Iraq, where farming began, under environmental threats: expert

Award-winning environmentalist Azzam Alwash said Iraq at its full potential could be ‘the breadbasket for the entire region’

Published: Updated:

The ecosystem of Iraq - known by historians as being the cradle of agriculture - is under threat, due to misuse of water, the completion of a new dam, and increasingly salty soil, an award-winning Iraqi environmentalist told Al Arabiya News recently.

Azzam Alwash, a hydraulic engineer who in 2013 won an international prize for his efforts in restoring southern Iraq’s once-lush marshes drained by Saddam Hussein’s regime, said that Iraq’s agriculture faces a “slow death.”

“I am not worried about the marshes; the marshes will continue to exist. I know it will because reeds can live on brackish water, but rice can’t,” he said. “What will happen is that agriculture is going to dry in the land where it was born.”

In a bid to prevent dissidents using the reedy marshes to hide from the clutches of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the long-time dictator ordered the lands to be drained. Following Saddam’s ouster in 2003, Alwash moved from his home in the United States to Iraq in a bid to restore the historic swampland. His work was captured by documentaries from global networks.


Another threat to Iraq’s farmland is the soon-to-be-completed Illisu dam in southeastern Turkey - one of 22 water barriers in the region.

ISIS’s water threat

Both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers begin in the mountains of eastern Turkey, with most of their water originating from annual rainfall and melting snow.

“So they [Turks] are beginning to fill the reservoir of the Illisu dam, which is reducing the follow in the Tigris. They are reducing the flow of water to the Euphrates, they are using more and more water for irrigation,” Alwash said.

The reduced water supply coming to Iraq has also irked the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants – who use water as a weapon against Iraqis living in areas outside of their control.

Recalling a government meeting he attended earlier this year, Alwash was told that “ISIS and Iraq both have lodged complaints to Turkey over the water resources.”

However, he accused ISIS of mismanaging the Euphrates water resources as they “they control three dams, the Tabaqa dam in Syria, and the Haditha dam and the Ramadi Baraj damn in Iraq.”

He added: “They have been wreaking havoc with the water of the Euphrates, and the Iraqi government has counteracted that by moving water from the Tigris to the Euphrates.”


Iraq used to flooding

Common methods for crop-growing in Iraq are antiquated and suitable for the times when water was in abundance, Alwash explained.

He said: “Iraq’s problem in the past has been flood control. That is part of the reason why agriculture in Iraq has been invented and was sustainable for the past 7,000 years.”

In light of the decreased water coming from Turkey, Alwash said Iraqi farmers continue to use old methods of agriculture or what he called flood irrigation, which could lead to the wastage of the now more meager water resources.

“Until 1980 our biggest problem was flood management. We had more water than we need; we could not handle all the water that came in from the mountains of Kurdistan which used to feed the Tigris and the Euphrates,” he said.

He added: “In fact, the marshes of southern Iraq, are a natural retention system, they are a flood control system that basically takes the extra water from the Tigris and the Euphrates that cannot get to the Gulf.”

But since 1988, Iraq “did not have a flood because, Turkey started building dams upstream, harnessing the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates.”

He advised that Baghdad should help Iraqi farmers to switch to more suitable ways of irrigation and agriculture to limit water wastage. He urged Iraqi farmers to plant vegetables instead of thirstier crops such wheat, barley and rice.


Increased salinity

Alwash warned of salinity in Iraq and the used of more agriculture lands, which are being developed in areas which used to be “traditionally” fed with rain water.

“The biggest problem is the increased salinity of the Tigress and the Euphrates, and this is what is missing in the discussion internationally, locally and even in scientific papers. What is happening over the last 50 years, is that not only has the flooding changed, but that climate change is altering many things,” he said.

Last year, the water salinity in the Euphrates, which enters Iraq from its western province of Anbar, was 1,200 parts per million. “The World Health Organization (WHO) says you should not drink water that has more 1,000 parts per million. So the water coming into Iraq from Syria is already higher than the limit of the WHO set for drinking. So imagine the salinity by the time it gets to the [southern Iraqi city of] Nasriya.”

Water treaty

The environmentalist proposed “out of the box” solutions including selling gas and oil to Turkey in exchange for more water, even though the weight of international law is on Iraq’s side.

He also suggested “friendship treaty” with Turkey and Iran with the help of the United States.

Asked why the Iraqi government is not trying to find solutions and ways to protect farmers and agriculture in the country, he said Baghdad is in an “existential fight with ISIS” and they see the water issue as “above the horizon.”

Despite warning of the demise of the country’s agriculture, he said Iraq at its full potential could be “the breadbasket for the entire region” due to its large area of arable land.

Top Content Trending