Water is Life; In Iraq, it’s Running Dry

Drought, dams and agricultural restrictions threaten to throw a desiccating Iraq into turmoil.

Drought, dams and agricultural restrictions threaten to throw a desiccating Iraq into turmoil.

Iraq is running out of water. Today, the Tigris and Euphrates, life-giving rivers that have nourished Iraq’s agricultural plains for over 8,000 years, are but shadows of their former selves, and the farmers that rely on them are in dire straits. In an attempt to fix the issue, Baghdad has banned most cultivation of major crops like corn and rice, pushing farmers closer to despair.  

This year, Iraq has faced one of the worst water shortages in recent memory. Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources (MRW) puts the blame on a combination of severe drought, high temperatures and upstream dams in Turkey, Syria and Iran that have stymied the flow of water into Iraq.

These water shortages have crippled farmers’ livelihoods. The MRW has announced that Iraq’s water is sufficient for one half of its agricultural needs. Many farmers have cut production down to just a handful of acres, a fraction of the norm. Omar Di’ibil, who farms land north of Baghdad, told Al Jazeera that, while he normally farms 130 to 150 acres, this year he is farming only seven to 12. Some farmers are now reckoning with the fear that they will witness the total loss of these rivers in their lifetime. Alarmingly, a 2014 study predicted that the Tigris and Euphrates would no longer reach the sea by 2040.

In years past, the Tigris would seasonally flood the alluvial plains that surround it, requiring farmers to pump water out of their fields. The last significant flood was in 1988. Today, the Tigris no longer floods at all. In some places, one can walk across it. Iraq has steadily lost its water resources for decades, due to the erratic rainfall and temperatures brought on by climate change and the construction of dams in neighboring countries.

Satellite imagery shows a dramatic decrease from 2015 to 2018 in the size of the reservoir of the Mosul Dam, built on the Tigris. Ironically, the result of the water loss — the dam holding less water — would mitigate the severity of any potentially catastrophic collapse of the unsound structure. Regardless, the Tigris is decimated and its distributary canals that should be irrigating the surrounding farmland are dry.

Farmers have irrigated the land for millennia, and nearly 20 percent of contemporary Iraqis work as farmers in the vast, once fertile plains that comprise the interior of the country. Over the past century, Iraq has built increasingly complex irrigation networks that draw from the Tigris and Euphrates. Some of the channels in the network have been reduced to carrying only a muddy slurry, providing only enough irrigation water for an inadequate two days every two weeks. Many farmers have resorted to using well water when they can, but it is  a scarce resource. For those who have access to wells, the water is still often unusable because of the high salt content.

Salt water is suitable for neither consumption nor irrigation (most crops, like people, cannot survive on salt water). When a river’s water level drops below that of the sea, seawater can intrude upstream in what is known as a salt tide, turning freshwater saline. Drought can intensify salt tides and make them difficult to counteract.

Similarly, when drought and overuse keep a groundwater aquifer from being replenished, salt water can intrude, filling the empty space and rendering wells unusable.

Iraqi farmers have struggled in the face of these dual problems of drought and saline water. Baghdad established a crisis unit to look for ways to help these farmers.

However, in a controversial move earlier this summer, the Ministry of Agriculture announced  that farmers would be banned from cultivating corn, rice, sesame, cotton, millet, sunflowers and mung beans  in order to conserve water resources. Instead, it only allowed the irrigation of 148,000 acres of non-water intensive crops.

This enraged Iraqi farmers. The regulation would severely limit their options to sustain themselves, particularly in the country’s south, where the agricultural economy depends on rice cultivation.

Rice is an important cultural crop in Iraq. Anbar rice – a long, yellowish and very aromatic cultivar similar to Basmati – is an endemic, highly valuable Iraqi variety. Prized in the country and reserved for special occasions, it is not often exported. Like most other varieties of rice, it requires large amounts of water to keep the plants submerged for months at a time. Water shortages, and now explicit limitations on cultivation, threaten the survival of such a rare cultivar.

For some, the ban was unsurprising. Farmer Hamid Sultani told Al-Monitor that the government is typically not very supportive of the agricultural sector and does not subsidize or offer fair prices for rice, which leaves farmers able only to sell on an unreliable private market. Rice cultivation has been banned in certain Iraqi provinces for the past five years due to water shortages, but some farmers circumvented the ban by stealing water.

Farmers in southern Iraq staged protests in opposition to the ban throughout June. One group forcibly closed a levee on the Euphrates, allowing the necessary irrigation water to build up and water their crops.

The protesting farmers joined with water resource experts, who see the ban as ill-advised, to call on Iraq to better manage its water by modernizing and fortifying its irrigation system, tapping into underground aquifers, and devising a comprehensive plan for future shortages. Some also demanded that Iraq pressure neighboring Turkey to release more water from its dams.

