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Drought, dams and dry rivers: Iraqi farmers are giving up hope

Iraqi farmers are facing drought, a significant drop in annual rainfall and growing salinity in the once water-rich country
Jabar Atram is a 68-year-old rice farmer living in al-Musharah, southern Iraq (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

BASRA, Iraq - The blazing sun beats down on Mohammed Khalil Ibrahim as he points to what is left of his date palms and the damage caused by a scarcity in water. Bent over his cane on his farm in the Iraqi southern city of Basra, the 73-year-old farmer describes how they are sad examples of the fruit-bearing tree. 

“You see the trunks, they're too thin. And the dates my trees produce are barely edible," said Ibrahim.

The Ibrahim family have been farmers for three generations. Back in the 80s, the family owned around 50,000 date palm trees in the city of Basra. Today, only a few thousand trees have survived the drought and salinity and none of Ibrahim’s sons want to take over the farm since it is no longer profitable. 

“Many neighbouring farmers give up and look for work in the cities," Ibrahim said.

The ground in many fields in al-Musharah, southern Iraq, is very dry (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

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Once a water-rich country, Iraq is facing drought, a significant drop in annual rainfall, salinity and a decline in the level of water flowing into the country, following the construction of major dams in Turkey and Iran since the 1970s.

Additionally, a lack of funds targeting the agricultural sector is preventing the development of Iraq's infrastructure. Basra, now a crumbling city, was once dubbed the "Venice of the Middle East" for its network of canals.

According to the Iraqi minister of water resources, Hassan al-Janabi, the ministry can only afford to pay the monthly wages of its employees.

Abandoned houses can be see in the rural village of al-Juoedl in the district of al-Musharah, in southern Iraq (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

Residents of Basra and other cities have been protesting since July over endemic corruption and collapsing infrastructure such as water and electricity shortages. Two weeks ago, at least 13 protesters were killed and government buildings were torched during the deadly demonstrations.

A saltwater lake in the district of al-Musharah, in southern Iraq (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

Basra residents say salt seeping into the water supply has made it undrinkable and has sent thousands to hospital, according to a Health Ministry spokesperson.

Our villages are slowly emptying

- Munir al-Saadi, mayor of al-Musharrah

Between 1991 and 2017, the share of agriculture in Iraqi employment has fallen from 34 percent to 19 percent, according to the World Bank.

According to al-Janabi, sanctions imposed on Iraq in light of its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 created ripples in the economy, with funds diverted to support the defence sector, leaving behind essential departments such as the Ministry of Water Resources. Years of ongoing wars in Iraq have also taken their toll on the country.

"Because of wars under Saddam Hussein against Iran and Kuwait, then the US-led invasion, 2006's sectarian tensions and the [war against the] Islamic State group, all sectors of our economy have been damaged,” al-Janabi told MEE. 

Ghost villages 

Standing on one of his 20-hectare fields in the southern Iraqi district of al-Musharrah, 42-year-old Iraqi farmer Jabaar Matar laments the lack of water.

After my death, this farm will disappear

 - Jabar Atram, farmer

The small river which used to irrigate six nearby villages is half dry, and pumping the remaining water is too expensive and it requires a pump that runs on petrol, which Matar says he cannot afford. A litre would cost him $0.40, he said. 

The farmer has given up on cultivating rice, which was banned by the government in June, and he now cultivates Iraq's strategic wheat crop.

Jabaar Matar has given up on cultivating rice, a water-intensive crop, and he now cultivates wheat (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

"I have three children and they won't take over the farm. Rice is becoming too difficult to produce. After my death, this farm will disappear," said Matar.

The government later retracted the ban on cultivating the water-intensive crop, only allowing farmers to plant around 12,500 square kilometres of rice in Najaf province and Diwaniya.

Jabar Atram is ignoring the ban in al-Musharrah province despite the lack of water (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

With a concerned look in his wrinkled eyes, 68-year-old rice farmer Jabar Atram describes how he is ignoring the ban in al-Musharrah province despite the scarcity in water.

Having grown rice crops since childhood, Atram says he does not know how to cultivate any other crops.

“I've been farming [rice] since I was a kid. What else could I do?" asked Atram.

A pump brings river water to a village, in the district of al-Musharah, southern Iraq (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

Atram has resorted to diverting water from the nearby river to irrigate his fields using an underground pipe that he set up illegally.

Munir al-Saadi, mayor of al-Musharrah, told MEE that farmers who go against the ban will get no more than warnings from his office. “But I can't go any further than that," al-Saadi said, evoking a staffing shortage in police officers to arrest farmers.

Al-Musharrah is experiencing a worrying rural exodus. According to al-Saadi, over the last 30 years, half of its 60 villages have disappeared as a result of desertification eating into green patches of land.

Mohammed Khalil Ibrahim is a 73-year-old date farmer in the southern suburb of Basra, Iraq (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

“Three farmers give up farming every month. Our villages are slowly emptying," he said.  

The movement of people from rural Iraq into urban centres causes extra strain on these already highly populated areas. Iraq’s rural inhabitants account for 30 percent of the country’s total population. 

‘This country will dry up completely’

According to al-Janabi, Iraq needs 50 billion cubic metres of water per year to meet its agricultural, domestic and industrial needs. However, the country is currently on a flow basis of 30 billion cubic metres.

He says a controversial Turkish dam project on the Tigris river will increase the water shortage in neighbouring Iraq. Around 70 percent of Iraq’s water resources flow mainly from the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, which both flow through Turkey. 

In June, Turkey started filling the Ilısu dam basin with water, as part of one of Turkey's largest hydroelectric projects.

“Ilısu Dam is a factor that will cause a further decline in our water resources,” al-Janabi said.

The Mosul Dam is the largest dam in Iraq and is located on the Tigris river in the governate of Ninawa (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

Alain Gachet, a geologist, said he no longer believes in the future of surface water in Iraq.

“Iraq is going to dry up completely," said Gachet, the founder of RTI Exploration and an expert on groundwater aquifers.

Anbar's vast acquifers

However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. In 2017, Gachet said that he discovered three aquifers comprising hundreds of billions of cubic metres of fresh water under the western desert of Iraq, between 700 and 2,000 metres deep in the al-Anbar Province. The research Gachet conducted for Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources was directed by UNESCO Iraq, according to Gachet.

The Tigris river in Baghdad. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers supply some 98 percent of the country’s water (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)

Nevertheless, the ministry has not announced any plan to make use of the aquifers in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province. Al-Janabi said he was not aware of Gachet’s findings and declined to comment on the matter.

Anbar province was once the heartland of the Sunni fight against US forces and successive Shia-led governments following the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, who was from Iraq’s minority Sunni population. Since then, Anbar province, which used to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later of the Islamic State group before it was captured by Iraqi forces in November, has been neglected by successive Iraqi governments.

Gachet predicts that in the near future underground water will be more valuable than oil. 

"Water is ultimately very political in Iraq, like its oil."

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