It is an understatement to say that this mega-project, financed and managed by a prestigious religious institution in Karbala (center), contrasts with the rest of the Iraqi palm groves.

In the past, the country of “30 million palm trees”, as Iraq was nicknamed, produced more than 600 varieties of dates.

But repeated conflicts, notably the war with neighboring Iran (1980-88), then environmental challenges (droughts, salinization, etc.) have affected the sector, which must reinvent itself.

Seen from the sky near Karbala, date palms are planted at regular intervals on plots dotted with water reservoirs. Despite the small size of the trees, bunches of green dates are already hanging in the middle of the twigs.

“The date palm is the symbol and the pride of Iraq,” boasts the commercial director of the Fadak palm grove, Mohamed Aboul-Maali. Objective of the project launched in 2016: “to restore this culture to its place of yesteryear”.

Its palm grove is home to “more than 90 varieties of date palms, Iraqi but also Arab species”, from Gulf or Maghreb countries.

The Iraqi varieties, among “the rarest and best”, have been “collected in most provinces” of the country, he explains.

Of the 30,000 trees, more than 6,000 are already producing fruit, adds Mr. Aboul-Maali. “This season we expect a harvest of more than 60 tons,” he adds, 40 tons more than in 2021.

– “Cemetery” –

In a country hit by desertification and drought, a drip irrigation system — supplied by a tributary of the Euphrates and ten wells — has replaced the traditional abundant irrigation.

The contrast is striking with the Basra region, bordering Iran, in the far south of Iraq. Here stretch for miles the slender trunks of decapitated palm trees. On the ground, withered twigs.

We are, however, on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Baghdad razed entire areas to prevent enemy infiltration. No longer needed, irrigation canals have been blocked — often with cut trunks.

“It looks like a cemetery,” says agricultural engineer Alaa al-Badran. The number of palm trees has fallen from six million before the conflict to less than three million today, he says.

And according to the engineer, another challenge has taken precedence: “the salinization of the waters of the Shatt al-Arab and of the land”.

“The solution would be drip irrigation and desalination systems. But that can be expensive,” admits Ahmed al-Awad. His family once owned 200 date palms. Today only 50 trees are standing.

The Ministry of Agriculture, however, defends its action.

“In the last ten years we have gone from 11 million palm trees to 17 million,” said the minister’s spokesman, Hadi al-Yasseri, referring to a program to encourage plantations.

Launched in 2010, the initiative was interrupted in 2018 for lack of budgetary provisions, he acknowledges, promising that the next government budget – not yet adopted – would include funding.

– “Incomparable date” –

Iraq says it exported nearly 600,000 tons of dates in 2021. This fruit is its second largest export product, just after oil, and it brings in more than 120 million dollars annually, according to the World Bank.

“While global demand is increasing, the initiatives underway in Iraq to improve quality must continue,” the institution recently judged, calling for the diversification of the species produced.

“Almost half of the dates from Iraq are exported to the United Arab Emirates (…). They are then packaged and exported again, at a higher price”, lamented the organization.

In eastern Iraq, still on the Iranian border, there is no shortage of grievances in Badra. In the middle of the palm trees, swarm the decapitated trees. Here too, the ravages of war.

Local officials have been deploring a difficult water supply for more than a decade, the Iranian neighbor being accused of having diverted upstream the watercourse that irrigated Badra: the Mirzabad River, locally called al-Kalal.

“The date of Badra is incomparable,” sighs Moussa Mohsen, a resident of Badra, who owns about 800 palm trees.

“Before, we had water from Kalal which came from Iran,” recalls Mr. Mohsen. “Badra was like a sea,” he says. “Now to irrigate, we mainly rely on wells”.