INSIGHT-Middle East’s fertile crescent dries up as rains fail


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By Amina Ismail and Maha El Dahan

DIWANIYA, Iraq, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Abbas Elwan has been drilling well after well in a desperate bid to find water for his family’s parched farmland in southern Iraq. After yet another failed attempt in August, he took a gun from the kitchen of their mud house and slipped out into the night.

Hikma Meteab found her husband’s body the next day with a gunshot wound to the head in a dried up irrigation canal near the arid land that once produced enough wheat and barley to support the extended Elwan family.

“It was his last hope, and there was no water,” Abbas’s brother Ali, 56, told Reuters, standing in the scorching heat near a field with dead plants sticking out. baked soil.

As world leaders gather in Egypt for a climate summit to address issues such as water and food security, Elwan’s plight highlights a crisis facing Iraq and the world. countries in the Middle East that could fuel more unrest in the region as communities battle over dwindling water resources.

Reuters spoke to more than two dozen people in five provinces of Iraq who all said a prolonged drought, which has only worsened in recent years, was crippling livelihoods. Farmers in neighboring Syria and Turkey are also struggling with lower rainfall.

“Climate change is a reality in Iraq,” said the United Nations mission in Iraq, adding that the country was the fifth most vulnerable country to the fallout from global warming due to rising temperatures, falling rainfall , salinity and dust storms.

In Iraq, officials and water experts said the rains came later and ended earlier in each of the past three years.

Part of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, an arc that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf where agriculture flourished more than 10,000 years ago, Iraq was devastated by a triple hit of rainfall over weak, decades of conflict and less water flowing through its two main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.

“Desertification now threatens almost 40% of the land area of ​​our country – a country that was once one of the most fertile and productive in the region,” Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid said at the climate summit in Egypt. last week.


Nadhir Al-Ansari, a professor at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden, said rainfall in Iraq had decreased by 30% over the past three decades, with the lowest rainfall occurring in the past two years.

“What was once known as the Fertile Crescent started dying off about 35 years ago,” he said.

Declining volumes of water flowing from Turkey via the Tigris and Euphrates, the rivers Iraq relied on most for irrigation, left it more exposed when the rains dried up, said Harry Istepanian , independent energy and water expert in Washington and principal researcher. at the Iraqi Energy Institute.

“Precipitation and groundwater have become very important,” he said.

Baghdad says upstream dams, mostly in Turkey, are draining its rivers. Turkey claims that it has never altered the course of the rivers or cut off the water.

Ankara’s ambassador to Iraq said in July that drought had also hit Turkey and instead of asking for more water, Baghdad should manage its supplies more carefully.

In southeastern Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates draw their waters, rainfall in the year to September was 29% lower than the average for the previous three decades, and was even worse in 2021 , according to data from the Turkish Meteorological Agency.

The combination of dams and drought has reduced the waters of Iraq’s two rivers this year to just a fifth of previous levels, water expert Istepanian said.

The inefficient use of water that Iraq gets – due to mismanagement, illegal siphoning of supplies, and old and leaking infrastructure after decades of war – has combined with a growing population fast to exacerbate the crisis, he said.

Nearly 90% of rainfed crops, mainly wheat and barley, have failed this season, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Iraq.

Before 2020, Iraq could produce nearly 5.5 million tons of wheat. Last year, the government only received 2.1 million, Salah El Hajj Hassan, FAO representative in Iraq, told Reuters.


On his farm in Diwaniya province, Abbas Elwan received a monthly unemployment benefit of $200, but with declining harvests and rising food prices, he fell into debt.

In desperation, Abbas, who was 62 when he committed suicide, tried to dig wells so he could grow vegetables.

Each well costs the equivalent of his monthly allowance. Each time the water would emerge for a few days and then dry up. Now the family is struggling to find even drinking water, Ali Elwan said.

Their village of Al-Bu Hussain is one of many lining the banks of an ancient canal – the bed of which is now dry – which was part of a network of waterways east of the Euphrates.

In the nearby village of Al-Bouzayyat, many have left for cities or other provinces in search of employment. “The village is empty,” said Hedyya Ouda, one of the few residents still alive when Reuters visited her in October.

Ouda and her husband stopped growing wheat and barley three years ago due to water shortages, sold their livestock and were forced to walk about 60 km (40 miles) twice a month to buy drinking water.

When Reuters returned to their village in November, both had left for the city.

“About 800 families have left the villages,” said Shahid Al-Shahed, mayor of the district where Elwan’s farm is located.

“I don’t even think about providing water for agricultural plans. I’ve been thinking about how to provide drinking water for two months,” he said.

Independent consultant Istepanian said water consumption in Iraq is expected to be close to 70 billion cubic meters a year, but has now almost halved to around 40 billion.

“It will be the fourth consecutive dry year, the weather forecast does not look optimistic and the reservoirs are completely out of service,” said Ahmed Al-Khazali, an operational authority official at the Ministry of Water Resources.

While southern Iraq has suffered some of the most severe shortages, few regions are immune. In northern Iraq and Syria, the same mix of low rainfall and rivers has combined with conflict and neglect to devastate rural communities.


In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, wheat production has fallen by 70% this year to 300,000 tonnes, said Karwan Sabah Hama Salih, director general of water resources at the region’s agriculture ministry. , forcing many people to dig wells.

“Digging wells is not a strategic solution, but we don’t have a quick alternative,” he said.

Across the Syrian border, levels at dams on the Euphrates have dropped by up to 5 meters, shrinking reservoirs and leaving farmers struggling to access remaining water supplies.

Officials accuse Turkey of reducing the flow of the river in the past two years to half the level it committed to in a 1987 deal, a charge Ankara denies.

“I stopped farming because it was impossible to irrigate farmland,” said Ahmed Hammoud, standing beside the newly dried up banks of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

Syria’s long-running civil war grew out of anti-government protests in 2011 following a long drought that affected crop and livestock yields and drove people to cities.

The United Nations climate science panel said in April that the population upheaval was directly linked to the drought, although it said the uprising was likely to have broken out anyway.

In southern Iraq, competition for water is now fueling disputes and conflicts among farming communities, according to seven Iraqi tribal leaders and officials.

Mustafa Qazmouz, a 23-year-old farmer in Diwaniyah, was killed three years ago in a conflict after his neighbor widened a pipeline from a canal to divert more water, said Qazmuz’s brother, Haider.

“If there had been water, these problems wouldn’t have started,” he said.

In October, a video posted on social media showed security forces brawling with farmers on a canal in Al-Muthana. Thirty people were injured and 11 arrested, said Abdel Wahab Al-Yasary, deputy governor in charge of agriculture and water in the southern province.

He said the fight broke out when Water Ministry workers started replacing a distribution pipe in the canal because the water level had dropped below. Downstream residents feared the move was designed to divert more water away from them.

Standing near a nearly dry branch of the canal, tribal leader Maksad Rahim said he remembers when it was full of clear water and the green landscape with trees.

“Now there are so many sandstorms because there are no plants and trees to protect us,” he said.

(Reporting by Amina Ismail in Diwaniya and Maha El Dahan in Dubai; Additional reporting by Emad al-Khuzaie and Alaa Al-Marjani in Diwaniya and Orhan Qereman in northern Syria; Editing by Dominic Evans and David Clarke)

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