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Iraq’s Great Thirst – Farmers leave after politics and climate change dry up a once fertile land

Iraq’s Great Thirst – Farmers leave after politics and climate change dry up a once fertile land

Ask Taha Yassin all about Iraqi pomegranates, and watch his gaze change to dreamy.

“They grow big. Their juice is sweet. They’re incomparable. I don’t say this as a nationalist, as someone who loves their country. It’s just fact,” he said, speaking about them like you would a long-lost love.

He was in a way. This corner of Diyala province, which stretches from the center of Iraq to the country’s east, was once famous for its pomegranates. Everywhere you drove, you’d encounter acres of trees laden with blood-red baubles. Yassin owned three vineyards and three fields.

But not these days. Yassin, standing in one of his plots pointed out some desiccated-looking trees as well as the churned brown from recently tilled fields. Like many farmers in Diyala he was discouraged. He had already cut down the majority of his pomegranate trees over the last few months and was just about to plough his vineyard.

A hand holds a split-open pomegranate with dried-out seeds and pale yellow pith

The only thing left from the failed crop at a farm owned by Taha Yassin, near Miqdadiya in Iraq is dried-out pomegranates. Due to water scarcity on his farm, he had already started to remove his failed pomegranate tree.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“If you saw this area 10 years before, I swear you would think you’re in Eden,” he said.

“But there’s just no water. We couldn’t do it any more.”

Diyala is perhaps the starkest example of Iraq’s impending Great Thirst. The country — fed not by one but two mighty rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates — is thought to be where humans first started cultivation: Mesopotamia, the land of plenty.

But another year of crippling drought and of competition with equally parched neighbors means there isn’t enough water to go around. Both Turkey and Iran have activated dams and tunnels to divert water from tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates, leaving downstream Iraq — which relies on the two rivers’ largesse for 60% of its freshwater resources — with an acute shortage.

A view of water against a backdrop of mountains and a rusting boat in the foreground on the right.

You can see a ring where the water line recedes at Darbandikhan Dam, northeastern Iraq.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

This year, inflows from Turkey fell by almost two-thirds; from Iran they’re about one-tenth of what they were, said Mahdi Rashid Hamdani, Iraq’s minister of water resources, said in an interview.

Baghdad appealed to its neighbours to help ease the crisis in desperate times. In October, the Water Ministry invoked an agreement with Ankara that’s supposed to ensure Turkey’s “fair and equitable” contributions to the Tigris and Euphrates. Officials from Iraq say that the appeal was met in Tehran with silence.

“Iran hasn’t cooperated with us at all. It diverted rivers to areas inside the country and doesn’t work with us to share the damage from the drought,” Hamdani said, adding that his ministry has completed procedures for a lawsuit against Iran and asked the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to contact the International Court of Justice. A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry did no respond to questions regarding the matter.

Water scarcity is exacerbated by larger environmental shifts. The country experienced 118-degree days more often than normal this year. This year, the temperatures in Iraq reached 125°F. Berkeley Earth, a California-based global climate science organization, found Iraqi temperatures have increased at twice the average world temperature.

Iraq ranked No. 5 last year. 5 on the United Nations’ list of countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the World Bank, an increase in temperature of 1 degree Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) and a decrease in precipitation of 10% could lead to Iraq losing fully one-fifth its fresh water supply by 2050.

A side view of a man in a striped shirt holding his palms together near his forehead, surrounded by crates of produce

A worker pauses while unloading produce for sale at the Dora market in Baghdad’s Abu Disheer neighborhood.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Under those circumstances, nearly one-third of Iraq’s irrigated land won’t have water.

That’s already the reality in Diyala. Almost all of the province was dropped from the government’s agricultural plan for summer crops, excluding farmers there from water appropriations in favor of irrigating strategic crops such as barley and wheat. October saw the same thing. Instead, Diyala’s farmers have had to rely on roughly 200 wells to slake their orchards’ thirst as well as their own.

For many, these changes are the end for a way of living.

