‘All the trees have died’: Iraqis face intensifying water crisis

Iraqis struggle to cope with depleted water resources, exacerbated by climate change and disputes with neighbours.

Seven million people in Iraq are at risk because of a lack of water and the crisis is only intensifying [File: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Four years ago, the stream running through Iraq’s al-Hamra village dried up. Now, “all the trees have died”, said Abdullah Kamel who used to farm citrus fruit in the village in Saladin governorate north of Baghdad.

The farmers subsequently tried digging wells but found the groundwater was too salty and not suitable for farming. “It killed the trees and all our crops,” said Kamel.

Pulling a pomegranate from a nearby tree, he cracked it open on the dusty earth. Pale, crumbly seeds fell out. “The seeds are not edible,” he said.

The lands around al-Hamra, which used to be fields and orchards, have become like a desert within the space of a few years, said Kamel, with the streambed reduced to a dry ditch.

“I had to leave farming,” he added. “I started looking for another job and it’s all because [of] the lack of water.”

Reduced water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have been blamed by dam projects upstream in Turkey and Iran [Courtesy: People in Need]

Seven million people are at risk because of a lack of water in Iraq, according to a recent report by aid groups in the region. Rising temperatures, low levels of rainfall, and lack of access to river water are increasing the danger and severity of droughts, researchers warn.

Climate change is one of the factors that has led to desertification and drought in Iraq, said Rebrwar Nasir Dara, a lecturer in geology at Salahaddin University.

He added reduced water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are exacerbating this.

Diminishing water levels in the two rivers that feed Iraq are partly attributed to numerous dam projects upstream in Turkey and Iran, countries that in turn are facing increasing water demands from their own citizens amid the climate crisis.

“The discharge of water through those rivers that originated in Iran and Turkey is now decreased by 50 percent,” said Dara.

‘Great Anatolia Project’

Among the factors perceived locally to be influencing water scarcity in Iraq is Turkey’s “Great Anatolia Project”, a huge development effort decades in the making and consisting of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

According to Iraqi state media, the ministry of water resources signed a joint memorandum of understanding with Turkey in October for a “fair and equitable quota” of water for Iraq.

They further added the ministry is in the process of filing an international lawsuit against Iran because of the lack of cooperation over water after talks were delayed with the Iraqi elections and the formation of the new government in Iran.

As world leaders gather in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), international cooperation is “really needed” for Iraq, said Dara.

This is particularly crucial considering the growing potential for conflicts over water in the region, said Fabrizio Orsini, a climate adviser to People in Need, an international NGO providing humanitarian aid and development assistance in Iraq.

“Basically, you have more pressure on a resource that is less and less,” he said.

Orsini added as well as depleting water levels, many Iraqis are contending with water pollution and high levels of salinity. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 118,000 people were hospitalised in 2018 with symptoms related to water contamination in the southern governorate of Basra.

Diminishing water resources, poor water quality, and a lack of integrated approaches could create a recipe for destabilisation, Orsini explained.

“Many water conflicts … are going to happen in the future due to these kinds of situations. Climate change is exacerbating all this and posing further threats.”

Conflict hinders access

Decades of conflict in Iraq have already devastated much of the country’s water infrastructure, with the ISIL (ISIS) conflict most recently affecting access to water for many.

Ayoob Thanon, a community worker in Mosul, said their water was cut off when the area was under siege from 2014 to 2017 by the armed group. “Due to the bombing, we had to dig wells,” said Thanon.

He explained as well as experiencing water shortages, collecting water during the siege was at times a fatal activity. “So many people died trying to get water from the river and the wells, from ISIS bombing and the coalition aircraft,” he said.

“Digging the wells [near to people’s houses] is one of the ways we helped people to get the water safely and not get killed.”

Thanon added the wells have also helped to prevent people from abandoning the city since many of the pipelines were destroyed by fighting. However, he said many others have left the areas surrounding Mosul.

“Many villages were abandoned due to lack of water.”

Agriculture lands near Baiji, Iraq [Courtesy: People in Need]

According to the UN’s migration agency (IOM), more than 21,000 people were displaced from central and southern governorates in 2019 because of a lack of access to clean water. The agency reports the risk of displacement over water shortages remains “high,” with the water crisis in Iraq expected to persist.

Dara said he is fearful for the future of water security in Iraq, particularly if the water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates continue to decrease.

“We have a water crisis in Kurdistan. Imagine if seven million people migrate to our region [because of water scarcity], what would happen? It’s a part of Iraq, we have to accommodate them,” said Dara.

“If you have water shortage, your food security will be in danger, because they are all linked together. For future generations, we have to work on it.”

Poor water management and planning within Iraq are partly to blame, he added.

“We need a strategy. Mismanagement, lack of local policy, lack of water policy, and [a lack of] efficient legal framework, that’s the problem.”

Water ‘misuse’

In October, Iraqi state media reported on the ministry of water resources’ upcoming strategy for the dry season, with the director-general of the National Centre for Water Resources Management stating there is a shortage of water for agriculture, and a plan for water-resources management has been prepared.

The ministry of water resources did not respond to requests for further comment on their water strategy or international negotiations.

According to Orsini, many water-management issues can be seen at the most local level. He explained water use practices on farms as well as urban areas “are not aligned with the resources that they have now and are going to have in the near future, which is diminishing”.

Ivan Khadir, People in Need’s (PIN) livelihoods project coordinator, also attested to the need for greater awareness around water use in Iraq.

“There are so many things that the farmers misuse, even fertiliser,” he said, adding the misuse of fertiliser can in turn increase the salinity of water sources.

Local and international organisations on the ground have been working to tackle some of these issues, he explained.

“PIN and WFP [World Food Programme] are working to rehabilitate canals, pumps, and irrigation networks to support struggling farmers in Saladin, while also offering select farmers greenhouses and trainings on climate-smart agricultural practices,” Khadir told Al Jazeera.

However, he emphasised that greater support is needed in order for farmers to improve their practices and reduce water waste. “A drip irrigation system [is needed] with greater support from the government to provide them with cheap fertiliser.”

A study published this year found installing drip and sprinkler irrigation systems would save farmers about half of the water quantities currently needed to irrigate farms.

Despite the mounting challenges, Kamel said he still has hope for the future.

“I have a strong hope for Iraq,” he said. “We don’t want other services, we are just asking for water … my whole life is depending on water.”

Source: Al Jazeera