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The Dust Bowl of Babylon

Are crippling droughts the next great threat to Iraq?

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 5:01 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

[This report appears in the winter 2009/10 issue of World Policy Journal and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

BAGHDAD—From his mud brick home on the edge of the Garden of Eden, Awda Khasaf has twice seen his country's lifeblood seep away. The waters that once spread from his doorstep across a 20% slab of Iraq known as the Marshlands first disappeared in 1991, when Saddam Hussein diverted them east to punish the rebellious Marsh Arabs. The wetlands have been crucial to Iraq since the earliest days of civilization—sustaining the lives of up to half a million people who live in and around the area, while providing water for almost two million more.

The waters vanished after the First Gulf War due to a dictator's wrath; over the next 16 years, they ebbed and flowed, but slowly started to return to their pre-Saddam levels. By 2007, with no more sabotage and average rains, almost 70% of the lost water had been recovered. Now it's gone again. This time because of a crisis far more endemic: a devastating drought and the water policies of neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria. These three nations have effectively stopped most of the headwaters of the three rivers—the Tigris, Euphrates, and Karoon—that feed these marshes.

"Once in a generation was bad enough," says Awda, a tribal head and local sheikh in the al-Akeryah Marshlands, who also advises the Nasiriyah governorate on water issues. "Twice could well be God's vengeance."

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In a land where fundamental interpretations of monotheistic scripts often determine the tone of public discourse, particular attention is now being paid to the biblical Book of Revelation, in which the Euphrates River drying up was prophesized as a harbinger for the end of the world. It is not doomsday yet in Iraq, but the water shortage here has not been worse for at least the last two centuries—and possibly for several millennia more. Government estimates suggest close to two million Iraqis face severe drinking water shortages and extremely limited hydropower-generated electricity in a part of the country where most households get by on no more than eight hours of supplied power per day, in the best of times.

The flow of the Euphrates that reaches Iraq is down, according to scientific estimates, by 50% to 70% and falling further by the week. From his frugal office in Baghdad's National Center for Water Management, engineer Zuhair Hassan Ahmed has for the past decade plotted the water levels of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the latter of which bisects the Iraqi capital. The hand-etched ink graphs show a black line that marks an average "water year," from October to May, superimposed over a green line, which shows the actual flow through the two rivers over the same time. The green line had been markedly lower than the benchmark for much of the past decade. But in 2007—the start of a serious drought—it dipped sharply and has continued to fall.

In Baghdad, the lack of water has been an inconvenience, an eyesore, and a health hazard. Raw sewage and refuse pumped into the Tigris is not flushed downstream as rapidly as it once was. The Tigris is Baghdad's main artery, but it is also still a working river, long traversed by small commuter ferries, industrial barges, and, in the city's halcyon days, even pleasure boats. Giant mud islands now protrude from the once wide, blue expanse of the river, making it unnavigable for larger vessels. Further downstream, and especially along the Euphrates—which runs roughly on a parallel track west though Iraq's bread basket—the effects of the shortage are far worse.

Between Two Rivers

Here, in the land between the two rivers that was once the heartland of ancient Mesopotamia, the water crisis has ravaged agriculture, an industry still struggling to regain its footing after three decades of deprivation and war. This was the second mooted site (the other was the Marshlands themselves) of the fabled Garden of Eden—a land so rich in soil and water that it would quench the needs of its dwellers throughout eternity. It doesn't look quite like that now. Crops of grain, barley, mint, and dates have failed almost en masse. Further west, in Anbar province, a prized rice variety that was once sold at a premium throughout Iraq and in the markets of neighboring countries has just been harvested. Like almost all other crops, this year's yield is a disaster.