Fearing more unrest, Baghdad rescinded part of the rice ban. However, the new irrigation plan only provided for the cultivation of a bare minimum of anbar and other special varieties to prevent their disappearance. The Ministry of Agriculture is now allowing only 1,236 acres of rice this summer, which is less than three percent of the area cultivated with rice in 2017.

Regardless of the small capitulation, Baghdad’s agricultural restrictions will cut incomes, deepen poverty and intensify the internal refugee crisis caused by drought and conflict. In 2017, more than half of Iraq’s population was food insecure and this number only stands to increase in this context.

Water shortages in Iraq are leading farmers to abandon desiccated farmland and migrate to urban areas in search of other employment. The U.N. envoy to Iraq predicted that water shortages could lead to the displacement of a quarter of southern Iraq’s residents.

Consequently, Iraq’s cities, many of which are already struggling to rebuild and provide for residents after war, are experiencing overcrowding and rising unemployment. One farmer from Radwaniya told Al Jazeera that half of the farmers in his area had left their land.

Farmers who have migrated to urban areas have found work in construction, with the police or other government jobs. Some continue farming while working new jobs. Others find sustenance in whatever ways they can; one farmer near Baghdad told the Independent that he is now making more money renting out a soccer field on his land than from farming.

Rapid and desperate urbanization and the depopulation of the agricultural sector have potentially disastrous implications. Iraqi cities are not equipped to handle the influx of people. Iraqi society could be further destabilized if its solid agricultural base deteriorates. The debilitated so-called Islamic State (ISIS) could target this wide swath of recently unemployed, displaced, and desperate Iraqi farmers as prospective new members, as it has done in the past.

According to some reports, from 2009 onwards, ISIS exploited a long drought and Baghdad’s agricultural mismanagement to recruit struggling farmers who felt abandoned. Frank Femia of the Center for Climate and Security told Slate that, while ISIS rode an extremist religious ideology to power, the stress of diminished water resources boosted their leverage: “Terrorist organizations can try to control those resources and gain significant influence and power.” Shortly before ISIS took control of the city of Mosul in 2014, Iraq experienced its hottest spring on record.

Once it had gained power, ISIS used Iraq’s dams as weapons, threatening both to cut off the water supply to Iraq’s southern Shiite regions and to destroy the dams, sending disastrous floods downstream.

As in Iraq, observers have implicated climate change-driven heat and drought in the destabilization of Syria and the consequent civil war. When irrigation and drinking water ran out, many farmers left their fields for cities, where they struggled to find governmental support. They held protests and in some areas, joined rebel groups or ISIS.

Drought will further destabilize an unstable country. The U.S. Department of Defense has recognized this, calling climate change a “threat multiplier.” Natural resource management is essential to stability. The U.N. reported that climate change has already had a destabilizing effect on nations around the world. When vital resources like fresh water and arable land become scarce due to damaging, irregular weather patterns and rainfall, conflict is more likely.

In light of a U.N. classification of Iraq as one of the Arab world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, the devastating impact of future water shortages and mismanagement could be magnified.

Besides inflaming conflict and strife within the country, Iraq’s water woes are complicating its political and economic relations with its neighbors. With water supplies low and agricultural regulations high, Iraqi food production has been decimated.

For much of the 20th century, Iraq was mostly self-sufficient in its food production, although food imports fluctuated with periods of drought and conflict. Water shortages and ISIS’ capture of Iraq’s Grain Belt hobbled Iraq’s 2010 intention to boost grain production and cut imports by nearly one-third. Now, Iraq is importing the vast majority of its food needs, much from neighboring Turkey and Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, imports 90 percent of its food.

Iraq, now dependent on Turkey and Iran for sustenance, has little leverage in negotiations to share the river water that moves across their borders.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers originate in Turkey’s northeastern mountains and flow through Syria into Iraq. The construction of dams on these rivers upstream in Turkey has severely limited the flow of water into Iraq. In response to Iraq’s concerns, Turkey delayed, but not cancelled, filling the reservoir of the new Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, which could cut flows into Iraq by 50 percent.

In southeastern Iraq, the rivers converge to form the Shatt al-Arab river, which empties into the Arabian Gulf and defines the last 50 miles of the Iran-Iraq border. Iraq has accused Iran of redirecting a tributary of that river, which has led to its severe salinization. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Rudaw reported that an Iranian dam has cut water levels in the cross-border Little Zab River, bringing the town of Qaladze to the brink of collapse.

With much of the Iraqi populace placing blame on Baghdad for poor management of the water shortages, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi defended his government and declared that the water shortages were “not a crisis.” These words lose credence in the presence of crumbling agricultural lands and livelihoods, large-scale internal displacement, strained foreign relations, and looming domestic discord.