In 2010, Yassin, having saved enough money from his engineering work in the northeastern city of Sulaymaniya, decided to take up farming on his family’s land near Miqdadiya, a city in Diyala about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. His father, a farmer and farmer, discouraged him from taking up farming, warning him that he would lose all his investment. Yassin decided to go ahead regardless.

“Farming is an addiction,” he said, recalling how, as a child, he would accompany his father to the fields, and how the roads were choked with people coming from all over Iraq to buy Diyala’s pomegranates, apricots and oranges.

A man navigates a field with yellowing and dry vegetation

Taha Yassin strolls through the land where grapes were grown. Water problems caused the crop’s failure.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Yassin spent tens to thousands of dollars on the project, installing drip irrigation to create an efficient, modern farm.

But he soon found out his father was right: The margins didn’t make sense. The government stopped providing fertilizer, seeds, and gas to power his pumps. Even though the state had prohibited certain types of produce from being imported to Iraqi farmers, the right bribe at a checkpoint meant that truckloads full of fruit from Iran and Turkey, Syria, and Yemen ended up at local markets, undercutting local growers.

Water scarcity was the final blow.

Yassin explained that the last three year were particularly hard for farmers, who had to dig deeper wells to reach groundwater. Overpumping made it increasingly brackish. Stepping through his neighbor’s orchard, he grabbed a plump-looking pomegranate from one of the trees.

“From outside it looks good,” he said. “But inside…” He cracked open the fruit in his hands to reveal dull yellow innards and the translucent red of the seeds; there wasn’t a drop of juice.

His neighbor had tried everything. “He has money. He dug wells, put pipes, installed pumps. Nothing worked,” Yassin said, adding that now the neighbor grew produce only for personal consumption.

Downstream in Balad Ruz, about 20 miles southeast of Yassin’s farm, Ghadban Tamimi had for decades planted his 300-acre property with pomegranates, wheat and rice. (“Balad Ruz” means “rice field.”)

This year? It was not even one acre. Seven months ago was the last time that the canal he relied upon for irrigation had proper flow. It now only had sewage. It was useless to dig a well.

“We went down 140 feet — nothing but saltwater,” he said.

Tamimi stated that many farmers have abandoned their plots because they are convinced that it is no longer worth the effort. “From here to 10 miles on, you’ll find villages with no one in them. We were nine families. Now it’s three.”

Scrawny sheep graze amid the cracked earth

Sheep forage in the dry ground at Lake Hamrin, Iraq.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The crisis can be seen in Lake Hamrin (an artificial reservoir measuring 130 miles by 130 miles). It’s fed by the Halwan River, another tributary of the Tigris that begins in Iran’s portion of the Zagros Mountains.

Google Maps shows the reservoir looking like a blue knife that is stabbed into the heart of Diyala. The Diyala-Kirkuk highway threads through the dagger’s tip. Years ago, authorities had to shore up the highway’s sides because the water lapped its edge. Now, the basin is dry.

Trudging along the basin’s exposed floor, Wissam Wadi, a 29-year-old shepherd, watched his flock kick up swirls of dust as it foraged on shrubs growing out of the cracked earth. Wadi took an hour to find this patch. In the past, he would’ve found plenty of suitable areas within a half-hour’s walk of his home.

He and his colleagues lost 300 sheep to heat and water shortages in July, when temperatures rose above 110 degrees in some parts of Iraq. He stated that the survivors weigh 60 pounds each, compared to the nearly 100-pound sheep that he had raised in the past.

“What are they supposed to eat? Dirt?” he said. “The land that we had, it was our gold. Now, look at us: We have no salaries. We lived off this lake. And it’s gone.”

A silhouette of a man standing near where water is gushing out of a pipe, right, at a dam

The Darbandikhan Dam, Iraq. Iran controls 70% of the dam’s 7,000-square-mile catchment area and recently activated a 29-mile diversionary tunnel that siphoned away most of the Sirwan River, reducing the dam’s inflows.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Rahman Khani’s office has a window that overlooks the Darbandikhan Dam which is located 80 miles northeast from Diyala. It runs along the Sirwan River. Rahman Khani has a front row seat to the water crisis. As the dam’s director, it falls to him to regulate river flows to farmers as far as Basra, in Iraq’s deep south.

