Rains like no other: Iraq is tested in era of climate change

The rains have restored freshwater marshes of southern Iraq and transformed lands once parched for water into fields of grain and cereal.
Thursday 02/05/2019
A picture taken on April 16, 2019 shows the Mosul Dam lake, around 50 kilometres north of the Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP)
A picture taken on April 16, 2019 shows the Mosul Dam lake, around 50 kilometres north of the Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP)

YOUSSIFIYAH - After years of meagre rains and scorching summers, the wettest winter in a generation revived Iraq’s rivers and filled its lakes, bringing relief to a country facing severe water challenges in the era of climate change.

The rains restored freshwater marshes of southern Iraq -- a region some scholars see as the biblical Garden of Eden -- and transformed lands once parched for water into fields of grain and cereal.

However, the deluge also tested a country more familiar with droughts than downpours and raised questions about whether Iraq’s 20th-century infrastructure can adapt to the unpredictable 21st-century climate.

Swelled by rain and snowmelt from Turkey and Iran, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and their many tributaries burst their banks and flooded plains and cities in Iraq, despite the country’s considerable networks of dams and canals. Despite a trend towards a hotter and drier climate, an unseasonably cool April and high humidity damaged crops in farmland around Baghdad.

“This will be a very important lesson for us in the next year and the coming years,” Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said during a news conference in April.

Outside Buhriz in eastern Diyala province, where the Sirwan River flows into Iraq from neighbouring Iran, Nouri Kudaier waded through his waterlogged citrus grove to see what he could salvage of this season’s harvest.

“We’re asking for compensation from the government for the damage,” Kudaier said. “It’s our only source of livelihood.”

Iraq has not seen as much precipitation in a single winter since 1988, said the Ministry of Water Resources, which reported 47 billion cubic metres of water in the country’s reservoirs. That’s three times the amount reported at the same time last year when water levels were so dire that the government banned farmers from growing seasonal crops during the summer months.

In Youssifiyah, a farming region just south of Baghdad, canals that were empty in 2018 are flush with water and wells that were dug 24 metres deep now come up with water at a depth of 6 metres.

Salah al-Saidey said he planted twice as much wheat this year but the heavy rains and cold ruined a portion of his cucumber and tomato crop.

“We have a fungus growing,” said Saidey, pointing to brittle, yellow leaves on the vines. “We weren’t expecting it. We’re trying to fight it but we can’t keep pace.”

Spring floods used to be common in Iraq. For millennia, farmers relied on the floods to inundate fields and grow rice, wheat and other grains but the floods were unpredictable and the rivers would sometimes top their banks in Baghdad and elsewhere, with calamitous results.

Modernisation projects in the 20th century saw Iraq build dams along the Tigris and its tributaries as well as canals to divert water. Upstream, Turkey, Iran and Syria did the same and inundations became a distant memory, especially when rising temperatures brought weaker rains and faster evaporation from lakes and reservoirs.

Last year, desperate shortages of clean water led residents to riot in Basra, Iraq’s main oil hub and its largest city in the south. The flow of the Euphrates and Tigris was so weak that seawater from the Persian Gulf reached the Chibayish freshwater marshes about 180km upstream, contaminating them with salt.

This year, that won’t be a problem, said the head of Basra’s provincial council, because the revived rivers flushed the salt away and filled the marshes with fresh water.

“We have enough water for this year and one after, God willing,” said Sabah al-Bazouni.

Securing water for future generations will depend on more than favourable weather but will also require a collaborative effort among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, said Iraqi Water Resources Minister Jamal al-Adily.

Some 70% of Iraq’s water flows from the three upstream countries, though no formal water-sharing agreement exists between them.

“Iraqis have a right to water,” Adily said. “The rivers were here before the borders.”

With reservoirs flush with water, there may be no better time to start discussions in earnest.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would soon send a special representative of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Baghdad to discuss water administration. Because Iraq plans to expand its oil production, it has a vital resource to leverage in water negotiations.

Turkey is expected to rebalance its oil supplies after the United States announced it was ending the waivers that have allowed Turkey to import oil from Iran despite sanctions imposed by Washington.

Iraq is one of Turkey’s leading suppliers of crude oil and the two countries already have approximately $10 billion in bilateral trade.

“Water should be a link to open trade between the two countries,” said Adily. “Turkey will stand to benefit from cooperating with Iraq.”

(Associated Press)