Hope and tragedy after unprecedented heavy rains sweep Iraq

Country's weather has been influenced by a low-pressure system coming from the Red Sea since early March

A woman holds an umbrella during heavy rain in Basra in southern Iraq. AFP
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In an unexpected turn of weather patterns, heavy rains have swept Iraq, offering a glimmer of relief to a nation often parched by drought, but also bringing tragedy to several parts of a country ill-prepared for such a deluge.

Meteorologists have described this month's downpours as unparalleled in recent memory. They expect rain to continue through the end of this month.

Over the past 20 days, Iraq has been under the influence of a low-pressure system coming from the Red Sea, the weather service spokesman Amir Al Jabiri told The National, adding that the northern province of Dahuk has had the highest level of rain, at 286 millimetres, followed by Baghdad at 91.1 millimetres.

The high levels of rainfall have left a mark on Iraq's landscape, which the UN has identified as the fifth most vulnerable to climate change. Government officials and farmers say they hope for a bountiful winter season, particularly for wheat, and are now looking forward to the summer.

In recent years, Iraq has experienced its worst drought in decades, with temperatures exceeding 50°C last summer. Dwindling water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates are also due to upstream dams in Turkey and Iran, mismanagement, and environmental degradation.

Desertification affects 39 per cent of the country, and 54 per cent of its agricultural land has been degraded, mainly due to soil salinity caused by historically low river levels, rain scarcity and rising sea levels.

According to the Water Resources Ministry, the rains and floods varied in intensity from “moderate to extremely heavy”, boosting the strategic water reserves in the reservoirs by 10 per cent. Those reserves will be further boosted in the coming two months when snow melts in the upper basins of the Tigris and Euphrates, both of which originate from Turkey.

However, amid the optimism, tragedy struck in several parts of the country as flash floods wreaked havoc on communities ill-prepared for such a deluge. At least two people were killed and 11 others injured by floodwaters in Dahuk province, where houses were submerged, cars swept away, and infrastructure damaged as rivers swelled beyond their banks.

Reviving the marshes

The downpours have revived the Iraqi marshes, a Unesco World Heritage Site thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden. The marshes suffered terrible drought, forcing their inhabitants to flee to cities. The cumulative percentage of flooded areas in the marshes has reached more than 30 per cent this year, with some parts at 50 per cent, the ministry's statement added.

“Thank God, the situation is more than perfect with the heavy rains year,” Raad Al Ghalibi, a resident of Chebayesh marshes, part of the central marshes in Thi Qar province, told The National.

“With the abundant water, our buffaloes are in good condition and the reeds are growing well as if they have been fertilised,” he added.

Thank God, the situation is more than perfect with the heavy rains year
says Raad Al Ghalibi, a resident of Iraqi marshes

In recent years, the once vibrant and thriving Iraqi marshes shrank from nearly 4,000 square kilometres in 2005 to less than 500 square kilometres.

As water levels decline, inhabitants of the marshlands such as Mr Al Ghalibi witnessed first-hand the devastating consequences, including the loss of livestock, the outbreak of skin diseases, and the absence of clean, life-sustaining water.

“We lived in constant fear and despair,” he said.

“We are very happy now and tourists are also back to the marshes and the people are benefiting."

The Ministry of Agriculture has expressed optimism, hailing the precipitation as a "blessing" for Iraqi farmers, particularly those reliant on winter crops like wheat.

"This rainfall promises a prosperous winter season ahead," the ministry spokesman Mohammed Al Khuzaie told The National.

Mr Al Khuzaie said wheat production is expected to exceed six million tons this year, achieving self-sufficiency and allowing for exports.

"The wheat fields across Iraq received all five of their irrigations from rainfall, meaning we didn't need to use water from rivers and reservoirs," he added, explaining that “the rains helped us to save our water resources for the summer season, which will be promising mainly for rice farmers".

“God willing, the next season will see the revival of rice planting in central and southern Iraq,” he said.

Updated: March 25, 2024, 2:52 PM