Azzam Al Wash teaches at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani and is the founder of the environmental organization, Nature Iraq, that helped revive the drained marshes in Iraq’s south.
He told VOA that for centuries the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flooded Iraq, renewing its once verdant farmland, but the floods stopped in 1968 after dams were built upstream mainly for hydroelectric purposes in Turkey, where the rivers originate. Iran, he said, also has redirected the Tigris, because it, too, needs water.
“The Iraqi farmer is used to having an abundance of water, not a lack of water,” Al Wash said. “The entire structure of water management in Iraq is designed and constructed at a time when floods were a natural norm. But by coming to an agreement with Turkey on the operational rules of certain dams, we can actually stop using the man-made lakes that were created for flood control and thus make more water for Iraqi farmers and cities to use.”
However, Al Wash and others don’t hold out much hope for this remedy. He adds that Iraq’s population is ever increasing and with it, so is its water consumption. And then there are climate change challenges.
Iraq’s water resources ministry warned in a shocking report last December that the continuing loss of water from the Tigris and the Euphrates, which form the backbone of its fresh water supplies, could turn the country into a “a land without rivers by 2040.”
Iraq Water Minister Mahdi Al-Hamadani said after contacting his counterparts in Turkey and Iran — he’s still awaiting negotiations. The United Nations is also urging the three neighbors to reach a fair water-sharing arrangement.
Recently, various U.N. agencies issued an urgent call for action to protect Iraq as it marked the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. But analysts point to Turkey and Iran’s own water concerns and climate change challenges as obstacles.
Research fellow Tobias von Lossow at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations told VOA that observers see the Shatt al Arab waterway where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet in Iraq as “falling dry sooner or later.” He warns that “there are alarming trends” and that there is only “a small window to prevent this from happening.”
“Particularly the southeastern target project in Turkey had a big impact,” Von Lossow said. “So, the water inflow into Iraq has reduced by 30 to 40% since the late 1970s and this trend continues. Climate change and environmental degradation are contributing and are accelerating that. We will see more drought, water shortages, sandstorms, dust storms.
“And we will see that on a more frequent and regular basis in the future. There are limited options for Iraq. Iraq can work on domestic water governance. Push a bit harder on agricultural reforms, crop selection, irrigation technology.”
The United Nations places Iraq among the top five countries impacted most by climate change worldwide, with its increasing loss of arable land due to salinization, less rainfall, prolonged heat waves, and an onslaught of dust storms. Meanwhile, the decline in water levels of both rivers has seen farms and fishing enterprises near their banks abandoned.