x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Worsening water crisis drains hope for future

Falling river levels combined with salination are devastating agriculture in Basra province, forcing residents to flee.

Adilla Finchaan checks her land in Latifiyah, about 30km south of Baghdad, which has been bone-dry for a second straight year.
Adilla Finchaan checks her land in Latifiyah, about 30km south of Baghdad, which has been bone-dry for a second straight year.

BAGHDAD // Water supply problems in southern Iraq are escalating, with local officials warning of a humanitarian and political crisis, and residents claiming they are being prevented from fleeing parched land by security forces. The ecosystem in Faw, on the Shatt al Arab waterway, has been badly damaged by rapid increases in salinity, a side-effect of reduced water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Farmers have been hit hard and Basra's agriculture directorate is on the brink of declaring the province a disaster area.

According to villagers, the Faw region has become all but uninhabitable. Scores of families have already abandoned their homes, yet some say they were halted from moving away by the Iraqi military. "We wanted to get out of Faw and had packed up to leave but we were stopped at a checkpoint and told we could not go," said one resident in a telephone interview. He asked to be identified only as Abu Mohammad, fearing retribution if his full identity were revealed. "The only way for us to escape was to use smugglers routes; we had to use boats to get away."

Abu Mohammad, who now lives near Basra city, said salt water and pollution were wiping out plant and animal life and that drinking water was increasingly scarce and expensive. Coupled with electricity shortages and high unemployment, he said life in Faw had become impossible. "I don't know why they don't want us to leave, I suppose no one wants to admit how bad the situation is," he said. "It's political. They are trying to suppress the problem and they don't want to admit that Iran is involved because the government is so close to Iran."

National elections are due to take place in Iraq in January and campaigning has already begun. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, is hoping for re-election and his critics accuse him of exaggerating what progress has been made on security and economic issues, while seeking to downplay problems. Water is a major cause for concern across Iraq. A three-year-long drought has added to fears that damage to the water table and environment may already be so severe that full recovery will be impossible.

The Iraqi government has blamed most of the problems on reduced water flows entering from Syria and Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates are heavily dammed. Although the three countries held a recent summit on the issue, the negotiations produced no results. As the quantity of fresh water flowing downstream has dropped, tidal salt-water backflows from the Gulf have increased, poisoning once productive farmlands.

While most attention has focused on the role of Turkey and Syria in the water cutbacks, Iran has also been diverting growing amounts of water that once flowed into Iraq, according to senior Iraqi water officials. They say requests to hold talks have been completely ignored by Tehran. Water levels are now reportedly so low that electricity plants, reliant on water from the Shatt al Arab, have had to reduce production to conserve supplies, adding to electricity shortages.

"The reduced flows from Turkey and Syria, and the Iranian changes to the course of the Karun River and the Karkheh River [which feed into the Shatt al Arab] have all led to the increased salinity," said Amer Salma, director of Basra's agriculture directorate. "More than 150 families have migrated from Faw because of a lack of drinking water and water for cultivation. Farmers have not been growing wheat or henna for more than a year.

"We have a number of proposals designed to solve the crisis, including water transfer systems." The authorities in Baghdad have set up a ministerial committee to look for comprehensive answers to the problems on the Shatt al Arab. Mr al Maliki this month announced multibillion dollar funding packages to address water issues. Such moves have been greeted with no discernible joy in Iraq's south, where for many residents they are too little and come too late.

"Salt water and the death of agriculture has meant many families have already sold their homes and left," said Abdullah al Johar, a farmer from Faw who is now out of work. "People want to move to a place where they can get drinking water. Poor families cannot afford to buy bottled water. "What is supposed to happen to the families who have to stay in Faw? What is the fate of those who are too poor or weak to move away?"

The scale of the problem, according to Jaber Ameen Jaber, the president of Basra's provincial council, made it the worst case of mass migration since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Faw peninsula was a key battleground in the eight-year-long conflict. "This is the biggest movement of refugees here since the Iran war," he said. "This is something that we need central government help with and we have approached the relevant ministries and asked them to take measures.

"People need saving." nlatif@thenational.ae