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Hawija: Recovering from war, coping with drought

News Food systems
Iraq -

Conflict and climate change have largely destroyed the livelihoods of farmers and small agribusiness owners in Hawija. It was once Iraq’s most prosperous agricultural centre. Cordaid joined hands with others to assist hundreds of them in growing their businesses against all odds. “This is about so much more than entrepreneurship. It’s about people finally feeling no longer abandoned.”

man on pile of rubble clothes drying
Livestock farmer in Salamiyah, near Hawija, standing on what was once his house.

We’d like to start by putting the spotlight on five individuals from Hawija district who each tell their story and reflect on the Blossom Up, Agriculture for Growth initiative. You can read their full stories by clicking on their pictures.

If you first want some historical and contextual background to Hawija as a chessboard of cruel powers and politics and to the Blossom Up project, you can scroll further down.

The story of Sadaa

woman next to car
Sadaa Abdullah Mohammed is a farmer in the village of Qab Zo’a. Sadaa has six sons and three daughters. Her youngest child is 17. She takes full care of her husband, a former soldier paralysed by a spinal injury during an ambush attack by ISIL in 2021. People call her ‘the old lady’.

The story of Maitham

man against wall in sunshine
Maitham Noory is 25 years old. Between 2015 and 2018 he and his family were displaced by conflict. Today, Maitham is a small livestock farmer and lives with his family in his parents’ house in the village of Abul Jees, near Hawija city.

The story of Mohammed

man in shop behind counter
Mohammed Ali Mohammed, 35 years old, is a father of five. He used to be a farmer and a police officer before ISIL occupied his village. He was caught by the armed extremists and tortured for weeks. It left him chronically ill, and he had to give up farming. Today he is a shop owner in Gharib, a village some 10 km outside Hawija city, near areas where ISIL cells continue to carry out attacks and terrorise the population.

The story of Yasser

man looking into the camera
Dr. Yasser Khalaf took his Ph.D. in plant diseases at Tikrit University. He is both a lecturer, a consultant, and a farmer in Hawija district, Iraq. He is also a dedicated father. In the Blossom Up, Agriculture for Growth project, he collaborated with Dutch knowledge experts from Delphy and trained and coached many of the participating farmers.

The story of Sahera

woman sitting outside looking in the camera
Sahera Al Jobory is born and raised in Hawija. She is a dentist and recently started her first term as an independent member of the Iraqi parliament, not affiliated with one of the political parties. She represents the community of Hawija and defends the rights of its farmers and small agribusiness owners.

Twenty years ago this month…

Twenty years ago, on March 20th, 2003, the war in Iraq brutally kicked off. It propelled human suffering, already so pervasive under the dictatorship of Saddam, to unprecedented levels.

Hawija, a district in the northern governorate of Kirkuk, was particularly hard hit. Up to this day, its people continue to suffer. They have seen it all. Vertical and remote warfare from the air by an untouchable enemy and horizontal warfare by troops on the ground. The rise of violent extremism from Al Qaeda and a three-year siege by ISIL. Mass executions, kidnappings, and human shield tactics against an entire population during a brutal war of liberation. Two decades of war and extremism have turned this district in the north into one of the most violence-wracked parts of the country.

man outside blue sky
man on pile of rubble
man sky blue rubble
house in ruins
rubble clothes

A livestock farmer just outside Hawija district, in the village of Salamiyah, stands on what was once his house. Between 2014 and 2017 Salamiyah was part of ISIL territory. During clashes between the Iraqi army and ISIL in 2017, he fled and took his cattle toward Hawija. His family left for Kirkuk, which was non-ISIL territory but where his livestock couldn’t enter. Soon afterward, their house was taken over by ISIL and destroyed. He applied for compensation years ago, without success. He and his family now live in a temporary shelter next to the destroyed house.

Together with the province of Anbar, Hawija district was the last ISIL stronghold to surrender, in 2018. Almost five years down the line, the ‘enduring security’ that military operations of the coalition forces claimed to pursue, isn’t there. Many houses and buildings are still inhabitable. Unexploded war remnants are all around. Roads in the wider area are stitched by a myriad of armed checkpoints of different militias and security forces. ISIL cells still operate in security vacuums and brutally target Iraqi forces and civilians. The effects of war still displace thousands of Hawija families. And thousands of persons are still missing.

