Shifting our focus to Iraq we see it is gripped by a severe water crisis which has led crop farmers and fish farmers high in red. The most severely hit regions are Iraq’s southern province of Basra. The area here once irrigated by the Shatt-al-arab river has become dusty barren lands. The farmers cry in despair as they say “Everything is salt” Because of pollution and scarcity. Unfortunately. there seems to be no solution in sight.
Water flows on the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which form the Shatt Al-Arab River, have been significantly reduced due to damming in Turkey and Iran. Additionally, the dumping of wastewater and decreased rainfall caused by climate change have further contributed to the decline in fish farming, as experts and officials have noted. The lower water levels have also led to increased evaporation and higher water salinity.
According to Abbas Dakheel, an official at Basra’s agriculture directorate, only four authorized fish farms are operational this year, compared to 15 in 2020.
The primary sources of water for Iraq are the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. However, these rivers originate in Turkey and flow through Syria before reaching Iraq. On average, Turkey and Syria contribute to 90 percent and 10 percent of the Euphrates, while Iraq, Turkey, and Iran contribute 51 percent, 40 percent, and 9 percent to the Tigris, respectively. These geographical factors make the rivers susceptible to various challenges, including upstream development projects, unequal distribution and diversion of water, and conflicts over water quotas with neighboring countries. These difficulties are compounded by the growing water demand resulting from Iraq’s increasing population, putting significant strain on already limited water resources.
Since the 1970s, when Turkey and Syria began implementing hydraulic projects on the two rivers, water flow to Iraq has steadily decreased, compromising the water supply for irrigation, drinking, and industrial purposes. It is estimated that excessive dam construction along the Tigris and Euphrates has reduced the inflow by 30-40 percent. At the current rate, experts predict that by 2030 the rivers’ capacity will be reduced to half, with a risk of complete depletion by 2040.
Iraq’s agricultural sector is further undermined by severe pollution caused by industrial, agricultural, and human activities along both domestic and transboundary waterways. Untreated wastewater and runoff from agriculture have contaminated rivers and groundwater, leading to an increase in diseases such as hepatitis, cancer, and waterborne illnesses like cholera. In 2018, approximately 118,000 people in Basra were hospitalized due to water contamination, sparking public outrage and nationwide protests against the lack of access to safe drinking water. The depletion of water supplies, pollution, and rising salinity have also had a detrimental impact on natural ecosystems, resulting in the loss of habitats, biodiversity, and agricultural livelihoods in culturally significant regions like Iraq’s southern marshes. This, in turn, has negatively affected eco-tourism, fisheries, and the livestock industry, which are particularly important for the rural economy in the southern regions of Iraq.
Decades of war and conflict have damaged or completely destroyed the country’s infrastructure, leading to water losses and inefficient distribution