Iraq. “Without Water, We Have No Life”

Dramatic water shortages, increasing drought and temperature, intensifying dust storms, desertification, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Iraq is experiencing an unprecedented environmental crisis that threatens its very existence. Climate migrants, mostly farmers, are already numerous.

Dry marsh of Chibayish, near the city of NasiriyaH, in southern Iraq
Haidar Hamdani/AFP

In December 2020, young Iraqis displayed works of art expressing their concerns about the environment. The phrase was written on one of these artworks: “No longer have a star-studded night”1. This was a rare expression from civil society about how the climate change crisis is threatening their lives. Iraq’s sky now rains dust and pollutants, and Mesopotamia—The land between the Tigris and Euphrates—no longer provides enough rain to save the country from expected drought.

The Iraqi president acknowledges the coming catastrophe: “The potential human costs of climate change are enormous, as seven million Iraqis are tangibly affected by drought and forced displacement.” In 2021, Iraq celebrates its centenary as a modern state, just as environmental challenges threaten its very existence. After just 100 years, its ecosystem teeters on the verge of collapse, and the level of water flow in its historical rivers is a tenth of what it once was. In 1920, Iraqi water flow was recorded at 1,350m3/sec; now, it is less than 150m3/sec.

Flows declined rapidly after 2003, when Turkey and Iran started depriving Iraqis of their water. Authorities deliberately drain rivers and tributaries entering Iraq in order to monopolise water reserves and transform them into political tools.

Green areas have shrunk, the desert has expanded and as a result, sand and dust storms (SDS) have become even more widespread across the entire country. They now occur an estimated 220 days a year, with the concentration of falling dust at approximately 80mm/sqm a month, while rainfall is much more infrequent. International environmental observatories estimate that SDS will reach 300 a year, hitting most parts of Iraq. This destructive phenomenon threatens to end agricultural and social life in these areas.

Iraq is located within the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with a network of canals and tributaries, around which most of its cities are located. A third of the population lives in the countryside. The desiccation of these networks and the historical importance of Iraq’s water sources could lead to the disintegration of national unity due to increasing environmental conflict, lack of resources and intensifying climate change. The World Resources Institute’s water stress index places Iraq at 3.7 points out of a possible 5 (5 indicating the highest level of water scarcity). By 2040, this will rise to 4.6, meaning consequences including complete drought, scorching sun and a toxic environment.

The government refuses to acknowledge the country’s contribution to global warming, despite the International Energy Agency (IEA) reporting that Iraq accounts for 8% of global methane emission as a result of oil and gas investment. Clouds of methane are often present in Iraq’s atmosphere due to the unclean extraction of petroleum. In July 2021, Kayrros, a Paris-based company that analyses satellite data for the European Space Agency (ESA) to track emissions, revealed that a western Basra field was releasing methane at 73 tons per hour, following two other methane emissions in mid-June, halfway between Basra and Baghdad, at 181 and 197 tons per hour. As an approximate comparison, 180 tons of methane is equivalent to the thermal retention caused by the average annual emissions of over 200,000 cars in the United Kingdom, according to Bloomberg’s Agency.

The Ministry of Environment confirms that the country has been thrown into the epicentre of the climate crisis, with violent repercussions that will lead to the destruction of the Iraqi environment, making it unliveable over the next two decades due to excessive increases in temperature; lack of rainfall, lack of surface and underground water reserves; increased drought; intensification of dust storms; desertification; soil erosion; and loss of biodiversity. This will ultimately lead to a decline in agricultural area and the destruction of food security chains.

Waste, evaporation and increased salinity

Iraq consumes over 63% of its water resources on agriculture without filling its domestic need for crops and often depends on imported food. This means water wastage does not correspond to what would logically be high levels of productivity. The Chairman of the Agriculture and Water Committee of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Salam Al-Shamri, stresses:

Farming techniques in Iraq are rudimentary. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water Resources have not used modern irrigation technologies to aid consumption. Therefore, we have a significant waste of water with a weak agricultural output.

Agriculture constitutes about 4% of the country’s GDP and is responsible for about 20% of the mostly rural labour market. Due to the impact of climate change, water scarcity and increased armed conflict, agricultural production has declined by about 40% since 2014. According to the World Bank, it is estimated that two thirds of Iraq’s farmers had access to irrigation sources before that year, but over the following three years it fell to just 20%. Government estimates indicate that climate change has also caused the loss of 75% of livestock, such as sheep, goats and buffalo.

In addition to agricultural wastage, Iraq loses approximately 14.7% of its water reserves annually to evaporation, a very high rate compared to other nations. Lake Tharthar, the largest natural water reservoir in Iraq, loses more than 50% of its stored water. In contrast, the Marshes region, the largest natural body of water and wetland in the Middle East, loses approximately 75m3 per second to evaporation, according to the local administration of the Souq Al-Shuyoukh District South Nasiriyah, which calculated the loss of 4.5 billion cubic metres of water due to evaporation and global warming in summer 2017 alone. It is as if Iraq were a scorching cauldron, angrily boiling away the water.

