Water Shortage in Iraq

This piece first aired on June 26, 2009, as part of the show “Drying Up.”

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    HOST: Present day Iraq occupies much of Mesopotamia. The region was one of the birthplaces of agriculture, largely due to its fertile land and abundant water sources. Mesopotamia means the land between the rivers, a reference to the vital waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Recently, though, the water supply from these essential rivers has become dangerously low. Louis Katz has more.

    LOUIS KATZ: Iraq has suffered through water crises before.

    DAWAM MUTRIB: I remember there were shortages in water in the 70s and 90s. Iraq’s relationship with Syria wasn’t good under Saddam Hussein, so the Syrians gave us very little water.

    LOUIS KATZ: But Sheikh Dawam Mutrib, a farmer from Najaf, says that this year is the worst he can remember.

    SHEIKH DAWAM MUTRIB (voice over): This year, the water problem is even worse than the 70s. This has been the worst year ever in water shortages. Our rivers used to be filled with water. Now you have to look down all the way to the bottom of river to see the water.

    LOUIS KATZ: For Mutrib, who grows rice, the lack of water poses a serious problem. And because of deficiencies in electricity and diesel, he is unable to pump in water to compensate for the shortage. But he says that less water-intensive crops are not an option.

    SHEIKH DAWAM MUTRIB (voice over): The problem is: there is no alternative crop to rice that can be grown and still be profitable. Farmers have small sized lands, other crops can be profitable only if you have 3000 acres. But if you only have 60 or 30 acres, the only option is rice.

    LOUIS KATZ: Oon Abdullah works in the Iraq Ministry of Water Resources and is Director of the National Center for Water Management. He agrees that Mutrib’s problems are part of a larger trend.

    OON ABDULLAH (voice over): We are in a very critical situation in terms of securing enough water for agricultural purposes. In Central Iraq there are areas that specialize in growing rice. These areas have been devastated, and we now have a drop in the size of land that grows this crop.

    LOUIS KATZ: Abdullah acknowledges that natural causes–like a poor rainfall– have contributed to Iraq’s water crisis. But he sees another problem in the way the Euphrates river has been diverted by the country’s neighbors upstream.

    OON ABDULLAH (voice over): The Euphrates flows entirely from inside Turkey. Turkey has built 5 major dams on it, and several other dams on the the rivers that flow into the Euphrates. Syria has also built two major dams. This dramatically affected the water levels of the Euphrates. This greatly reduced the amount of water in the river for two years. Iraq used to get 950 cubic meters per second at the Iraqi-Syrian border. Because of the dams built in both countries, we should be receiving 670 cubic meters per second. But now we are getting much less than that. The current average is between 220 to 250 cubic meters per second. This has an impact on our water needs, especially in the Euphrates.

    LOUIS KATZ: But while Abdullah believes the Euphrates is the main problem, he is also worried about Iraq’s other rivers.

    OON ABDULLAH (voice over): The situation with the Tigris river is slightly better. That’s because Turkey has not built big dams on the river, although they are planning to build a big dam on the Tigris. If the dam is complete, then the water levels will be sharply reduced. The Shat Al-Arab river was also affected, because Iran, unfortunately, cut the Karoon river, and diverted its flow to one of their other rivers.

    LOUIS KATZ: Iraq has been unable to convince these countries to release more water. Abdullah blames Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey in particular, for a pattern of broken promises.

    OON ABDULLAH (voice over): Unfortunately, although we are in constant contact with Iraq’s neighboring countries, they are slow in their response. Although Turkish officials have promised to increase our water share, the reality is that nothing has been fulfilled. We hope that Turkey will increase the amounts of water for Iraq to deal with the critical situation in the summer. We also hope that Iran will consider providing water for the Shat Al-Arab and the marshes.

    LOUIS KATZ: Azzam Alwash is the Chief Operations Officer for Nature Iraq, an Iraq-based NGO focused on environmental issues. He disagrees with Abdullah’s assessment of where the fault for Iraq’s water shortage lies. He thinks the Iraqi government has not done enough to secure water for the country’s needs.

    AZZAM ALWASH: While paying lip service to the issue of getting agreement with Turkey, but no systematic effort has been put together to sit down with the Turkish side and talk scientifically to the Turkish side in saying, ok, we need this much water for Iraq, we need this much water for Syria, let’s see how much Turkey can spare, and come up with practical solutions. I have not seen a real serious debate at the academic level. It’s all at the political level.

    LOUIS KATZ: Alwash sees an additional reason such an agreement is necessary: the restoration of Iraq’s southern marshlands.

    AZZAM ALWASH: From the environmental point of view, of course, the marshes are, shall we say, a unique system, they are a sweet-water based wetlands that are fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, and they are the factory of biodiversity in the region, if not just Iraq. The fish, the shrimp of the gulf moves into the marshes to propagate, so does the fish, birds migrate through these wetlands. And as such, their continuation is also important for environmental issues. What’s happening right now is that the water quantity, as well as the quality, is very low. And the marshes as a result are shrinking in size because we have a lot of evaporation.

    LOUIS KATZ: The marshlands suffered greatly during Saddam’s regime. Yet until recently, the restoration effort was making progress, led largely by Marsh Arabs who live in the marshlands and depend upon it for their livelihood. Alwash is optimistic that the marshes will be able to come back from this crisis as well.

    AZZAM ALWASH: These people have restored the marshes not because they’re tree huggers like me, but they have restored the marshes because they need that for their own survival, their own economic benefit. And so I have very little doubt that these marshes will survive, because people are their shepherd, shall we say the gatekeepers for these marshes. And they’re restoring the marshes because the marshes produce economically for them. So, I’m sanguine about the- I have very good confidence that in fact the marshes are going to survive.

    LOUIS KATZ: But while Alwash believes the marshes will endure this water crisis, Iraq’s water problem is not going away anytime soon.

    AZZAM ALWASH: While historically, there has been peaks and droughts in the Tigris and Euphrates, it seems to me that Iraq and especially the Middle East region is going through a prolonged period of drought.

    LOUIS KATZ: Still, for farmers like Sheikh Dawam Mutrib, there is little choice but to keep on doing what they always have.

    SHEIKH DAWAM MUTRIB (voice over): Rice is in my blood, I just can’t abandon it this year. I feel my integrity will be hurt if I don’t grow rice this year. Do you expect me to leave my land barren, and have people pass looking at it, I would feel sick if that happens. Even if I didn’t get any profit, I would still grow rice. If it comes out even, I would still be a professional farmer. We have to grow rice, we just have to grow rice!

    LOUIS KATZ: Turkey has recently promised to double the amount of water flowing from the Euphrates into Iraq, and Syria has also promised to let more water through. But, at least in the case of Turkey, Iraq denies receiving any of it.

    For War News Radio, I’m Louis Katz.

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