He should have started releasing water at 6,600 gallons per minute by November. He was supposed to get double that amount from Iran, which controls 70% of the dam’s 7,000-square-mile catchment area and which recently activated a 29-mile diversionary tunnel siphoning away most of the Sirwan River.

That and the lack of rain have dried up the dam’s inflows to one-fifth of what Khani was expecting.

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“Just look out the window and you’ll see it,” he said, pointing to a discolored line on one of the dam’s towers where the water once reached. It was 23 feet higher than the current level.

“You’re telling me the view from here is nice. But for me, it’s a source of worry.”

Iran’s exports of produce to Iraq, Khani said, amounted to an indirect purchase of water.

A man looking out onto the dam outside his office is reflected in the glass of his window

Rahman Khani has a front-row view of Iraq’s water crisis. It falls to Khani, the director of the Darbandikhan Dam, to regulate river flows to farmers as far as Basra, in Iraq’s deep south.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“If we’re not planting in Iraq, then we’re essentially buying water from Iran through their fruits and vegetables,” he said, adding that he had received no communication from authorities on the Iranian side — not even basic information on expected inflows.

The tension over water continues well beyond Halabja, where Sirwan forms the border between Iran & Iraq. One recent afternoon, Iraqi Kurdish forces Cmdr. Ahmad Abdul Qader walked to the river. Though Sirwan means “shouting river,” its sound was reduced to an indifferent burble.

“The Iranians only allow the water to come a few hours a day,” Abdul Qader said.

In 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bombed Halabja’s Kurds with chemical weapons, many residents fled to the river, running across a narrow footbridge, Abdul Qader said. The bridge’s discarded skeleton now pokes out of the riverbed.

“In the past, the water submerged the bridge. These days it barely covers what’s left of it,” he said.

Iranian officials say Iraq should be more worried about the impact of massive public works in Turkey such as the Ilisu Dam, which could take away much of the Tigris’ flow into Iraq, rather than Iran’s comparatively smaller irrigation projects.

A man hold a piece of fruit as he stands amid produce piled in crates, baskets and plastic bags along the side of a highway

A fruit seller organizes his produce on a highway outside Miqdadiya in Iraq.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t believe Iraqi complaints and calls for suing Iran are justifiable,” said Fadaei Fard, who works on water resources and flood management at the Iranian Ministry of Energy. “They have no legal standing in international courts because almost all projects carried out in Iran foresaw enough water inflows into Iraqi territory.”

Iranian state media has quoted officials who dismissed Iraqi concerns in anti-Iran propaganda. The blame for Iraq’s problems, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said in one report, lies with Baghdad’s mismanagement and corruption, as well as low investment in Iraq’s infrastructure, which has been damaged by decades of war and neglect. Iraq, which has a population half of that of Turkey or Iran, is still relatively well off than its neighbors.

Hamdani, the Iraqi water resources minister, acknowledged problems with water distribution but insisted that Tehran was “evading its responsibility.”

Azzam Wash, an environmental expert who was a member of Iraq’s delegation to the U.N. climate change conference in Scotland in November and a founder of the environmental group Nature Iraq, said that “suing Iran will not resolve the problem.”

A man holding a cigarette stands in front of a river

A man smokes as he picnics with friends near Miqdadiya (Iraq).

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“Assume for the sake of argument Iran accepts adjudication, and further assume Iraq wins, then what? Will Iran release water?” he said, adding that successive Iraqi governments had done little to reduce water waste.

Yassin, the pomegranate farmer, isn’t expecting any improvement in the situation either. He has been offered a job as a maintenance engineer in the state, and he is joining other farmers who have abandoned their farms.

“For 80% of the people here, if someone came and gave them money, they would sell their land,” he said.

“They say, ‘Let me do something in the city. Farming is over.’”



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