Located about 240 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, a quaint city with panoramic views of the desert sits on both sides of the Euphrates River. With over 46,000 residents, Haditha is one of seven major cities in the Anbar governorate. During the war with the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL), six of those cities were taken by ISIL except for Haditha and a handful of surrounding villages. Unfortunately, due to the fighting, farmers were forced to flee their homes and abandon their cultivated land.
“We used to have olive trees and different types of vegetables growing. But people were forced to leave all of this behind,” says Mabrook Mhedy, Mayor of Haditha. “When people returned home, they were met with absolute devastation. They found most of their land burnt, and as a result, lost their main source of livelihoods.” Coupled with the impact of climate change, the land in Haditha is now highly susceptible to desertification.
Four years since the liberation from ISIL, the residents of Haditha are more determined than ever to revive their once prosperous land. For this reason, UNDP, through the Funding Facility for Stabilization in partnership with the Department of Agriculture in Anbar, launched a project to employ 100 residents of Haditha for three months to support the planting and cultivation of an oasis. Through the project, saplings were supplied to support the cultivation of over 250 hectares of desert in Haditha.
“Having always lived along the Euphrates, we are a community of farmers by lifestyle,” says Zahra Ghazal, 47, who was employed through the project. Along with her husband and two children, she escaped to Egypt when the fighting broke out in 2014. They both worked as daily wagers in construction and housekeeping to make ends meet and fund their children’s education.
“We returned home to go back to what we love doing, which is farming and cultivation,” Zahra explains. After being displaced for over five years, they were finally able to return home but like many others, were met with scenes of devastation and ruin. “Through my earnings from this opportunity, I have been able to save money to rebuild my house, create a small greenhouse in our backyard and purchase saplings,” she adds.
Over 23% of the people employed under the project were women. While Zahra was well-versed in farming, it was the first time her childhood friend and mother-of-six, Bashaar Mudhaffar, 45, was exposed to it. “I learned how to work with seeds, fertilizers, and saplings. Farming was always seen as a male-dominated space. But this opportunity opened my eyes to the possibility that women can do this too. We received clear instruction and guidance from the experts in the Department of Agriculture which were really helpful,” Bashaar says.
For both the enterprising women the project serves as a stepping stone to secure more sustainable employment opportunities. For instance, Bashaar is keen to translate her new skills into starting a small nursery and supplying saplings to larger farms in the area. “I used my earnings to purchase seeds and experiment with them at home. As a result, I now have 50 saplings that I plant to the market and sell,” she adds.
In addition to creating short-term employment opportunities, UNDP also provided cucumber, olives, pistachios, aloe vera, and date palm saplings, along with organic fertilizers. They were grown in makeshift greenhouses and then planted. “We started with 50 olive tree saplings. Today, at the end of the three months we have over 500,000 saplings growing in the greenhouses,” explains Sami Hussein, Manager at the Department of Agriculture in Anbar.
Passionate about farming, Sami is proud of how the residents of Haditha have shown resilience and determination in bringing the desert back to life. “People now work together to improve each other’s livelihoods while also reviving our land back to what it was before the war,” he adds.
In addition, UNDP supported the local irrigation system by establishing a water connection running over five kilometers from the river to the oasis, along with water pumps and drip irrigation technology. “Our access to water from the might of the Euphrates is our community’s biggest strength. Without it, we would have not been able to get this far,” Sami says. “The water pipes were destroyed during the war, so restoring the supply was an essential step to get us back on our feet.”
Before ISIL, the entire desert only contained 50,000 olive trees managed by 60 workers every day. Today, the desert has transformed into an oasis haven with over 250,000 saplings being cultivated every two hectares. Sami wants to use this as an example to encourage more farming across the country. “We have already started harvesting cucumbers. By September this year, Haditha will be booming with olives, dates, and pistachios,” excitedly shares Sami. The Department of Agriculture is working toward hiring 30 permanent employees to maintain and grow the oasis and ensure its longevity.
In the future, Sami plans to educate residents of Haditha on sustainable farming practices with the goal of skilling and encouraging livelihood opportunities. “We are on track to pick up from we left off, as long we set aside our differences and work as a community towards our shared vision.”
The Haditha oasis project was made possible thanks to generous support from the Government of Canada.
You may read about World Desertification Day here.