Iraqis face water crisis as once-bustling Lake Habbaniyah shrinks

Plight of surrounding communities is stark reminder of growing water scarcity around the globe

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Once a bustling resort destination to the west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, from the 1970s to the 1990s, Lake Habbaniyah is now facing a severe water crisis that threatens its existence.

The fall in water levels at the lake, which is fed by the Euphrates River, has led to acute shortages of drinking water in Anbar province.

Many families have been forced to abandon their homes and seek refuge in other areas, where water supply is more stable.

Those who have stayed behind face an uphill battle, often resorting to extreme measures to find water.

“I don’t know how to describe it. We are living through real tragedies,” Jumaa Al Dulaimi, 45, a resident of Al Mijre village, which overlooks the lake, told The National.

“It’s really terrible. As the lake is shrinking and no freshwater is coming from the Euphrates, the weeds are leaving a foul odour, making it hard to use the water for drinking or washing.”

The family have come to depend on potable water delivered in tankers by charities. Failing that, they are forced to buy it from nearby Fallujah city, paying at least 2,000 Iraqi dinars (about $1.40) for only 80 litres a day.

Lake Habbaniyah is a shadow of its former glory after falling into a state of neglect since the 2003 US-led invasion. AFP

The plight of the village and surrounding communities serves as a stark reminder of the growing water scarcity faced by Iraq and people around the globe.

It also highlights the urgent need for comprehensive and sustainable measures to address the water crisis.

The water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which account for more than 90 per cent of Iraq's freshwater reserves, have declined significantly over the years, partly due to the construction of dams and the diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Iran.

Climate change crisis

Iraqis and international bodies have warned that a shortage of water, compounded by climate change, will have a substantial impact on Iraq's economic development and environment, with wider ramifications for regional stability.

Iraq is ranked fifth on a list of countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the UN.

It is experiencing its worst drought in decades, with temperatures exceeding 50°C last summer. Many of its lakes have shrunk or dried up completely.

Lake Habbaniyah, known for its stunning beauty and recreational opportunities, drew tourists from far and wide at its peak.

The vast expanse of water provided a respite from the scorching desert heat and offered leisure activities such as boating and swimming, with Iraqis having picnics along its picturesque shores.

However, as the years passed, the lake began to shrink, turning the once-vibrant area into an almost parched landscape.

The decline of Lake Habbaniyah over the years. Gif: Copernicus Sentinel

The primary cause of Lake Habbaniyah's dwindling size is the reduced flow of the Euphrates River, which feeds it.

Lower rainfall and extensive damming along the river's course have significantly affected the flow of water into the lake, leading to its gradual shrinking.

As a result, its shoreline has receded, leaving behind vast stretches of dry land that were once submerged.

Mr Al Dulaimi, a father of five, laments the heyday of the lake and surrounding areas.

“Our house was about 15 metres away from the lake. Its water was fresh and abundant, picnics were around the year and many residents lived on fishing,” he said.

Now, all of that is gone.

Abandoned bungalows at a former resort by Lake Habbaniyah in 2018. AFP

“It is now more than one kilometre away from us; its water is no longer blue but turned to green due to a lack of freshwater coming and even the residents can’t approach it because of the foul odour,” he said.

Last month, the Water Resources Ministry warned the local government in Anbar that water treatment plants would soon be out of service.

“Given the inability to feed Lake Habbaniyah due to the acute shortage of water the country is going through for the fourth consecutive year, that has decreased the strategic reservoir in dams and lakes,” said an official letter seen by The National.

It urged the local government to use lorries to deliver potable water to surrounding areas and offered to dig new wells in these areas.

In recent weeks, residents have turned to social media to appeal for help.

“We call upon all people, we call upon Muslims, to see our situation and help us,” an unidentified man, believed to be in his 40s, said on camera, standing next to a stagnant and filthy canal with other locals.

“We have no water. Give us water or send us to [displacement] camps,” the man said before tearing up his dishdasha in anger.

NGO efforts

Non-government organisations have stepped in to ease the suffering of affected communities.

Responding to the video, the Baghdad-based Association for Reform and Community Development mobilised resources and has embarked on a campaign to provide relief to the parched region.

One such initiative involves the digging of wells to tap into underground water reserves.

A picture taken on August 22, 2018 shows a view of scrap and debris by abandoned bungalows at a former hotel resort by Lake Habbaniyah, in Anbar province, about 85 kilometres west of the capital Baghdad. - In the 1980s, Iraq's Lake Habbaniyah was a tourist hotspot, popular with wealthy newlyweds and so luxurious it was even a haunt of dictator Saddam Hussein and his fearsome entourage. But today, it's a shadow of its former glory, as it has fallen into neglect since the 2003 US-led invasion. (Photo by MOADH AL-DULAIMI / AFP)

“When we went there, the situation was very painful,” Adil Al Taie, the head of the association, told The National.

Over the past two months, Mr Al Taie's NGO has been drilling wells near the main water treatment plant and houses.

They need to dig down between 80 metres and 100 metres as the area is rocky, he said, warning that wells alone could not solve the problem in the long term.

“They have water now but not enough for them,” Mr Al Taie said.

“For how long the well can give water is unclear because it depends on the underground water, which is highly affected by the level of water in the Euphrates.”

Updated: June 05, 2023, 7:42 AM