percent of the nation’s wheat production. In addition, severe irrigation water shortages developed during the winter months when water levels dropped precipitously along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers owing to restricted releases of water from upstream reservoirs in Turkey. These shortages caused extensive harm to Iraq’s irrigated winter grain crops, with severe moisture stress causing significant crop yield reductions over vast areas. The provinces of Diyala, Wasit, and Al Qadisiyah were heavily impacted by these shortages, resulting in both reduced wheat area and production. These provinces typically account for 32 percent of total wheat production in Iraq.

A comprehensive evaluation of winter grain establishment across Iraq was conducted during the 2009/10 winter growing season, comparing the current seasonal situation to those of recent years. This analysis (illustrated in the maps below) is based on comparing satellite-based measurements of the density or vigor of growing vegetation during the season. The results of the analysis clearly depicted a significant drought-related decline in grain production potential owing to a lack of grain crop emergence and establishment in several major rainfed grain growing areas, as well as late season moisture stress on non-irrigated crops that did get established. The severity of the decline in 2009/10 crop vegetation was only exceeded by the extremely poor situation last year. The worst declines in crop vegetation compared to normal in the northern rainfed wheat producing governorates occurred in Ninawa, Arbil, At Tamin, and Sulaymaniyah which together account for 36 percent of the country’s wheat crop. Ninawa on its own is particularly hard-hit, and is the country’s leading wheat producing region, normally accounting for 20 percent of total wheat production. In addition to these problem areas, the satellite image comparisons showed that grain area and/or crop vigor in primarily irrigated regions had also declined from normal. The most seriously affected areas were in the governorates of Diyala, Wasit, Al Qadisiyah, and Maysan which typically account for 37 percent of the nation’s wheat output. There were significantly improved vegetative crop conditions in several northern Kurdish governorates which share borders with Turkey and Iran this year, but their combined production rarely exceeds 2-3 percent of the national total. The increased grain production prospects this year in these northern areas are not expected to compensate for losses in the country’s major producing regions, though it will provide a semblance of local grain self-sufficiency.

High resolution satellite imagery over Iraq’s largest wheat producing governorate of Ninewa this winter revealed little improvement over last year’s devastating drought which resulted in a regional crop disaster. Minor producing northern areas of the governorate did receive beneficial rains this year, resulting in a modest improvement in wheat production. However, over 90 percent of the governorate’s cropland remained barren throughout the winter, from a combination of aborted planting operations and drought-induced crop failure. This region is the historical bread basket of Iraq, yet has little to no irrigation resources for grain production. The fate of its winter crops relies almost totally on timely rainfall between October and April. Upwards of 750,000 hectares of wheat are typically sown in Ninewa, with severe drought the past two seasons limiting harvested area to between 25,000-75,000 hectares.

High resolution satellite imagery over the southern governorate of Diyala, one of Iraq’s three largest irrigated wheat producing areas, revealed a significant deterioration in winter grain production prospects compared to last year over a substantial portion of its cropland. Vegetation index comparison data show large-scale declines in crop development and greenness compared to last year. These areas are typically under assured irrigation and normally provide a stable and reliable volume of grain production each year. The scale of crop production problems evident this season implies a serious deficiency in irrigation supply or major difficulties in its distribution throughout the watershed. There were widespread news reports that water shortages were widespread this winter across Iraq as flow along the major Tigris and Euphrates rivers was critically low. It is assumed that limited irrigation availability in the 2009/10 wheat growing season was primarily responsible for the unexpected decline in crop development and production potential this year. It is expected that both irrigated wheat area and average crop yield will decline in southern Iraq in 2009/10 as a result of these issues.

Overall national wheat production prospects this year in Iraq are expected to be among the worst in the past decade. Owing to prolonged drought conditions and irrigation shortages wheat production in 2009/10 is forecast by USDA at 1.35 million tons, essentially unchanged from last year’s severe drought and down approximately 45 percent from a normal-sized harvest. Given its huge contribution to overall national foodgrain production, the shortfall in wheat output this year is expected to be acutely felt on the domestic market. Another year of above-normal grain imports will be required in the 2009/10 marketing year to offset the forecast decline in production.

Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD's Agricultural Production page or at PSD Online.

For more information contact Michael Shean | | (202) 720-7366
USDA-FAS, Office of Global Analysis

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