Iraq’s Marshes Parched as Government Focuses on Oil

The country’s focus on oil production has left water resources in shambles

Iraq’s Marshes Parched as Government Focuses on Oil
Chiyabish marsh in South East Iraq. (Getty Images)

In the southern Iraqi town of Chibaish, Mansour Abbas stood on the edge of his “mashoof,” the canoe-like vessel used by inhabitants of Iraq’s marshes, holding his young son’s arms in his hands. The boat was pulled onto the shore of a small waterway, much bigger just a couple of years earlier, that connects to the Euphrates River. The sun beat down on the land from a cloudless sky. A small group of water buffalo, their white spots dyed orange with henna, clustered in the shade just a few yards away. The only thing interrupting endless blue in the distance was an oil well, shooting a straight line of fire into the sky.

Abbas, 40, relocated to this area in 2015. Before that, he’d lived deeper in the marshland. There, he’d caught fish and reared a flourishing herd of 55 water buffalos, he said. Much of the local economy revolved around the gifts given by water buffalo. Locals would sell their milk or turn it into white cheese or a local heavy cream delicacy called geymar. But when the water near his home drained, Abbas could no longer fish. Most of his herd fell ill and died, leaving him with just five water buffalo. He still dreams of going back to his old home, but “there’s no water there,” he said.

Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable nation on the planet when it comes to water and food security. But Iraq is also currently OPEC’s second largest oil producer, after Saudi Arabia, pumping out 4.5 million barrels of oil per day. Oil revenues exceeded $115 billion in 2022, according to the country’s oil ministry. That revenue helps pay public sector salaries and food imports.

The problem is this revenue has made Iraq one of the world’s most oil dependent nations, according to the World Bank. Over the last decade alone, oil has made up more than 99% of Iraq’s exports, 85% of the government budget and 42% of gross domestic product. The government has money, just not for water.

For residents of Chibaish and other parts of Iraq’s marshes, the oil wells seen in the horizon are a constant reminder of the government’s neglect.

“The government?” Abbas replied derisively to questions about the state’s response. “They’ve done nothing.”

Officials at various levels of the Ministry of Water Resources claim they’ve been given insufficient funding to solve the country’s various challenges. They also cite climate change. While Iraq is undoubtedly affected by this, environmentalists say the government is using it to skirt any responsibility for their failures.

“You can take pictures of dry marshes as an example of climate change,” Azzam Alwash, founder of the environmentalist group Nature Iraq and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in the marshes, told New Lines. “I would submit to you that it is not a picture of climate change, it is in fact the result of water mismanagement.”

The damage to the marshes, named a UNESCO heritage site in 2016, stretches nearly 1,200 square miles. This mass draining seems to have hardly registered on the government’s radar. But it’s been catastrophic for Abbas and members of his community. Abbas came to this part of Chibaish so he could continue rearing water buffalo and catching fish. But today, these catastrophic events are occurring here as well.

Government mismanagement dates back to at least the 1980s, according to Human Rights Watch. Over the years, multiple Iraqi governments have been responsible for “poor management of upstream sources, inadequate regulation of pollution and sewage, and chronic neglect and mismanagement of water infrastructure.” These policy failures have led to declining water quality and shortages. Without freshwater flows, the water used for irrigation has increased in salinity, meaning crops die and people and animals have less access to clean drinking water. This is eroding the country’s agriculture industry, which employs 8.4% of the population and is Iraq’s third-largest sector of employment.

Iraq’s water crisis is also being worsened by its neighbors. In recent decades, Turkey built a series of 22 dams, including the Ataturk Dam, the third largest in the world. This network of dams has cut the flow of water to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers by more than half. Another neighboring country, Iran, has diverted tributaries and rivers, including the Karun River.

Many locals blame Turkey as often as their own government for the draining of the marshes. In the town of Al-Fuhud, a 30-minute drive west of Chibaish, Sayyed Hussein Al-Batat, an authoritative tribal member, pointed to dried out, yellow flora in the marsh below. The water that had once risen to the edge of this pit was now many feet lower. “There used to be water all the way from here to Amara,” said Al-Batat, dressed in a dishdasha and ghutra, motioning to the city about 90 miles away. When asked who is to blame, he named Turkey, the United States and his own government.

Iraq repeatedly meets with Turkish authorities to discuss the country’s water resources, but little progress is ever made. The political will to work with neighboring countries on multilateral treaties is absent, environmentalist experts said.

“If you’re not willing to sit down with Turkey, why not spend the time modernizing irrigation that reduces waste so that when the dams in Turkey are built, you don’t have such an incredible impact on the environment and on agriculture,” Alwash said. “The government is basically giving away oil income in the form of salaries to government employees that produce nothing.”

The focus on oil over water is apparent in an ecosystem like the marshes where, without water, people like Abbas are increasingly vulnerable. But the marshes are not the only place in Iraq that are suffering from the government’s water policies.

“You don’t need to go outside of Baghdad to see the country’s water issues,” Iraqi environmental journalist Khaled Sulaiman told New Lines. Dumping waste into rivers is a nationwide problem “from Baghdad to Basra,” Sulaiman said.

