September 25, 2011

Iraqi Date Palms Beset by Salinity and Water Shortage

A story by the Associated Press on Iraq’s plans to encourage the production of date palms shows Iraqi targets beset by severe natural constraints, primarily salinity and the dearth of water.

During its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Iraq was the world’s No. 1 date producer and exporter and boasted 32 million date palms, more than any other nation in the world. At that time, Iraq produced about 1 million tons of dates annually, said Kamil Mikhlif al-Dulaimi, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s Date Palm Board.

But by 2003, there were only half that number of trees and production fell to 200,000 tons. The southern province of Basra was the worst hit by the slump, with only about a quarter of the 12 million date trees it once had. “That prompts only deep sadness,” al-Dulaimai said in an interview. . . .

Now, with the worst years of violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion over and oil revenues bubbling on the horizon, Iraq has focused on the date industry as one of several sectors — including oil, agriculture and infrastructure — it wants to develop.

The government has begun supporting date farmers with soft loans to plant new orchards and subsidized fertilizers and insecticides. It established the Date Palm Board in 2005 with a mission to more than double to number of trees nationwide to 40 million by 2021.

The board has built 30 nurseries around the country to produce new varieties and it has launched programs to rehabilitate old orchards and build processing and storage facilities. It is aiming to develop tree varieties that produce fruit in two years rather than the four or five it usually takes. The push has brought some progress. The number of trees has risen to 21 million trees, producing 420,000 tons last year, al-Dulaimi said. “This is a major leap forward,” al-Dulaimi said proudly. “We are reaping the fruits of these efforts.”

Marhon Abid Falih, a date farmer south of Basra, would like to reap some of those profits. But he’s not sure the government can help. Iraq’s chronic problems over the decades — lacking of water, electricity, fuel, and storage — have forced many farmers to abandon cultivation and find another jobs like in the army or police.

In 2002, Falih’s orchard in the Abu al-Khasib area south of Basra boasted as many as 200 date palm trees. He grew fruits and vegetables in their shade, and hired dozens of workers to help him during harvest. The farm made enough money to meet all his family’s daily needs. But a year later, his farm was hit by drought and its soil grew bitter. Only about 50 trees survived.

“There is no motive to cultivate anymore,” said Falih, 52. “It’s not a matter of planting new trees or taking loans,” he said. “There is no longer a benefit from agriculture because of the salinity and dearth of water. All attempts are in vain.”

h/t Desdemona Despair, via The Washington Post, "Iraq struggles to revive date palm sector, eager to retrieve past glory," September 25, 2011

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