BAGHDAD: Iraq, a major Middle East grain buyer, will cut the irrigated area it plants with wheat by half in the 2018-2019 growing season as water shortages grip the country, a government official told Reuters.
Drought and dwindling river flows have already forced Iraq to ban farmers from planting rice and other water-intensive summer crops. Water scarcity was one of the issues galvanizing street protests in the country this year.
An investigation by Reuters in July revealed how Nineveh, Iraq's former breadbasket, was becoming a dust bowl after drought and years of war.
This latest move is likely to significantly raise wheat imports.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Mahdi al-Qaisi said irrigated land grown with winter grains, namely wheat and barley, would be halved.
"The shortage of water resources, climate change and drought are the main reasons behind this decision, our expectation is the area will shrink to half," Qaisi said in an interview.
Iraq's agricultural plan included 1.6 million hectares of wheat last 2017-2018 season. Of those, around one million hectares were irrigated and the rest relied on rainfall.
"We expect that the irrigated wheat area falls to half of what it was last year," Qaisi said, implying plantings of 500,000 hectares.
The cut is expected to lower the country's wheat production by at least 20 percent, implying a significantly higher import bill Fadel al-Zubi, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Iraq Representative said.
Iraq already has an import gap of more than one million tonnes per year, with annual demand at around 4.5 million to 5 million tonnes.
"Imports will go up as a result of cutting down on production and also as a result of population increase," Zubi said but he declined to give an exact estimate for size of imports next year.
Haidar al-Abbadi, the head of Iraq's General Union of Farmers, confirmed the cut saying water shortage was the main reason behind it.
"Irrigated wheat will reach 2 million donhums (500,000 hectares) down from around 4 million last season," he said.
Qaisi said it was too early to tell the area of land that could be grown with wheat relying on rainfall this season but he hoped it would make up for some of the shortfall.
"We will follow a few programmes to increase the crop, like raising yields and bringing Nineveh province back to more production ... that can partly make up for shortfall," he said.
But the rains failed Iraq's Nineveh last season with the government procuring a little over 100,000 tonnes of wheat this year from a region that used to produce close to one million tonnes annually before Islamic State took over in 2014.
Iraq imports wheat to supply a rationing programme created in 1991 to combat U.N. economic sanctions, including flour, cooking oil, rice, sugar and baby milk formula.
The trade ministry is responsible for procuring strategic commodities, including wheat, for the programme.
Trade ministry officials were not immediately available for comment on a potential rise in imports.
(Reporting By Moayed Kenany; Writing By Maha El Dahan; Editing by Veronica Brown and David Evans)