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Geography, climate and population
Iraq, with a total area of 438 320 km2, is bordered by Turkey to the north, the Islamic Republic of Iran to the east, the Persian Gulf to the southeast, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south, and Jordan and the Syrian Arab Republic to the west. Topographically, Iraq is shaped like a basin, consisting of the Great Mesopotamian alluvial plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia means, literally, the land between two rivers). This plain is surrounded by mountains in the north and the east, which can reach altitudes of 3 550 m above sea level, and by desert areas in the south and west, which account for over 40 percent of the land area. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into eighteen governorates, of which three (Arbil, Dahuk, and As Sulaymaniyah) are gathered in an autonomous region in the north and the other fifteen governorates are in central and southern Iraq. This division corresponds roughly to the rainfed northern agricultural zone and the irrigated central and southern zone.
It is estimated that about 11.5 million ha, or 26 percent of the total area of the country, are cultivable. The remaining part is not viable for agricultural use under current conditions and only a small strip situated along the extreme northern border with Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran is under forest and woodlands. The total cultivated area is estimated at about 6 million ha, of which almost 50 percent in northern Iraq under rainfed conditions. Less than 5 percent is occupied by permanent crops (Table 1). Permanent pasture covers around 4 million ha. Livestock grazing occurs throughout all agricultural zones, but is more widespread in the north where hillside grazing prevails. Small ruminants (mainly sheep and goats) are the main livestock species. However, beef cattle have been the traditional source of dietary protein for most Iraqis. Poultry production occurs in close proximity to urban centres.
The climate in Iraq is mainly of the continental, subtropical semi-arid type, with the north and north-eastern mountainous regions having a Mediterranean climate. Rainfall is very seasonal and occurs in the winter from December to February, except in the north and northeast of the country, where the rainy season is from November to April. Average annual rainfall is estimated at 216 mm, but ranges from 1 200 mm in the northeast to less than 100 mm over 60 percent of the country in the south. Winters are cool to cold, with a day temperature of about 16 °C dropping at night to 2 °C with a possibility of frost. Summers are dry and hot to extremely hot, with a shade temperature of over 43 °C during July and August, yet dropping at night to 26 °C.
Iraq can be divided into four agro-ecological zones (FAO, 2003):
- Arid and semi-arid zones with a Mediterranean climate. A growing season of about nine months, over 400 mm of annual winter rainfall, and mild/warm summers prevail. This zone covers mainly the northern governorates of Iraq. Major crops include wheat, barley, rice and chickpea. Other field crops are also produced in smaller quantities. There is some irrigation, mainly from springs, streams and bores.
- Steppes with winter rainfall of 200–400 mm annually. Summers are extremely hot and winters cold. This zone is located between the Mediterranean zone and the desert zone. It includes the feed barley production areas, limited wheat production, and it has limited irrigation.
- The desert zone with extreme summer temperatures and less than 200 mm of rainfall annually. It extends from just north of Baghdad to the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian borders. It is sparsely populated and cultivated with just a few crops in some irrigated spots.
- The irrigated area which extends between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the north of Baghdad to Basra in the south. Serious hazards for this area are poor drainage and salinity. The majority of the country’s vegetables, sunflower and rice are produced in this zone.
Total population is about 28.8 million (2005), of which 33 percent is rural (Table 1). Average population density is estimated at 66 inhabitants/km2, but varies greatly from the almost uninhabited Anwar province in the desert in the western part of the country to the most inhabited Babylon province in the centre of the country. Average population growth was estimated at 3.6 percent during 1980–90, but emigration of foreign workers, severe economic hardships and war have since reduced this growth rate.
In 1991 safe water supplies reached 100 percent in urban areas but only 54 percent in rural areas. The water supply and sanitation situation has deteriorated as a result of the wars, among other things owing to shortages of chlorine imports for water treatment. In 2006 access to improved drinking water sources reached 77 percent of the population (88 and 56 percent of urban and rural population respectively). The sanitation coverage was 76 percent (80 and 69 percent respectively).