How the worsening water crisis threatens livelihoods and development in Iraq

DUBAI: Across Iraq, water sources that have been taken for granted and relied upon through centuries of hardship, chaos and drought are under threat. The same is true for the livelihoods of many people in the country who find themselves facing unprecedented challenges in accessing one of life’s essential resources.

A combination of conflict, corruption, mismanagement and regional political disputes has left the people of Iraq facing chronic water shortages that have serious effects on agriculture, the economy and the health of its citizens, so much so that the viability of many communities is now in question.

Over the past five years, Baghdad residents have grown accustomed to the sight of islands of land jutting out along the Tigris River, where only its mighty waters were visible. It is a phenomenon associated with rivers in which water levels have dropped to record lows due to decreasing volumes.

As a result, a number of barren islands now dot the surface of one of the world’s most legendary waterways as it winds gently through the Iraqi capital, a shadow of the swift, green torrent that helped sustain the ancient land through the ages.

Salam, who only gave his first name, is a taxi driver who has lived in Baghdad all his life. In years past, he watched the Tiger roar through the city, but he said its flow had diminished over the years and he could now see the narrow bed of the river.

“I’m doing better than most in the rest of Iraq,” he told Arab News. “My water costs are still relatively affordable, but I have to buy a lot of drinking water for cooking because I cannot use tap water, which is far too contaminated.”

He has friends and relatives in Diyala, in central-eastern Iraq, and for them it’s a different story.

“My farmer friends are in trouble, so I often lend them money to get by. May God help them,” he explained.

In southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet to empty into the fabulous Mesopotamian marshes, buffaloes drink from stagnant pools of polluted water and farmers paddle traditional canoes through what was once pure drinking water but now looks more like industrial sludge.

The livelihoods of millions of people are at risk as shrinking rivers compound the effects of low rainfall and heat waves in Iraq. (AFP)

Freshwater supplies to once mighty rivers have been restricted at their sources by dams built in Turkey, which have blocked much of the Euphrates and Tigris flowing into Syria and Iraq.

The two rivers supply 98% of Iraq’s surface water. Other sources of water have been dammed in Iran, meaning the once reliable volumes of water that staved off starvation and disease, even during years of extreme drought, are now a long way off. guaranteed.

In 2018, the UN ranked Iraq fifth in the world in terms of nations’ vulnerability to climate change. The effects have been clear over the past 15 years, with lower rainfall and longer, hotter heat waves becoming more frequent.

Studies by the Iraqi government reveal that the country is now about 40% desert and that the salinity of much of the land is too high for agriculture.

In recent years in southern Iraq, water has covered just 30% of what was once marshland, but it has now been replaced by dry, cracked earth, a sight that locals weren’t unaware of. accustomed.

The effects of climate change are tangible: the 2020-21 winter season was one of the driest on record in Iraq, marked by a reduction in water flow of 29% in the Tigris and 73% in the Euphrates . Rainfall has been increasingly sporadic over the past 20 years.


* Iraq’s population of 40 million is expected to double by 2050.

* The Tigris and Euphrates provide 98% of Iraq’s surface waters.

* Precipitation is expected to drop by 25% by 2050.

* More than half of the arable land is threatened by salinization.

For now, however, regional water policy is a more pressing issue. Finding ways to coerce Ankara and Tehran into allowing Iraqi rivers to flow more freely is a challenge Iraqi officials are concerned about.

Towards the end of 2021, Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani, Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources, announced that he planned to file a complaint against Iran for cutting off the water supply at the border and causing a disaster in the province. from Diyala. Iraqi authorities said their country received only a tenth of an agreed quota. Meanwhile, the amount of water coming from Turkey has decreased by almost two-thirds in recent years.

A report released last year by the Norwegian Refugee Council, titled Iraq’s drought crisis, found that many farmers have gone into debt to try to keep their livestock alive. He also revealed that one in two families in drought-affected areas needed food assistance. At least seven million Iraqis are affected by the ongoing drought.

A tractor plows a plot of agricultural land on the outskirts of the town of Tel Keppe (Tel Kaif) north of the city of Mosul in the province of Nineveh, northern Iraq. (AFP/file photo)

Farmers urgently need drought-resistant seeds and additional feed for their cattle, goats and sheep to avoid further livestock losses, according to Caroline Zullo, Iraq Advocacy Advisor at the Norwegian Council for the refugees.

In the longer term, irrigation infrastructure for farmers needs to be established or rehabilitated, alongside improved water resource management plans at local and national levels, Zullo told Arab News.

The effects of the drought in the governorates have been significant, including crop and livestock losses, greater barriers to access to food, lower incomes, and drought-induced displacement of vulnerable families.

The effect of water scarcity on children, even in built-up urban areas, has long been a cause for concern. A 2021 UNICEF report titled Running Dry said nearly three out of five children in Iraq do not have access to safely managed water. Many households have been forced to dig wells to obtain water that is not safe to drink and in some cases unsanitary even for necessities such as laundry and laundry.

Water quality in the southern city of Basra is among the worst in the country, according to numerous studies. A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch titled Basra is thirsty said that at least 118,000 people had been hospitalized in recent months with symptoms related to sanitation and water quality issues. At the time, Basra’s health directorate urged people to boil water before drinking it.

The effects of water shortages on demography in Iraq are evidenced by the thousands of people fleeing urban areas to the outskirts of major cities, which in turn struggle to meet the needs of their newcomers.

In the Kurdish north of the country, heavy snowfall in the mountains in January has offered a reprieve so far this year. As winter turns to spring, the thaw will help replenish reservoirs and prevent water shortages before the onset of another fierce summer, where temperatures in Anbar province and deep within the country s ‘Traditionally set in the 40 degrees Celsius between May and mid-September.

Iraq’s central government remains weak and therefore no match for powerful neighbors at the negotiating table. Five months after a national election, the country is still a long way from choosing a new president and prime minister or forming a government. If and when the political stalemate ends, a weak and cantankerous government will still need international support to deal with a big challenge like water security.

Rahman Khani, head of the Kurdish Regional Government’s water resources and dams department at the agriculture ministry, said outdated methods are hampering the country’s water management systems.

“We also suffer from pollution and traditional irrigation methods,” he told Arab News. “The solution is to reform internal water management, build dams and use modern irrigation technologies, in addition to pressuring neighboring countries to release good amounts of shared water” .

Looking ahead, experts say more needs to be done to help Iraq’s most vulnerable people.

“With drought conditions expected to continue and even worsen, farming communities are at risk of further crop failures, which could lead to more displacement if no action is taken,” Zullo told Arab News.

However, as the dry season gives way to warmer weather, it is very likely that Iraqis will be hungrier and thirstier this summer than ever before.

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