Dam projects by neighbouring states are drastically reducing the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates and helping to turn a once-fertile plain into desert. Phil Sands and Nizar Latif report as an environmental crisis deepens As bombs continue to tear apart its towns and villages, Iraq is now in the grip of an environmental crisis that experts and officials warn may do what decades of war have not been able to - destroy the country. The new war on Iraq, says one member of the country's parliament, "is a war of water".
The Tigris and Euphrates, two of the world's great water courses, fed life to the historic lands of Mesopotamia, "the land between two rivers". The previously lush plains south of Baghdad are widely held to be the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of some of humanity's greatest achievements and earliest empires. Today, however, those same rivers are increasingly starved of water. The floodplains on either side of the Euphrates and Tigris, Iraq's old fertile agricultural heartlands, are parched. In northern Iraq, underground supplies of water have been so depleted they may never recover.
Wells once 200 metres deep now have to go down twice as far to reach the lowered water table. A majority of existing wells in the region are running dry. "Vast areas of Iraq are now cracked and barren, the marshes have dried up and dust storms worse than anyone can remember obscure the sun," says Ibrahim al Alubiddi, an economics professor at Baghdad's Mustansariya University. "These are the symptoms of a water shortage that threatens Iraq. It's a real crisis and could lead to disaster unless radical solutions are found quickly."
The immediate effects have also been felt in other countries. This summer a series of vast Iraqi dust clouds have drifted down the Arabian Gulf, as far south as the UAE. The clouds have been unusually large, a consequence of Iraq's increased desertification, itself a result of water shortages that, according to Mr Alubiddi, have been made worse by war, corruption and poor environmental policies. Iraq's devastating water shortages have three main causes: upstream dams in Turkey and Syria have drastically reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates; rainfall levels have hit record lows; and inefficient management techniques mean Iraq wastes what limited water it does have.
"The drought has been a real issue; without rain there has been no replenishment of rivers and groundwater aquifers," says Mohammed Amin Faris, a leading Iraqi water official. "We used to have droughts once a decade. Now we are worried they are coming every two or three years because of global climate change. "In addition to that, we have other problems. Neighbouring countries are putting up dams that have stopped us getting the water we had in the past."
According to Iraqi government figures, water flow in the Euphrates is currently some 200 cubic metres per second as it crosses into Iraq, less than half of the minimum amount required to help the country meet its basic needs. Much of the water is stopped in Turkey, while Syria, battling its own water crisis, is also drawing on supplies. Iraq, downstream of both, pays the price for their consumption.
Similar problems face the Tigris and will be greatly exacerbated if Turkey pushes ahead with its controversial US$2 billion (Dh7.35bn) Ilisu dam project. "The Euphrates River is already cut as far as Iraq is concerned and the Tigris will be cut as well if Turkey goes ahead," says Mr Faris. "If these dams are completed the flow from the Tigris will be halved from 20.9 billion cubic metres a year to 9.7 billion cubic metres."
Most of the cities in Iraq, he says, are dependent on that water: "Vast areas of land will be dry. This dam could destroy Iraq." As a member of Iraq's international water negotiating committee, Mr Faris has been involved in talks with Turkey and Syria designed to come up with an equitable solution for water sharing. Discussions so far have been inconclusive. "We are trying to get a third party involved in the talks as a mediator, the United States or the United Nations," he says. "But they have refused. Water is a political issue, it's part of a political game and of course it's far more important than oil. There are alternatives to oil but there is no alternative to water."
The next round of talks was due to take place yesterday in Ankara, and follows claims by the Iraqi water minister, Latif Rashid, that Turkey had broken a promise to increase water flows in the Euphrates. Iraq also faces reduced water flow from Iran but, according to Mr Faris, government attempts to open dialogue with Tehran on the issue have failed. "We want negotiations but Iran is just ignoring us," he says. "They are upstream and we are downstream and there's not much you can do about it, especially if you are weak."
Water shortages, acute in the cooler and traditionally wetter northern part of the country, are even worse in central and southern zones. Agriculture has been hit hard. "We simply don't have enough water," says Salam Iskander Zait, the head official for the Ministry of Agriculture in Wasit province, south of Baghdad. His offices are in Kut, on the Tigris. "Water levels have been falling consistently, this is the thing that worries me. It's not a problem I can solve, it's something the government will have to do at a national level, working with our neighbours. It's an international matter."
Iraqi farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet and impoverished rural areas are slipping further into destitution. Iraqi politicians, government officials and local leaders warn that such developments will serve only to undermine fragile security gains and could provide a breeding ground for insurgents. There are even suggestions that water shortages could trigger a new international conflict between Iraq and its neighbours. Allegations are increasingly being made, in particular against Turkey and Iran, that water has become a weapon to keep Iraq on its knees.
"Iraq's water crisis has put us in a precarious position and could even lead us into a war with one of our neighbours," says Tayseer al Mashadani, a member of parliament from the Iraqi Accord Front. "The new war on Iraq is a war of water. There have been agreements with our neighbours about sharing water resources but they have not stuck to them." He predicts the current situation will worsen as the region's countries all try to increase their consumption of dwindling water supplies. A senior official within Iraq's water ministry expresses a similarly bleak view.
"In Europe they may settle water disputes through calm negotiations but my fear is that we don't have that same attitude in this part of the world,"t he official says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I hope this will all end peacefully but I suspect it won't. I'm not optimistic." But while many Iraqis blame Turkey, Syria and Iran for creating their current water problems, Nibras al Mamouri, a professor of water resources at Baghdad's College of Agriculture, says domestic causes should not be ignored.
"This is not a new crisis in Iraq but this time it is more dangerous than ever before," she says. "Iraqi politicians are quick to throw blame at our neighbours but our problems are also due to an increasing food consumption, poor irrigation techniques and a lack of incentives to stop wasting so much water." Improved farming methods and education programmes have been introduced by the Iraqi authorities, with religious leaders asked to advocate water conservation in their sermons. Plans to increase the cost of water and to meter its use by households are also under discussion, as are reforestation schemes that would help to reverse desertification.
"We have projects under way and they are successful up to a point," says Mr Firas, of the governmental water unit. "But we have only about 10 per cent of the funding we need and it's not enough to solve the problem. We have not done enough and most of the projects have not been implemented yet. "We must move quickly. We have already started too late and there comes a point where you cannot undo the damage that has been done."