Drought crisis in Iraq: the Mesopotamian is running out of water

As of: 12/29/2021 02:23 a.m.

Iraq is plagued by a massive drought: it has rained far too little, the reserves have been used up – and the neighboring countries Turkey, Syria and Iran are contesting Iraq for the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

By Anna Osius, ARD studio Cairo

Youssef works in his field. With his bare hands and a pickaxe, the farmer tries to loosen the rock-hard soil a little. A difficult undertaking – it has rained far too little this year. Youssef told the Reuters news agency that the earth was completely dry. “We had to give up a lot of fields here completely, they have turned into a desert. Recently, vegetables were grown everywhere here. But now it’s different. We have lost so much money because nothing has grown, that we are afraid, at all something to grow. “

Anna Osius
ARD-Studio Kairo

According to calculations, the wheat harvest in the Nineveh Plain in the north was 70 percent lower this year than last year. The drought leaves whole stretches of land deserted. Wendy Barron, country director in Iraq for the aid organization Care, says in an interview with the ARD: “It’s an absolutely big problem, we didn’t have the usual rain in winter or snowfall in the mountains. Iraq is now one of the five countries in the world that are most affected by climate change. This is already the second year of drought in The result. The water reserves have been used up. Experts say it takes at least two to three years to refill the empty dams and rivers. “

Drought – and competition

2021 was the second driest year in 40 years, report meteorologists. Iraq was once a fertile country – with the two great rivers Euphrates and Tigris and various tributaries.

But in addition to the lack of rain, there is a political problem: the countries closer to the sources of the rivers – Turkey, Syria and Iran – are increasingly using the water themselves. Huge dam projects are literally digging up the water in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. The international Water Stress Index has calculated: If water use continues like this, the former two-stream country Iraq will no longer have any major rivers in less than 20 years.

The water table is sinking

A dramatic problem, as Barron emphasizes: “We see farmers selling their cattle en masse. We see flight and displacement. Some people have already been on the run for the second or third time – first because of IS, now because of water shortages. Also the water table has sunk dramatically: We were drilling for water in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq – otherwise we will always find the groundwater at around 150 meters – now you have to dig around 400 meters deep and still don’t have enough. “

Farmer Hamid has also experienced this. The old man could hardly feed his animals with the little yield. “We sowed, but we lost everything, the seed and the fertilizer. The hard work was in vain, everything just dried up. The harvest was so bad because it didn’t rain.”

Growing cactus out of necessity

Hamid and his colleague Youssef have now developed a new strategy for how they can feed their sheep, goats and cows: They grow cactus plants. The cacti grow well on the completely dried out soil – it is the last chance to do any arable farming at all. “Usually no cacti are grown in Iraq. But they are practical: They save water because you don’t need much to grow them and you can use them to feed the animals – so you need less forage,” says Youssef.

He carefully cuts off some of the fleshy leaves of a prickly pear, rasps away the spines, and cuts the juicy plants into small pieces. He feeds them to the animals. The sheep eat it without any problems, and the cow begins to chew too. “I feed the animals three times a day; they get food twice and cacti once. That works well.”

Irrigation is only sufficient for half of the areas

The farmers are breaking new ground in cultivation because there is no end in sight to the water shortage. Irrigation is only sufficient for half of the land area. Agriculture director of the Nineveh administration, Rabie Youssef, says: “There is no other way without rain. Some farmers rent out their land, but at the moment only a quarter to a maximum of half of the land can be cultivated.”

The result: Food prices are rising and people are getting poorer: around seven million people are acutely affected by water shortages in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan alone. But international aid funds are increasingly being cut, criticizes Wendy Barron of the Care organization. The United Nations fear that a new humanitarian crisis is looming in the region in a few months’ time.

“We have political instability here, had the oil crises, wars, ISIS, Corona – and now the drought is on top of that. That makes people poor. Almost half of Iraqis live in poverty. This number has almost doubled in the past year . We are running out of time, “said Barron.


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