Conflict and drought ravage Iraq’s prized date palms

1 / 3
Neglected date palm trees at a farm in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. (AFP)
2 / 3
A man harvests dates from a palm tree at a farm in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Iraq used to be known as the land of 30 million palm trees. (AFP)
3 / 3
Basra date farmer Raed Al-Jubayli, above, said surviving producers have been hit by a double ‘tragedy’ — drought and pollution from oil installations. (AFP)
Updated 28 September 2018

Conflict and drought ravage Iraq’s prized date palms

  • Trader Salem Hussein once dreamt of expanding palm groves and introducing even more varieties than the 450 already boasted by Iraq
  • The country’s dates were long exported ‘to the United States, Japan and India’

BASRA, Iraq: Sweet Iraqi dates adorn tables in homes across the country, but the fruit tree and national symbol has come under threat from conflict and crippling drought.
Shopping in the southern city of Basra, Leila only buys “the queen of dates” — those produced in the surrounding province.
Her husband Mehdi, 68, said the couple have the sweet fruit “every lunchtime, and also for snacks between meals.”
The pair devours a kilo (two pounds) over two to three days, at a cost of 5,000 dinars, or just over $4.
But high unemployment and price hikes mean not all families can afford such luxury.
For trader Salem Hussein, who has been selling dates for 40 years, the decline set in long ago — before the drought and even this century’s series of deadly conflicts.
The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war decimated the groves of date palms on Iraqi soil, he said, dressed in a sky-blue robe and white skullcap.
The majority of trees lining the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, marking the border between the two countries, were incinerated by shells and rockets.
Hussein once dreamt of expanding palm groves and introducing even more varieties than the 450 already boasted by Iraq, which used to be known as the land of 30 million palm trees.
The country’s dates were long exported “to the United States, Japan and India,” recalled the 66-year-old.
“We thought of developing and doubling the number of palms, but the figure only falls.”
Official estimates put the decline at 50 percent of pre-1980 numbers.
“We hoped for a better future — and it got even worse,” Hussein lamented.
Iraqi agriculture has been especially hard hit by drought this year, resulting in an official ban on the growing of rice and cereals which require a lot of water and the deaths of thousands of animals.
With Iraqi farmers hiking their prices due to the drought, seller Aqil Antuch has adapted to keep his cash-strapped customers happy.
He now sells dates imported from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait at his central Basra shop, which he has run for 25 years.
“The Saudis, who produce a high quantity, want to sell their merchandise and lower the price to 1,500 dinars per kilo,” said Antuch, 52.
It’s a far cry from decades past.
Saddam Hussein “never let a foreign date enter Iraq,” he said of the former dictator, who presided over the Iran-Iraq war and was deposed by the US-led military invasion in 2003.
Shopper Mehdi remembers palm trees in his garden during the dictatorship, when Iraq was under an international trade embargo.
“We would go to the agriculture office with a sick palm tree and they would examine it like a patient at the doctor’s,” he said.
But, in recent years, farming has also been hit by an exodus from rural areas, as Iraqis flock to cities and informal neighborhoods.
Irrigation channels have become open sewers and the rows of trees which once provided shade have disappeared.
Palm groves have also been ripped up to make way for oil installations, the country’s biggest source of revenue.
Other groves have been snapped up for construction of new buildings.
In a cruel irony, the majority of dates now sold in Iraq come from trees which first took root in the country, before being replanted in other Gulf states decades ago.
One Basra grower, Raed Al-Jubayli, said surviving producers have been hit by a double “tragedy” — drought and pollution from oil installations.
“Buying a palm tree costs around $250. The maintenance then costs about $12 per season, while its four kilos of dates don’t sell for more than $3.50,” he said.
But Jubayli remains proud of the date palm’s “ancestral heritage” and its diverse uses.
“With the palm, nothing is wasted,” he said.
“Dates bring people sugar and energy; the palms, which provide shade, once woven, make brooms; the wood is used to make furniture.”


Turkey’s new coronavirus figures confirm experts’ worst fears

Updated 17 min 27 sec ago

Turkey’s new coronavirus figures confirm experts’ worst fears

  • Turkish Medical Association has been warning for months that the government’s previous figures were concealing the graveness of the spread

ANKARA, Turkey: When Turkey changed the way it reports daily COVID-19 infections, it confirmed what medical groups and opposition parties have long suspected – that the country is faced with an alarming surge of cases that is fast exhausting the Turkish health system.
In an about-face, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government this week resumed reporting all positive coronavirus tests – not just the number of patients being treated for symptoms – pushing the number of daily cases to above 30,000. With the new data, the country jumped from being one of the least-affected countries in Europe to one of the worst-hit.
That came as no surprise to the Turkish Medical Association, which has been warning for months that the government’s previous figures were concealing the graveness of the spread and that the lack of transparency was contributing to the surge. The group maintains, however, that the ministry’s figures are still low compared with its estimate of at least 50,000 new infections per day.
No country can report exact numbers on the spread of the disease since many asymptomatic cases go undetected, but the previous way of counting made Turkey look relatively well-off in international comparisons, with daily new cases far below those reported in European countries including Italy, Britain and France.
That changed Wednesday as Turkey’s daily caseload almost quadrupled from about 7,400 to 28,300.
The country’s hospitals are overstretched, medical staff are burned out and contract tracers, who were once credited for keeping the outbreak under check, are struggling to track transmissions, Sebnem Korur Fincanci, who heads the association, told The Associated Press.
“It’s the perfect storm,” said Fincanci, whose group has come under attack from Erdogan and his nationalist allies for questioning the government’s figures and its response to the outbreak.
Even though the health minister has put the ICU bed occupancy rate at 70 percent, Ebru Kiraner, who heads the Istanbul-based Intensive Care Nurses’ Association, says intensive care unit beds in Istanbul’s hospitals are almost full, with doctors scrambling to find room for critically ill patients.
There is a shortage of nurses and the existing nursing staff is exhausted, she added.
“ICU nurses have not been able to return to their normal lives since March,” she told the AP. “Their children have not seen their mask-less faces in months.”
Erdogan said, however, there was “no problem” concerning the hospitals’ capacities. He blamed the surge on the public’s failure to wear masks, which is mandatory, and to abide by social distancing rules.
Demonstrating the seriousness of the outbreak, Turkey last month suspended leave for health care workers and temporarily banned resignations and early retirements during the pandemic. Similar bans were also put in place for three months in March.
The official daily COVID-19 deaths have also steadily risen to record numbers, reaching 13,373 on Saturday with 182 new deaths, in a reversal of fortune for the country that had been praised for managing to keep fatalities low. But those record numbers remain disputed too.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said 186 people had died of infectious diseases in the city on Nov. 22 – a day on which the government announced just 139 COVID-19 deaths for the whole of the country. The mayor also said around 450 burials are taking place daily in the city of 15 million compared with the average 180-200 recorded in November the previous year.
“We can only beat the outbreak through a process that is transparent,” said Imamoglu, who is from Turkey’s main opposition party. “Russia and Germany have announced a high death toll. Did Germany lose its shine? Did Russia collapse?”
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has rejected Imamoglu’s claims, saying: “I want to underline that all of the figures I am providing are accurate.”
Last week, Erdogan announced a series of restrictions in a bid to contain the contagion without impacting the already weakened economy or business activity. Opposition parties denounced them as “half-baked.” He introduced curfews for the first time since June, but limited them to weekend evenings, closed down restaurants and cafes except for takeout services and restricted the opening hours of malls, shops and hairdressers.
Both Fincanci and Kiraner said the measures don’t go far enough to contain transmissions.
“We need a total lockdown of at least two weeks, if not four weeks which science considers to be the most ideal amount,” Fincanci said.
Koca has said that the number of seriously ill patients and fatalities is on the rise and said some cities including Istanbul and Izmir are experiencing their “third peak.”
Turkey would wait, however, for two weeks to see the results of the weekend curfews and other restrictions before considering stricter lockdowns, he said.