The Dangerous State of Iraq's Rivers

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Foreign Affairs, Anbar Province, Iraq

From the moment in early 2014 that fighters from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) surged into Fallujah and seized the city’s dam, Mohammed Amin feared the worst. As a farmer who was heavily dependent on an aging network of canals that flow east out of the Euphrates River, Amin knew how easily the jihadists might sabotage his crops. And so when the group slammed the Fallujah dam shut that August, flooding much of Baghdad’s agricultural belt and halting an Iraqi army advance, Amin was better prepared than most. “I kept my seeds, my fertilizer, everything up high. I had this feeling,” he said.

But what neither he nor his neighbors, all farmers working the land in the shadow of a notorious former U.S. prison, could have anticipated was the long-term environmental damage that ISIS might inflict on the area, even in defeat. After being driven from Fallujah in May 2016, the jihadists blew six of the dam’s ten gates, forcing officials to cut flow into the canals. Nine months later, and still without water, swaths of eastern Anbar Province are bone dry. “Dirty water, low water, bad canals: we thought we’d seen everything,” Amin said, staring out over his parched fields. “Now it’s even worse, though. After those animals, there’s no water at all.”

Much of the reporting on ISIS has—understandably—centered on the human toll of its terror. But Iraq’s two great rivers have also been hit hard, and the consequences are likely to last well beyond the group’s eventual demise. Already beset by an array of problems, the Euphrates and Tigris have been dirtied with corpses, sullied with munitions waste, and littered with defunct water infrastructure over the past three years. For a country that depends on these famed waterways to irrigate over 80 percent of its agriculture, the additional woes have pushed Iraqi farmers to the brink. “The people have survived, but with no water and all this damage, they are still suffering,” said Hassan Janabi, the Iraqi minister of water resources. “There’s been the use of water as a weapon to the absolute worst extent.”

The devastation began almost as soon as ISIS seized portions of the river valleys in the summer of 2014. Harnessing captured irrigation works at Fallujah, Ramadi, and in upstream Syria, hydrologists within its ranks first flooded and then cut off farmland about 250 miles beyond ISIS’ areas of control. In Fallujah, one militant, who used to be a water engineer in Sudan, is alleged to have masterminded the plot, which drowned 200 square kilometers of fields between the Euphrates and Baghdad alone. When not killing off hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of crops, ISIS fighters have also used the Tigris as a mass grave. At least 100 of the 1,700 or so Iraqi army cadets who were massacred at Camp Speicher in June 2014 were dumped in its shallows. Over the following months, fishermen to the north of Samarra complained of bodies washing up in their nets.

At least 100 of the 1,700 or so Iraqi army cadets who were massacred at Camp Speicher in June 2014 were dumped in the shallows of the Tigris.

And the damage only worsened as time went on. As ISIS was pushed back, village by village, its forces turned to scorched-earth tactics. Retreating fighters detonated bridges, blocked canals, and planted mines among the ruins of pumping stations. They blew sizeable holes in the Dibis-to-Taza Khurmatu irrigation canal, contributing to an 80 percent fall in Kirkuk governorate’s wheat output since 2014. Most recently, as coalition troops have closed in on their last Iraqi holdings in Mosul, the jihadists torched dozens of oil wells at Qayyarah, to the south of the city. Satellite footage suggests that some of these wells have begun to spill into a tributary of the Tigris.

A BLEAK FUTURE

If war damage were the country’s only water woe, the situation might be salvageable, Iraqi officials say. But ISIS’ emergence has, unfortunately, also added to a range of preexisting troubles. Turkey and Iran have built scores of dams in the Tigris and Euphrates basins over the past few decades. With Baghdad preoccupied, they appear to have started holding back more water since 2014. Ankara is allowing less than a quarter of the usual flow of the Euphrates to pass across its border, conservationists at Nature Iraq, a local environmental NGO, report. Iran has cut off almost all of the Karun River, which once deposited five billion cubic meters a year into the Shatt al-Arab, which is formed by the joining of the Tigris and Euphrates in southern Iraq. With such weak flow in the lower reaches of the two rivers, the Persian Gulf regularly surges up to 70 miles upstream. “Until the late 1970s, all river water came to Iraq,” Janabi said. “But things have changed. It will be very, very difficult to get everything back.” The Ministry of Water Resources’ share of the capital investment fund was cut from $1.7 billion in 2013 to $90 million last year, Janabi says, leaving it in no position to fulfill many of its infrastructural maintenance responsibilities.

But despite concerns over the rivers’ future, Iraq grows more dependent on them every year. Increasingly erratic precipitation in Kurdistan and Nineveh Province—the only parts of the country that were previously able to get by with rain-fed agriculture—have pushed many farmers there to tap local irrigation networks, adding to the burden on the rivers. Already, fewer than 60 percent of farmers in northern Iraq receive sufficient water, the Kurdish region’s agricultural minister says. He believes that this number will only grow as climate change takes its toll.

Some farmers have tried to adapt to the bleak conditions by stretching tarpaulins over nearby swaths of irrigation canal to limit evaporation, or by digging their own (illegal) wells, even though Iraq’s groundwater stores are also largely tapped out. But for most of those who depend on the rivers for their livelihoods, the sorry quantity and quality of the water has simply pitched them into deeper poverty.

In the marshes of southern Iraq, where water levels are about half their average historical levels, wages have fallen precipitously. Buffalo breeders are struggling to make ends meet as the salty water shrinks their animals’ milk production, and fishermen had already seen their catch fall over 60 percent between 1981 and 2001 (the last recorded data). For many residents, all of whom were forced out when then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s but then returned after 2003, the poor health of the waterways has made life all but impossible. “These days, there’s only bad water or very bad water. It’s no surprise that many people are leaving again,” said Ismail Khaled Dawoud, a buffalo owner in the central marsh.

Officials in Baghdad have tried in a few small ways to help farmers. In the far south of Iraq, they’ve doled out cash stipends to help herders and shepherds build concrete bowls for freshwater for their animals. But reconstructing the country’s shattered water infrastructure and mitigating against climate change will cost billions of dollars that the oil-reliant authorities don’t have. Foreign donors might eventually come to their assistance when the fighting ends. But international aid organizations are already struggling for funds in supporting Iraq’s several million displaced people. In the meantime, Turkey is nearing completion of the large Ilisu Dam, which threatens to cut the Tigris’s flow significantly until its reservoir is filled. Despite frantic lobbying from Baghdad, it’s set to go on line later this year.

Throughout much of Iraq’s history, its fortunes have been intimately wrapped up with those of the Tigris and Euphrates. It was by marshaling them that the ancient Sumerians created one of the first civilizations. And so as the country bounds from one crisis to another, it seems tragically appropriate that the rivers, too, share in its struggles.