Iraq will warm over the coming years at a rate of two degrees Celsius, higher than the rate of global warming estimated at 1.5 °, according to the frightening report published by the IPCC. The excessive temperatures in Iraq, often exceeding 53 degrees Celsius in summer (particularly in the southern oil-producing regions), are decimating crops and buffalo, destroying the ecological diversity of the marshes and raising the toxicity levels of drinking water – 140,000 people in Basra were poisoned in the summer of 2018. There are also thousands of fires every year, with 14,715 fires registered in 2021 so far.

The buffalo, a huge wild animal, is one of the most important assets of the marsh dwellers. Today, they are on the verge of losing it forever. Due to increased salinity and temperature increases, large numbers of buffalo have already died. According to the latest government estimates, the buffalo population has decreased from 1.2 million to less than 200,000.

Iraq fought to have these historic marshes added to the World Heritage List in 2016, perhaps seeing it as a way to safeguard water flow to protect this archaeological site from extinction, but it appears that the ancient region is now on the brink of death.

The salinity rate in various parts of the marshes has reached 12,600 parts per million, a “dangerous level of deadly pollution as a result of drought”, which has led to “a large migration of local populations from the central marshes, and the buffalo is now at risk of extinction”, according to Dr Jasem Al-Asadi, a consultant for Nature Iraq.

Drying lakes

The earthquakes and aftershocks that have been striking Iraq for two years (due to the disruption of ground layers) have caused water reserves and lakes to “fall to dangerous levels”. This can be seen in the accelerated decline of historic Lake Sawa in the desert of the Muthanna governorate in southwestern Iraq. This dried-up lake is fed by groundwater reservoirs and aquifers that extend beneath the country’s western region.

Muthanna Director of Environment Youssef Sawadi Jabbar explains that water scarcity in Sawa is because “the earthquakes led to the closure of the channels, groundwater and water springs that feed the lake”, as well as “evaporation caused by the high temperatures”, leading to “the lake being vulnerable to total drought”.

Al- Muthanna suffers from chronic water scarcity, and since so many people in the region depend on agriculture, they have now fallen below the national poverty line. As a result, much of the rural population has begun to flee the region after 22 areas in the governorate recorded water shortages in some of the most agriculturally productive lands. In 2019 alone, 132 families left this region. The Governor of Muthanna, Ahmed Manfi, explains:

Drought and low rainfall has been hitting us for 10 years, so our farmers have become unemployed. Furthermore, the state has failed to provide adequate water, and as a result illiteracy and unemployment have risen, while poverty indicators now reach 52%, the highest among the governorates of Iraq.

Many population displacements

For the first time, starting in 2020, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which monitors and tracks the growth of internal displacement in Iraq due to armed conflict, has begun to produce digital data sets and independent migration reports on climate and water scarcity-based displacement, especially in the central and southern regions. In 2019, 21,314 people were displaced from nine central and southern governorates due to water scarcity, high salinity and the outbreak of water-borne diseases in 145 regions. Before this instance of mass migration, another displacement of 20,000 people from agricultural settlements was recorded in 2012. Moreover, UNESCO confirms that more than 100,000 people in northern Iraq were displaced from their villages due to severe water shortages between 2005 and 2009.

The inhabitants of several villages in Diyala in northeastern Iraq are preparing to move away from their ancestral lands, which they have inhabited for generations, due to water scarcity and the disappearance of the farms on which they depend. Likewise, the residents of other villages in Wasit governorate (100km from Diyala) are abandoning agriculture and buffalo breeding. This is also occurring in the provinces of Dhi Qar and Maysan.

The four governorates form a long agricultural strip along the Tigris River, bordered to the east by Iran, from which rivers and tributaries that feed the river and the marshes flow. Maysan province in the southeast is the worst affected by drought and has recorded the most mass displacement of villages according to the DTM index, with 58 areas affected and displaced. The people, a mixture of settled peasants with agricultural land, fishers and buffalo breeders living in the marshes, complain of water scarcity and poor quality. Salim, a young man accustomed to fishing in the Maysan Marshes, asks:

The water-owning countries want Iraq’s oil, and we are an oil-rich country, and as citizens, we have benefited nothing from it. Our lives are water-dependent, so why not give them oil for water? Without water, we have no life.

Karim Hattab, head of the Maysan Farmers Union, agrees :

Even the fish in the marshes commit suicide… livestock is entirely decimated, and there is not enough water, so why should farmers and fishermen remain in a dead land? Most of them have been displaced to the city, but there is no work in the city. Unemployment there is increasing day after day.

Diyala province on the Iranian border in the northeast could be another model that combines climate change and water scarcity factors. This area has a fertile agricultural basin but is now environmentally devastated. as Iran has closed the Sirwan River (known locally as the Diyala) that waters the city and its orchards. Haidar Abdul Latif, Head of Baquba Agriculture Division, says,

The drought has damaged us severely. With temperatures exceeding 50 °Celsius, the plants and trees have been exposed to such strong sunlight that their outer layers have been dried out and burned.