Destruction during the war

During the war, especially in 2015, airstrikes and explosions ruined large parts of Hawija. Almost eight years later, part of the industrial heart of Hawija is still in ruins, as are the livelihoods of thousands of entrepreneurs and their families.

When we say industrial heart, we mainly mean the agri- and food sectors. Because the majority of people in Hawija are small-scale farmers and agribusiness owners, including grinders, traders, and shop owners.

A past to be proud of

As farmers, they have an illustrious past to look back on. Prior to the ISIL invasion in 2014, Hawija was the most prosperous agricultural centre of Iraq. Its wheat, corn, tomatoes, okra, and other produce fed people in all corners of the country. Now, farmers and agribusiness owners try to survive and run their businesses with a fraction of the machinery, infrastructure, inputs, and livestock they once had. A 2021 assessment estimated that in villages north of Hawjia city, farmers lost 94% of their tools and 95% of their essential crops during the peak of conflict.

There are national support mechanisms to compensate ISIL victims for their losses. But they cover only a fraction of the damage. And, given the number of people who suffered losses and the complex post-war setting of the country, applications take a long time to be processed.

rubble concrete
Fragment of a Quranic verse in tiles, found in the rubble of a shelled house in Salamiyah. This bit still shows the Arabic word for ‘evil’. It is part of Quranic verse 113, saying amongst others ‘I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak, from the evil of that which he created and from the evil of darkness when it settles’. “My dad, who built the house, loved these tiles”, said the farmer who now lives next to the destroyed house and is still waiting for damage reparations.

As if conflict and destruction on this scale weren’t enough to deal with, farmers in Hawija increasingly face the consequences of climate change. Rains are increasingly rare and unexpected, 55+ degrees Celsius temperatures are not uncommon, decreased river flows and levels are a major cause for concern. Unfortunately, water mismanagement is only aggravating these problems.

Water scarcity and failing water management systems

Fifty-year-old Sadaa, one of Blossom Up’s many female farmers, started working the land as a child and has never stopped since. She can look back on decades of farming practices. “When I was young, water was everywhere”, she remembers. “You just had to dig a few meters and it came in abundance. These days, boreholes easily go up to 40 meters and more before they reach water levels. Poor rains, falling river flows, wells running dry… it worries me a lot. No water means our animals die, it means no wheat, and also no income.”

For irrigation, farmers in Hawija used to rely almost 100% on state-operated and controlled canals connected to the Al Zab river and its tributaries. This water system was heavily damaged and sabotaged by warfare and by ISIL and has not been fully repaired.
On top of that, just like Iraq’s giant rivers Euphrates and Tigris, levels of the Al Zab river have been steadily dropping in the past decades. Increasingly, in times of severe water scarcity, authorities shut off these canals. Pushing farmers to dig deeper and deeper for private well water.

For farmers who survived the war and violent extremism and who had to start all over again from scratch and with next to no support, adapting to the consequences of climate change is an investment they simply can’t afford.

Blossom Up: providing assistance in places most INGOs prefer not to come

To support Hawija in addressing this double burden of conflict and climate adversity, Cordaid joined hands with others in the ‘Blossom Up, Agriculture for growth’.

This project started in September 2022, with UNDP as its implementor, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), provided through KFW Development Bank. UNDP implements this project in partnership with a consortium consisting of Cordaid, Al-Ghad and Delphy. Its aim? To revatilise Hawija’s agricultural and agri-business sector.

“We saw there was hardly any international support for Hawija. Therefore, we decided to assist the hardest-hit farmers and agri-business owners. We do this in an area many organisations prefer to stay away from for security reasons”, explains Cordaid programme lead Nynke Schaap.

“Altogether, in six months, with Blossom Up, we have provided practical and theoretical crash courses and training to 249 farmers and 77 owners of small agri-business owners”, Business Support and Youth Employment Expert Othman Khalil adds. Of these, 105 farmers received a 3500 USD grant and 40 SME owners received 3200 USD to invest in their businesses. Grant money was used for major investments such as generators, solar panels, construction work, and, most importantly, new irrigation systems that are better adapted to water scarcity.

man machinery
three men bags of flour grinder

Falah Sabah Mohammed, 24, is a grinder on the outskirts of Hawija city. He is one of the SME owners who participated in the Blossom Up project and also received a grant. “During the ISIL occupation, I did not leave Hawija. It was horrible. And I was out of work. Afterward, I started working as a grinder for someone else. With the Blossom Up grant, I was able to buy grinding machinery and start my own business. Today, I make twice as much money, processing the wheat and corn of about one hundred farmers in the area. Our end product is for animal consumption mostly. In the near future, I hope to purchase a machine with a finer mill and produce flour for human consumption. It would increase business a lot.”

