Millions of Iraqis face water shortages as crisis threatens lives and agriculture

As the country's water levels continue to decline, farmers are struggling to grow crops

A man crosses the Abu Lehya river, which suffers from drought-induced drop in the water levels, in the Dhi Qar province on March 6, 2023. AFP
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

Farmer Saadoon Abdul-Sahib Jabr has been in the agriculture business for decades.

In that time, he has seen it all, from droughts and heavy rains to failed crops and deteriorating soil quality.

But these past few months, he said, have been particularly challenging.

Mr Jabr, 58, inherited 1,000 dunams — or 247 acres — of land from his father in the town of Al Maimouna, in Maysan province south of Baghdad. He planted 80 dunams with wheat and barley.

The dry banks of the Diyala river, east of Baghdad, in June last year. It has turned into pools of sewage water amid desertification and pollution.  EPA

This year’s season for winter grains, beginning around October and ending as late as May, got off to a very rough start for farmers, with little rain and dwindling water levels in the rivers.

“The situation was very tough,” said Mr Jabr. “The drought this year was the most severe one.”

Known in ancient times as Mesopotamia or the Land Between the Two Rivers, Iraq is said to have been the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Today, the UN classifies the oil-rich nation as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. Its severe water crisis has been gradually worsening for decades, negatively affected by climate change, mismanagement and pollution.

Iraq’s two main sources of water, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s freshwater reserves, have significantly declined over the years. Construction of dams and diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran has exacerbated the situation, leaving downstream nations like Iraq with less water.

Significantly lower water levels on the Tigris River in Baghdad. AP Photo

Moreover, decades of war and conflict have damaged or completely destroyed the country's infrastructure, leading to water losses and inefficient distribution.

Salinisation of soil due to the use of salt-rich irrigation water and poor drainage is another issue affecting the productivity of the land, causing lower crop yields and food insecurity.

Millions of Iraqis have difficulty finding safe water, including more than seven million children, according to Unicef.

One of the most affected sectors by water scarcity in Iraq is agriculture, which is the main source of livelihood for at least a third of Iraqis, or 14 million of the nation’s 44 million population.

Among them is Mr Jabr, who has seven children to support.

“At some point it was impossible to pump water from the Al Btaira river, a tributary from the Tigris, for irrigation,” he said.

A few months into the winter season, he began to lose hope that he would be able to harvest anything. Just as he reconciled himself with the losses, the skies opened and rain poured down.

“It was really terrible this season, but God saved us,” he said.

Unlike previous winters, this season there has been moderate to heavy rain, including at least three storms in March.

As a result, farmers are anticipating an “abundant harvest” of wheat this season, with Minister of Water and Resources Aoun Diab telling state TV that the planting area would be expanded to 6.5 million dunams from the previously planned 2.5 million. Each season, the ministry limits how much land can cultivated based on the availability of water.

A female Iraqi farmer digs with a shovel in a field in Diwaniyah, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on April 2, 2018.
Iraqi farmers have traditionally lived off their land with no need for wells, but a creeping drought is now threatening agriculture and the livelihoods of nearly a quarter of the country's population in the southern agricultural provinces of Diwaniyah, Muthanna and Missan. / AFP PHOTO / Haidar HAMDANI

“We are happy with these results, but despite this, what worries me is the upcoming summer,” said Mr Diab.

“There are big challenges ahead of us in summer when the temperature and evaporation increase and that may force us to reconsider the agriculture needs and focus on securing water for humans,” he said.

To alleviate acute water shortages, Turkey began increasing the water flow to the Tigris in April for a month. It agreed to release 1,500 cubic metres per second, doubling the previous amount, according to Iraq’s Water Resources Ministry.

Over the past few years, drought has forced farmers to turn to underground wells, many of which are rapidly getting depleted. Many have abandoned their professions all together, moving to cities instead.

But the lack of water affects almost everyone in Iraq.

Many people have to walk long distances to get safe drinking water, while others have to rely on unclean sources of water, leading to waterborne diseases and health problems. A lack of proper sanitation facilities contributes to the spread of diseases.

Iraq's rivers and streams have also been contaminated with industrial waste, untreated sewage and agricultural run-off, adding to health and environmental threats.

Essa Al Fayadh, general director of the Environment Ministry’s Technical Department, said the pollution level at the rivers is currently at 90 per cent, mainly due to sewage water.

In March, Deputy Environment Minister Jassim Al Falahi said millions of different types of pollutants were being discharged into the rivers every day.

State-run institutions, particularly municipalities and the health ministry, account for 95 per cent of the waste, he said.

In Al Maimouna, a big pipeline discharges thousands of litres of sewage into Al Btaira river every day.

“As the sewage is discharged from the pipeline it forms a large, brown plum that spreads across the surface of the water,” said Mr Jabr, whose family sometimes has to buy bottled water because the tap water is unsafe. “The smell is overpowering and the river itself becomes murky and opaque”.

“We have been waiting for the authorities to divert the sewage away from the river, but every year they say don't have enough money for the project,” he added.

More from our water scarcity series:

Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:51 PM