Dozens of villages in Diyala governorate are now devastated, and residents suffer from water scarcity, desertification and crop destruction. Abu Muhammad, a 55-year-old farmer from Al-Amilah village, one of 25 villages in the town of Al-Mansuriya whose citizens are preparing for displacement, describes the deteriorating conditions there: “We depend on well water, which is very salty and bad. The whole village will have to migrate to other areas.”

Water as a weapon of armed conflict

In the National Development Document (2018-2022), the Federal Government of Baghdad recognises that Iraq is part of a “double negative relationship between the environment and armed conflict (...) this has led to environmental pollution and serious damage that has impacts on the economy, society and the individual.”

Destruction of the local environment and water infrastructure has been used as a weapon of armed conflict in Iraq, particularly by ISIS. Large quantities of water have been wasted in artificial floods, large agricultural areas have been destroyed, and valuable water reserves have been lost. As a result, drought was felt strongly in areas north of Baghdad and the city of Mosul, while farmland shrank by half in 2018. In addition, depletion due to climate change and armed conflict (north) forced 400 families in Dhi Qar (south) to flee and migrate to new areas that year.

Water scarcity is more than a result of conflict– it can also be a driver of it. ISIS used water to prevent the advance of government forces, flooding the vast open lands. Consequently, areas south of Baghdad have been suffering from drought, and tribal conflicts have erupted over the water sources in these regions. The regions of lower Iraq receive little water, also of poor quality, due to the hundreds of miles it must travel. As a result, bloody fights often erupt between clans over water rations. Government officials who distribute those rations have also been killed.

This new “climate violence” represents a high level of risk when combined with increasing poverty and unemployment, uncontrolled population growth, the state’s inability to create new jobs, growing national poverty indicators and Iraq’s declining per capita GDP. With the economic downturn resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, armed groups and militias can recruit more unemployed and angry farmers: rising crime rates, worsening social despair, increasing suicide, and instability will continue to devastate Iraq.

An inactive and powerless state

In general, Iraq suffers from a weak body of legislation relating to water and environmental conservation. It does not have a national water resources management or conservation law; a draft law has been stalled since 2016. Similarly, the Ministry of Water Resources’ Law No. (50) of 2008 cannot be considered a national law for water management, but rather an agenda of the Ministry’s most pressing tasks.

Despite Iraq’s participation in 2015’s historic Paris climate conference, political conflict prevented Baghdad from joining the Paris Climate Agreement until early 2021, an indication that the environmental question is at the tail-end of government concerns.

Iraq’s ranking on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) Efficiency Standard2 is 116th out of 180 countries. To remedy this, it has been trying to address its environmental failures by launching a national adaptation plan to combat climate change in late 2019 over 36 months, with the help of international aid and in collaboration with UNEP. However, the funding ($2.5 million from the Green Climate Fund) is hugely inadequate relative to the scale of the environmental crisis facing Iraq.

Indeed, 21 months later (August 2021) none of the plan’s goals have been achieved. Iraq is ranked the fifth most vulnerable country worldwide to water scarcity, food poverty and high temperatures, according to UNEP report GEO 6 [“Global Environment Outlook 6”.]]. At the same time, the population is fighting with no experience to overcome such severe climate change and drought, as well as the water blockade imposed by Turkey and Iran.

Iran and Turkey divert rivers

Climate change is being used as a political tool and a means of blackmail, particularly by Turkey and Iran. Tehran has destroyed the rural environment in its western region, which is inhabited by an Arab majority bordering Iraq, by draining its rivers and tributaries to ‘rescue’ the water entering Iraq, under the pretext that it is suffering from a severe internal drought that necessitates the transfer of water to other Iranian cities. On this basis, it refuses to negotiate with Baghdad.

Minister of Water Resources Rashid al-Hamdani points out,

We have repeatedly asked Iran to cooperate with us and to reopen the waterways towards Iraq, based on the principle of bearing these harmful repercussions together, but unfortunately the Iranians did not respond (…) We requested that a technical agreement [regarding water resources] be organised independently of the political treaty ratified by the two countries in 1975. They once again did not respond, so the Ministry took a decision to internationalise the water problem with Iran and submit it to the international community and to the international courts.

The government has not found a solution to this Iranian and Turkish extortion and obstinacy, as well as to the broader issue of climate change, except that of reducing the per capita share of water to less than 250m3 (starting in summer 2021), down from 2,400m3 in 2004. Water reserves have decreased sharply in just fifteen years, to 500m3 in 2019. Aoun Diab, a spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources, emphasises: “This reduction is not a concern, as many neighbouring countries depend on this quota for their citizens.”

Bleak years full of complex climate challenges await those young people who paint and design art full of optimism, who are so ready to dream of a better future for Iraq’s environment.