Othman was involved in most of the fieldwork and follow-up visits. “Everyone in Hawija is in need of support, but we could only assist a limited number of people. The selection of participants was therefore key,” he says. “We thoroughly assessed the profiles and needs of small-scale farmers and SME owners according to a series of vulnerability indicators. The monthly income for each family member couldn’t exceed 80.000 IQD/Month (about 50 €), and their cultivated land couldn’t exceed eight dunums (about 20.000 m2). Though small, their business needed to be potentially profitable and sustainable enough to invest in. Personal skills and eagerness to learn and change farming and business practices were also among the criteria. As were personal situations and challenges, like having a chronic disease or a disability, or running a household on your own.”

Change starts with women and young people

Women consisted of 40% of all the farmers that participated in the training session. And most of the trained farmers (63%) were under the age of 30. Slightly more than half of the 105 farmer grantees were women. Among the agri-SME owners who received a grant, there were even more women (25 out of 40).

Apart from addressing gender and age inequities, this focus on women and youth had other effects as well. As Yasser Khalaf, agronomist and one of the key coaches and trainers of the Blossom Up project, explains: “One of the toughest things to change is the stubbornness of farming communities. For example, a lot of farmers still think that more water means more produce. I keep saying that using less water more efficiently, is better for their crops. In general, young farmers and women farmers, are more open to new ideas. Change starts with them.”

On demo plots and in classrooms, farmers were trained in good agricultural practices, the efficient and responsible use of fertilizers, and specifically, in installing and using more water-efficient irrigation systems, like drip and sprinkler irrigation. SME owners improved their finance, human resource, client, and overall business management skills, Othman: “One hundred of the 105 farmer grantees used the money to purchase and install a new irrigation system. Mostly sprinkler systems for crops such as wheat, and to a lesser degree also drip irrigation, more suited for vegetable crops. This drastically reduced their water consumption, compared to the flood irrigation methods most of them used.”

sprinkler water field
Most of the farmers who participated in the Blossom Up project used their grants to buy and install sprinkler irrigation systems. This system, used for crops such as wheat and corn, easily reduces irrigation water use by 50%, compared to the more traditional flood irrigation methods. Drip irrigation, more suitable for vegetable crops, reduces water use even more.

Dealing with the wrong kind of pressure

Squeezing all project stages, from participant selection, training sessions, grant disbursement, and monitoring into a six-month project period was obviously a challenge.
“But it worked out well. Actually, it wasn’t our biggest concern. That was dealing with parties who tried to interfere with our participant selection process”, Othman mentions. “We managed to stick to our criteria, and we didn’t yield to external pressure.”

man in sunshine smiling
Emad Khalaf, one of the Blossom Up volunteers. He took part in a lot of field visits to many of the farmers and SME owners who participated in the Blossom Up project. He also did market and participant assessments and analysed soil and water samples.

Othman’s observation is echoed by the independent Iraqi parliament member Sahera Al Jobary. She represents the community of Hawija and considers fighting fraud as her main mission. According to her “there is government support for the Hawija agri-sector, but it doesn’t reach the farming communities who need it most”.

She particularly praises the parties involved in the Blossom Up project for its community-driven approach. “Cordaid worked directly with the communities and with local NGOs. You have tailored your interventions to the realities on the ground and the most urgent needs,” she adds.

man sitting in front of a destroyed building
Othman Khalil, Cordaid Business Support and Youth Employment Expert. He was involved in most of the fieldwork and follow-up visits of the Blossom Up, Agriculture for Growth project. Here he is in the old city of Mosul, his native city.

The fabric of society

“In the end, this project is about so much more than entrepreneurship and private sector development”, Othman concludes.

“Hawija society was and is torn apart by trauma. War and extremism have deepened and sharpened distrust between clans and religious and ethnic groups, between citizens and authorities. When people are able to run and improve their businesses, when they produce, process, sell, and trade, they are bridging these divides. They actually repair the fabric of society. And there is another angle to it as well. For decades, the people of Hawija felt abandoned and isolated. By their government, and by the international community. Blossom Up’s support gives them a feeling of no longer being abandoned. They felt left behind with their traumas of war. Finally, they have a feeling of being connected and supported.”

Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid