In southern Iraq, drought tightens its grip

Iraq's three major dams and 20 smaller ones are running low.
Sunday 13/05/2018
Water-starved land. A view of the dried-up shore of an irrigation canal near the village of Sayyed Dakhil, south of Baghdad. (AFP)
Water-starved land. A view of the dried-up shore of an irrigation canal near the village of Sayyed Dakhil, south of Baghdad. (AFP)

SAYYED DAKHIL, Iraq - Abu Ali carefully crank-starts a generator to pump water from a well into his parched field in southern Iraq. There used to be no need for a well in his village but a creeping drought is threatening agriculture and livelihoods in the area.

“Last year, the river started to dry up and today we only have wells to supply us with water,” the 73-year-old farmer said.

Abu Ali and his family have lived off this land in the village of Sayyed Dakhil, east of Nasiriyah city and 300km south of Baghdad, since he was a child.

It cost him $1,600 to dig the well, a lifeline that provides access to the water table deep below.

“The water that we draw serves as drinking water for our cows and our sheep and, despite the bitter taste, we also use it to cook and even drink ourselves,” said Abu Ali. His family’s main supply of drinking water comes from six small reservoirs that are refilled at least once a week for around 20,000 dinars ($17).

Abu Ali said he is determined to stay put but the drought has forced dozens of families to flee more than 20 villages in the area.

Weather patterns are largely to blame for the crisis, said Mehdi Rashid, an engineer with Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources. “For the second consecutive season, the rains have been poor and temperatures have risen,” he said.

Rain accounts for 30% of Iraq’s water resources and 70% is drawn from rivers and marshes shared with Iran, Turkey and Syria, he said. The diversion of these shared waterways has played a part in Iraq’s drought.

“Iran has completely rerouted the course of the Karun River,” he said, once a cross-border river and a key water source for Iraqis. Rashid said Iran had built “three big dams” on the Karaj River, significantly reducing water levels in cross-border wetlands shared by the two countries.

Of the 45 tributaries once shared by Iran and Iraq, only three or four remain viable, he added.

The famous marshes of Mesopotamia, among the largest in the region, are victims of the “worst drought in their history,” said Jomaa al-Daraji, who works with an organisation trying to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which stretches from Basra into Dhi Qar province.

Iraq and Turkey are locked in talks over the latter’s controversial Ilisu Dam project on the Tigris, which began in 2006. The Iraqi stretch of the Tigris is downstream from Turkey, leaving it vulnerable to reduced flows.

Along with the mighty Euphrates, the enduring presence of the Tigris River helped give Iraq its nickname: “the land of two rivers.”.

With water increasingly scarce, Iraq’s three major dams and 20 smaller ones are running low. Rashid said the country’s reservoirs currently hold about 12% of their total collective capacity.

The southern agricultural provinces of Qadisiyyah, Muthanna and Maysan, home to nearly one-quarter of Iraq’s population, also suffer from the drought.

Some 80% of the province’s agriculture depends on generators and pumps to draw water, said Ismail Abdel Wahed, head of water resources with Qadisiyyah’s provincial council.

With warming temperatures, less rain and progressively dryer riverbeds, “the struggle is increasing each year,” added his colleague Safa al-Janabi.

(Agence France-Presse)