Ali Abbas Hasan has been a wheat farmer in southern Iraq for two decades. Each year, he planted his crops in the fall, and would need to water them four times a day.
Year after year, he said, water became more scarce. His only source was the water coming from two major rivers in Iraq: the Tigris and Euphrates, which run from the north to the south of the country.
Hasan made it work for a while, but he said recently the lack of usable water for his crops became so bad, he decided to sell his farm.
“I loved farming,” he said. “It’s beautiful work. It’s hard to suddenly lose what you worked so hard for.”
Hasan is not the only farmer who has sold his land in recent months. He knows several others who have done the same. Because no water means no crops and no income.
Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources has warned that the country is facing its worst water shortage in a century. It said 7 million people are experiencing reduced access to water. Shrinking water levels, rampant salinity and contamination have left communities with no choice but to migrate.
For centuries, people living in what’s now the state of Iraq have relied on the Tigris and Euphrates, and they are still vital for millions of people. In 2016, the United Nations named the marshes of southern Iraq a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But this ecosystem is in danger, and experts are worried.
“The Tigris and Euphrates will be completely dry by 2040,” Iraqi water expert Jamal Ibrahim al-Halbousi warned on television last month. “I don’t think Iraqi leaders really understand. This is the end of Iraq as a country, as a civilization. Iraq won’t exist without its two rivers.”
Environmental activist Mahdi Laith shared a video that shows a man riding a boat in Iraq’s marshes — in the floodplains between the Tigris and Euphrates — where a thick layer of dead fish is floating on top.
“Our boat is sailing through dead fish,” the man said in the video, adding, “What a shame, what a shame.”
Laith said when he sees videos like these, his heart breaks. He explained that people of Iraq’s marshlands, known as the Marsh Arabs, have fished, farmed and raised water buffalos for centuries.
But their troubles began in the 1990s when the government of Saddam Hussein drained large swaths of the marshlands to punish the people for rebelling against him.
A series of canals diverted the water, drying up 90% of the marshes and displacing thousands of people. Over the years, the marshlands have slowly started to recover. But today, the region’s people face a new ecological disaster.
“When they lose the water, they cannot live anymore because they are losing their buffalos. So, they moved from the marshlands to other cities,” Laith explained.
This week, the United Nations cautioned that southern Iraq is experiencing its worst heat wave in four decades. Their water levels have dropped significantly as well, it added.
Ahmed Bayram of the Norwegian Refugee Council, listed several factors that contribute to Iraq’s water crisis, including extreme heat waves, low rainfall and two decades of war that destroyed Iraq’s water infrastructure.
Making things worse is the construction of dams in neighboring Iran and Turkey.
“These farming communities around the marshes have been there for centuries,” Bayram said. “Generation after generation have kept that land, have looked after that land. These families are now rethinking their future and that’s what really worries us: when people leave their land.”
When farmers leave, he added, Iraqis across the country suffer because lack of farming will lead to food insecurity.
Last year, Bayram and his team found that some farmers in southern Iraq had lost up to 90% of their harvests.
The water situation is not much better in cities.
“The tap water is not usable unless you are using it to wash clothes or something like this,” said 39-year-old Zuhair Muhammad, who lives in Basra in southern Iraq, and relies on bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Muhammad, who lives alone, spends about $7-$10 on bottled water per week. He can afford it, but many others can’t. That’s why people are moving to other parts of the country in search of better access to clean water.
Meanwhile, as Iraq dries up and as the impacts of climate change makes life more difficult, people like Laith are trying to raise awareness about protecting the environment by posting on social media.
“I’m in love with nature,” Laith said. “I want to be part of saving this nature and the biodiversity in Iraq.”
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