But it also has human costs. Over 100,000 people were reportedly poisoned due to tainted water in Basra in 2018 according to a HRW report citing the independent High Commission for Human Rights in Basra. While experts disagree on the exact cause of the illness, they agree that it was a direct result of poor water quality. Communities are destroyed as locals say dozens of families have already migrated to Karbala and other Iraqi cities, while others have given up on Iraq and gone abroad. Water mismanagement has far-reaching demographic consequences for the country. The Norwegian Refugee Council found that one in 15 households in Iraq saw a family member migrate from drought affected areas. Poor water quality also displaced 20,000 people inside Iraq, according to a 2021 study by the International Organization for Migration. It’s increasingly likely that even more will leave the country as polls conducted by Arab Barometer from July 2022 show 35% of Iraqis want to emigrate.

Then there’s the political unrest. In summer 2021, hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets to protest power and water cuts as temperatures pushed past 120 F. In early March in the town of Al-Hammar, about a two-hour drive from Basra, residents blocked a road and protested the lack of usable water.

“The rivers in Iraq are drying up and the government is too busy trying to ban alcohol consumption or digital media content,” Sulaiman said. The Iraqi government recently banned the import, production and sale of alcohol and jailed TikTokers for producing what they defined as “decadent content.” And influencers are not the only ones being targeted.

Environmental work is not only being neglected but activists and environmentalists are also in danger. And at least part of the danger is coming from the government itself. Human Rights Watch released a report in late February claiming that “government officials and armed groups are targeting key members of the environmental movement to silence them and send a threatening message to others.”

“[People outside Iraq] are shocked when they hear that environmentalists are in danger,” Salman Khairalla, CEO of the environmental nongovernmental organization Humat Dijlah, told New Lines. But in Iraq and Iran, environmental activists and scientists face death threats and kidnapping. Multiple sources said environmental issues in Iraq are connected to state corruption and interfere with the interests of militias and government officials, both federal and local. “To talk about it is dangerous,” Khairalla said. “And you put your life, your colleagues’ lives, and your friends’ lives in danger when you do it.”

Khairalla left Baghdad in 2019 after he was arbitrarily detained by Iraqi authorities. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders intervened to demand his release, and Khairalla fled Baghdad soon after he was let out on bail. Today, he doesn’t publicly disclose his whereabouts.

Another of Iraq’s leading environmentalists, Jassim Al-Assadi, was released on Feb. 16 after being kidnapped, tortured and detained by an unidentified armed group for over two weeks. Upon his release, relatives said his kidnapping had been connected to his work advocating for Iraq’s environment. Many of Iraq’s top environmentalists are forced to continue their work from outside the country, such as Sulaiman, who is based in Montreal, and says he must plan his trips to Iraq carefully.

The few who remain face various forms of harassment. Raad Habib Al-Assadi, an activist who leads an NGO in Chibaish, has been subject to numerous court cases filed against him by the government after he criticized the Water Resources Ministry during droughts in 2019 and 2020.

“I did nothing wrong, I only shared information about the droughts in marshes and they treated me as a criminal,” Habib told Human Rights Watch. “I can’t travel or do anything because I have to go to the court every Monday and Thursday. The ministry officials told me, ‘We want to quiet you.’”

Back in the marshes, a motorized mashoof sped down the Euphrates. Seated near the rear, Ahmad Awaf, a 54-year-old local tour guide, motioned to a passing boat carrying water reeds. “If there’s no water, there’s no reeds,” he said. These reeds are used to make the hand-woven, traditional houses found in the marshes.

The boat glides to an easy stop next to a steel bridge. Awaf points to handwritten marks that climb the bridge’s posts. “That marks a meter [3 feet],” he said, before pointing a bit higher. “That’s 2 meters [7 feet].”

In healthier times, the water would reach nearly 7 feet. But in early March, Awaf noted the marks on the bridge’s posts to show how little water there was: only 3 feet. In 2015, water levels went as low as 16 inches. This summer, temperatures are expected to hit 125 F, meaning, without any aid, water levels could meet or even go below that devastating mark.

Powerful figures in Iraq have tried to wipe out the marshes before. In 1991, when Iraq was dealing with the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War, opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime felt the dictator was vulnerable and launched an uprising. But their efforts failed, and many rebels fled to the marshes where they could hide from Saddam’s troops among the various waterways.

Saddam responded with earth-shattering force. According to reports from the United Nations Environmental Programme and HRW, he poisoned lagoons with chemicals, burned the reeds the tribes used to build their houses, and diverted two of history’s most prosperous rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. The marshes would remain dry until environmentalists, including Alwash, took matters into their own hands in 2003 and reopened water sources to the region.

For a while, it looked like the marshes were refilling. People returned and again reared water buffalo and caught fish. Videos from the time show boats navigating waterways straddled by lush, green vegetation. But then the droughts returned.

Floods have replenished the marshes in the past and may well again in the future. But relying on floods alone is an outdated agricultural practice. Water management policies are in dire need of modernization. The marshes were intentionally drained under Saddam. Today they are drying out due to neglect and because the current regime is more focused on a different liquid resource.

Back at the offices of Nature Iraq in Chibaish, Awaf said he couldn’t wait around for floods to save the marshes. “Maybe the water will come back,” Awaf said. “But I can’t live on maybe.”

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