Lack of water threatens Iraq’s long-term stability

Ramadi–Abdullah Hasan blames chronic water shortages for ruining his crops and has little faith a new government will be able to revive Iraq’s agriculture sector, shattered by war and starved of investment.

The 50-year-old father of five from Falluja in western Anbar province was forced to abandon his 50 acres of land and take a job in construction after years of drought killed off his wheat, barley, tomato, cucumber and watermelon harvests.

He has little hope of returning to farming — his primary source of income for 35 years — and plans to sell some of his land as water levels in rivers and reservoirs continue to drop, increasing the concentration of pollutants in the water.

“Day after day, the soil situation is deteriorating because the level of salt is increasing and fertility is decreasing. It’s like a cancer hitting the human body,” Hasan said.

Already damaged by decades of war and sanctions, Iraq has acute water shortages which are expected to worsen as its population of around 30 million grows.

A country dominated by arid desert landscapes, it has one of the most extensive irrigation systems in the world but years of war, underinvestment and sanctions have prevented it from properly harnessing what little water it has left.

Iraq’s main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, provide little relief to the parched plains as hydroelectric dams in neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria have stemmed the water flow.

Investment in dilapidated infrastructure like water pumps is vital for key industries like agriculture and oil, as well as the broader reconstruction effort seven years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Parched Anbar province, a vast desert area, has been hit particularly hard. Large areas of formerly arable land by the Euphrates have become unusable because of insufficient methods to pump clean water through the soil.

The United Nations says around 83 percent of sewage is being discharged untreated into waterways, while the government estimates 24 percent of Iraqis do not have access to safe water.

Working with US experts, the government is trying to build treatment plants and biological lagoons to clean polluted water.

In Anbar, a Provincial Reconstruction Team — a unit set up by the United States to help rebuild Iraq — has spent over $100 million to build and maintain treatment facilities and expects 97 percent of residents to have clean water by year’s end.

Around 90 percent of Anbar’s 1.4 million people live along the Euphrates, where water levels have dropped dramatically. The river had an average flow rate of 1,000 cubic meters per second before being dammed and slowed to 290 cubic meters per second last August — its lowest level in six years.

Iraqi officials say sewage facilities in Anbar are insufficient. A sewage system for the town of Ramadi would cost at least US$400 million, they say.

“Where are we going to find investors who will come and invest US$400 million in a project like that?” said Ibrahim Madlool, the director general of water for Anbar province.

“We are looking for support from the central government to support us in projects of this magnitude.”

The wait may be long. Iraq has been in political limbo since a March 7 election produced no outright winner.

It could take months before a new government is formed and that means delays in new projects that need cabinet approval.

The new government is expected to focus on improving basic services, including negotiating more water supplies from neighbors and focusing on efficient use of the little water Iraq has.

The lack of water threatens development of the oilfields. Iraq has the world’s third-largest reserves and struck deals last year which could propel it to major producer status.

But large volumes of water must be pumped under ground to maintain pressure as oil is extracted. Production of a barrel of oil requires around 1.6 barrels of water.

Developing agriculture and the oil sector, which employs more people than any other industry, are seen as crucial for keeping unemployed youth away from the insurgency as Iraq recovers from the sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007.

But Hassan, who earns 2,000 dinars (US$1.71) a day in construction, expects little improvement from a new government.

“I don’t believe that a conscious government awakening will happen, especially after more than seven years of this deterioration,” he said. “I am not optimistic.”

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