Rains, snowmelt bring un­fa­mil­iar prob­lems to suddenly green Iraq

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY PHILIP ISSA As­so­ci­ated Press

Af­ter years of mea­ger rains and scorch­ing sum­mers, the wettest win­ter in a gen­er­a­tion has re­vived Iraq’s fa­mous rivers and filled its lakes, bring­ing wel­come re­lief to a coun­try fac­ing severe wa­ter chal­lenges in the era of cli­mate change.

The rains have re­stored fresh­wa­ter marshes of south­ern Iraq – a re­gion some schol­ars see as the bib­li­cal Gar­den of Eden – and trans­formed lands once parched for wa­ter into fields of grain and ce­real.

But the del­uge has also tested a coun­try more fa­mil­iar with droughts than down­pours and raised ques­tions about whether Iraq’s 20th cen­tury in­fra­struc­ture can adapt to an un­pre­dictable, 21st cen­tury cli­mate.

Swelled by lo­cal rains and snowmelt from Turkey and Iran, both the Ti­gris and Euphrates and their many trib­u­taries burst their banks and flooded plains and ci­ties in Iraq, de­spite the coun­try’s con­sid­er­able net­works of dams and canals. And de­spite a trend to­ward a hot­ter and drier cli­mate, an un­sea­son­ably chilly April and high hu­mid­ity dam­aged crops on the farm­lands around Bagh­dad.

Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dulMahdi called it im­per­a­tive to re­vamp in­fra­struc­ture and wa­ter poli­cies to pre­pare for more ex­treme weather events, though the rains this year pose a pol­icy dilemma as un­pre­dictable cli­mate stresses may lead to both droughts and floods.

“This will be a very im­por­tant les­son for us in the next year, and the com­ing years,” Ab­dul-Mahdi told a press con­fer­ence in April

Out­side the town of Buhriz in east­ern Diyala prov­ince, where Sir­wan River flows into Iraq from neigh­bor­ing Iran, Nouri Ku­daier waded through his wa­ter­logged cit­rus grove to see what he could sal­vage of this sea­son’s har­vest.

“We’re ask­ing for com­pen­sa­tion from the gov­ern­ment for the dam­age,” Ku­daier said. “It’s our only source of liveli­hood.”

Iraq has not seen as much pre­cip­i­ta­tion in a sin­gle win­ter since 1988, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Wa­ter Re­sources, which re­ported 47 bil­lion cu­bic me­ters of wa­ter in the coun­try’s reser­voirs. That’s three times what was there at the same time last year, when wa­ter lev­els were so dire that the gov­ern­ment banned farm­ers from grow­ing sea­sonal crops dur­ing the sum­mer months.

In Youssifiya­h, a farm­ing re­gion just south of Bagh­dad, canals that were empty last year are flush with wa­ter, and wells that were dug 24 me­ters (79 feet) deep now come up with wa­ter at a depth of just 6 me­ters (20 feet).

Salah al-Saidey said he planted twice as much wheat this year but the heavy rains and cold ru­ined a por­tion of his cu­cum­ber and to­mato crop.

“We have a fun­gus grow­ing,” said al-Saidey, point­ing to the brit­tle, yel­low leaves on the vines. “We weren’t ex­pect­ing it. We’re try­ing to fight it, but we can’t keep pace.”

Spring floods used to be com­mon in Iraq. For mil­len­nia, farm­ers re­lied on the floods to in­un­date their fields and grow rice, wheat and other grains.

But the floods were un­pre­dictable, and ev­ery so of­ten the rivers would burst their banks in Bagh­dad and else­where, with calami­tous re­sults.

Mod­ern­iza­tion projects in the 20th cen­tury saw Iraq build dams along the Ti­gris and its trib­u­taries, and canals to di­vert wa­ter. Up­stream, Turkey, Iran and Syria did the same, and the in­un­da­tions be­came a dis­tant mem­ory, espe­cially as ris­ing tem­per­a­tures brought weaker rains and faster evap­o­ra­tion from lakes and reser­voirs.

Last year, des­per­ate shortages of clean wa­ter led res­i­dents to riot in Basra, Iraq’s main oil hub and its largest city in the south. The flow of the Euphrates and Ti­gris grew so weak that creep­ing sea­wa­ter from the Persian Gulf reached the Chibay­ish fresh­wa­ter marshes about 180 kilo­me­ters (112 miles) up­stream, con­tam­i­nat­ing them with salt.

This year, that won’t be a prob­lem, said the head of Basra’s pro­vin­cial coun­cil – the re­vived rivers flushed the salt away and filled the marshes with fresh wa­ter.

“We have enough wa­ter for this year and one af­ter, God will­ing” said Sabah al-Ba­zouni.

But se­cur­ing wa­ter for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will de­pend on more than fa­vor­able weather, says Iraq’s wa­ter re­sources min­is­ter, Ja­mal al-Adily.

It will re­quire a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort be­tween Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, he said. Some 70% of Iraq’s wa­ter flows from the three up­stream coun­tries, though no for­mal wa­ter shar­ing agree­ment ex­ists be­tween them.

“Iraqis have a right to wa­ter,” al-Adily told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “The rivers were here be­fore the borders.”

With reser­voirs flush with wa­ter, there may be no bet­ter time to start discussion­s in earnest.

Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Mev­lut Cavu­soglu said his coun­try would soon send a spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan to Bagh­dad to dis­cuss wa­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion.

NABIL AL-JURANI AP

An aerial photo taken April 22 shows high lev­els of wa­ter in the Shatt al-Arab wa­ter­way near Basra, Iraq. Af­ter years of scorch­ing sum­mers, the wettest win­ter in a gen­er­a­tion has re­vived Iraq’s rivers and filled its lakes.

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