"We blame the Turks for this," says Hatem al-Ansari, a local Anbar rice grower who claims to have lost half his family's life savings since January 2009 due to a lack of water to irrigate his rice. "We have been digging wells nearby, and so has the government, but it is not enough. Not even close." Shielding his face with a black scarf from a sandstorm blowing in on an acetylene desert wind, Hatem points in the direction of the Euphrates' upper reaches. "If you go down to the bank, you will see where the water was last year and last week," he says. "Our water pumps can no longer reach it. It's true it hasn't been raining, but it's just as true that even 30% of normal rainfall does not cripple a mighty river like this." He had to be taken on his word. The swirling sand and dust were starting to turn the sky an ochre-orange haze and was steadily closing like a shroud on us all, making an inspection of the river bank impossible.

Sandstorms have long been a fixture of Iraqi summers—on average, there are about eight to ten each hot season. But this year they became a pandemic. Close to 40 sandstorms blew in during the five months from May to early October. Some lasted three days at a time, sheeting farms with suffocating silt, closing airports, and adding another layer of misery to a society that has been through hell.

Lack of water for irrigation, especially in Anbar, is a key problem. Iraq's water minister, Dr. Abdul Rashid Latif, says that the government dug an extra 1,000 wells over the past two years, taking advantage of a relatively high groundwater table. But drawing on a diminishing resource during a time of drought has proved costly. "We now have only around 20% of our original reserves left," he says. "And the thing about this water is that not much of it is being replenished."

"The Scent of a Dying Ecosystem"

Iraq's water numbers make for disturbing reading across the board. Government estimates put total reservoir storage at around 9% of nationwide capacity on the leading edge of a wet season that is not forecast to bring much relief. For the past two years, rainfall was some 70% lower than usual in most of Iraq's 18 provinces.

The snow melt that usually feeds the Tigris system from the Zagros Mountains in the Kurdish north was equally deficient. There are now seven dams on the adjoining Euphrates system, most in Turkey and Syria, with plans for at least one more. And then there are the rampant inefficiencies built into Iraq's antiquated 8,000 miles of canals and drains, which send countless millions of gallons gushing into parts of the country that have little use for the water, and no means to harness it even if they did.

Some have looked to the heavens to explain the lack of rain. Society here is deeply superstitious. Many Iraqis, from the Sunni Arabs of Anbar to the tribes of the Marshlands, believe the natural deficiencies are God-ordained—and possibly a punishment for the sectarian ravages that have torn the country apart over the last three years.

"Droughts have happened before and will plague us again," says Awda as he surveys the vast expanse of hard-baked and cracked brown mud in front of him that used to be the Marshlands. "But not even in '91 was the water like this. Now there is nothing." The only water left in the maze of feeder streams that empty into this giant basin are pools of lime-colored stagnant ooze. Nothing flows. Ducks and geese sit listlessly on creek banks that have not been exposed in decades—if ever—to direct sunlight. Infestations of flies circle like Saturn's rings around giant, steel barrels of drinking water, imported from the nearby city of Nasiriyah, that line village roads. Reeds that were once the staple of the agrarian peoples who worked this waterway through the ages jut starkly from the banks, nearly all of them yellow and hardened, looking more like medieval weapons of war than crops.

Earlier this fall, the major tributaries of the Euphrates were flowing at around 30% of their normal levels. "Look at that mark on the bank," says Awda, pointing to a stain on a corrugated iron beam at the base of the bridge. Not long ago, he notes, this had been a high-water mark. The waterline is now at least nine feet lower. The pungent murk of the riverbed lingers in the air. "Take a deep breath," says Awda. "That smell is the scent of a dying ecosystem."

Two fishermen, who had launched themselves into what remained of the waterway in a bid to net carp, return to the banks with their haul—12 fish, none bigger than 10 inches. The catch is not enough to feed their families, let alone take to market. Two years ago, the fish were fat and bountiful.

"Fishing is our staple here," explains one local man, Sheikh Hameed from Abart village, further north of the Marshlands. "That, and hunting water birds. But they've all flown away. I had a stall here for many years," he recalls, pointing to an abandoned roadside hut, where he used to sell his catch.

The white polystyrene crates that used to hold the fish on ice are now home to street cats and sand drifts. A giant water buffalo, which once spent the best part of the summer immersed in the water, is now making do with what remains. He stands motionless, buried to the midriff in a festering, black mud. The caked soil cast offers at least some respite from the heat, but with the temperature expected to hover between 118 and 124 degrees Fahrenheit for the following week, he doesn't have long left to wallow.

"We are digging wells for our own survival," says Sheikh Hameed. "And this in the most water-rich area of the country. This is not God's wrath. This is the work of people."

Tweaking the Tap

Over the past six chaotic years, new reservoirs have been built into the Euphrates system on both the Syrian and Turkish sides of the border. Iraq, as a downstream country, would have likely suffered from serious water depletion even if it had a government strong enough to assert its authority against two powerful neighbors. But with a political class struggling to win legitimacy amid a sectarian war that has torn the country apart along ancient societal fault lines, there has been little time to tend even to the bare basics of survival. Delivery of services has been close to non-existent, from the national government down to village mayors. Now, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claiming to run a credible sovereign state, work has begun in earnest on talking to the neighbors about many issues of Iraqi sovereignty, including border integrity, that have remained sidelined throughout the post-war turmoil.

"They should realize that we are an important neighbor and share many things in life," says Dr. Rashid, who has three times led Iraqi delegations to Istanbul and Damascus to beg for more water. He has returned with promises, but little fruit for his labors. With no treaties or agreements signed with either state, however, he has little leverage. "Our neighboring countries need to get the message that it is our right to get our share of water from these two international rivers and that we should have a say in their operational procedures because we are downstream. In our discussions they have never connected the water issues with any other issues."

There is trouble, too, from Iran, whose government earlier this year ordered the diversion back into Iranian territory of a key tributary of the Tigris—the Karoon River, which enters Iraq just north of the southern city of Basra. Until early this year, the Karoon had sent regularly a vital flush of freshwater down the Tigris and into the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the northwestern end of the Persian Gulf. The freshwater pushed back the tidal effect and allowed tens of thousands of Iraqis from the southern Marshlands to make their livelihood through fishing and farming. "There were 13 billion cubic meters of freshwater [annually] feeding into the Shatt al-Arab," says Dr. Rashid. "Now that has gone. We have asked them to sit down and talk but they won't even answer our requests."

In late October 2009, Iraqi technicians finally met with their Iranian counterparts. "They were told about the effect on the people in the south who are exclusively Shias—their people," says Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. "They were very embarrassed by this and promised to look into it." Today, the saltwater of the relentless tides around Basra is still winning the push-me, pull-you game and, like a rampaging army, has pushed farther north up the waterway than ever before. As a result, some 30,000 locals have left their land, some of which has now been heavily salinated, leaving it of marginal agricultural value at best.

Across Iraq, entire ecosystems are under threat. So far, redress from the Turks and the Syrians has consisted only of sympathetic words, followed by the occasional tweak of the tap. "We need 500 cubic meters per second," Dr. Rashid said in August. "We have been getting 350 meters on some days, but 150 meters on average. They have promised us more, but we have yet to see it." In the months that followed, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey three times announced a boost in the headwater flow from the Euphrates. But by late autumn, the downstream effect had been negligible.

The giant power station in the city of Nasiriyah was still using only two of its four turbines that are normally powered by the flow of the Euphrates. One had broken down, but could not have been used anyway because, along with a second turbine, there was not enough moving water to power it. Nasiriyah was getting by on about six to eight hours of power a day—roughly the same as the rest of the country.

Throughout the summer and fall, engineers at the power station were desperately hoping the river would not fall another eight inches, to a level that would have left Iraq's fourth-largest city without any electricity whatsoever. "We saw it rise a centimeter or two, roughly two days after every announcement from the Turks, but it would soon drop away," says an engineer at the power station. "The figures we were being promised were not translating into tangibles."

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