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Land of Plenty in Crisis

Upriver dams cause influx of salt water that’s destroying crops and killing livestock in once verdant Basra region.
By Ali Abu Iraq

Majeed Shakir, a 75-year-old farmer, wakes each day before sunrise in order to escape the searing heat that will soon shroud his homestead at the southernmost tip of Iraq’s Basra province.



"The first thing I think of when I get up early in the morning is to go down to my field to fill my lungs with fresh air. I walk in big strides, with my shovel poised on my shoulder, like a soldier on a march, proud of his rifle," said Shakir, as he wiped sweat off his dark, deeply furrowed brow.



Shakir and his family live in Al-Faw, a coastal town some 110 kilometres south of the city of Basra. For centuries, locals here have made their living by farming, hunting or fishing among the vast palm groves that stretch along the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway.



This was once a land of plenty, famous for its fruit, vegetables and henna trees. Its strategic location, as the entry point to the port of Basra, made Al-Faw a pivotal battleground in the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, and again during the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.



Today, Al-Faw is facing environmental ruin. Officials and locals say that new dams and reservoirs built upriver on Iraq’s main rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates – as well as Iran’s Karun river have greatly reduced the amount of fresh water flowing into the 200 kilometre-long Shatt al-Arab.



As the fresh water recedes, the waterways of the once-fertile region are being flooded with salt water rising up from the Gulf. Experts and farms say the increasing salinity level is destroying crops, killing livestock and forcing families to flee their homeland.



“Since this calamity struck Al-Faw and the whole area south of Basra, I have gotten into the habit of coming down to the field without my shovel because I don't need it anymore,” Shakir said. "You see, people here used to rely on farming and hunting for their livelihood. All of that is gone. Drought, coupled with increasing salinity, has done away with farming altogether."



A SALT WATER “WASTELAND”



Amir Sulayman, director of Basra Agricultural Directorate, confirms that water problems have made it impossible for residents to grow crops or keep domestic animals. His department has declared Al-Faw a disaster zone.



The Islamic Party representative on the Basra Governorate Council, Abu al-Karim Al-Dawsari, has appealed to the highest ranks of Iraq’s government, as well as non-governmental organisations and the United Nations for immediate action.



Salinity level refers to the amount of dissolved salt and other chemicals, such as magnesium and calcium sulphates, in a body of water. Water with high salt or chemical content, such as sea water, is unusable for drinking or agriculture and can have catastrophic results for non-adapted flora and fauna. In the Al-Faw area, huge tracts of produce and palm plantations have been left to wither without proper irrigation.



A 2008 study by US geologists from Oklahoma State University found that the salinity level of the Euphrates river as it enters Iraq has more than doubled since 1973, and local officials report that the problem has grown more severe over the past year.



The region has suffered from droughts for years, creating disputes between Iraq and its neighbours over water. Iraq has claimed that dams built by Syria and Turkey have restricted water flow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and Al-Faw municipality director Ahmad al-Mubadir said water is also being diverted from the Karun which runs along the Iraq-Iran border.



Central government and local officials have been scrambling for answers. Basra governor Shiltagh Abbud said the Baghdad government has earmarked 20 million US dollars for a pipeline to bring potable water from Qurnah, 100 kilometres north of Basra city, to the Al-Faw peninsula.



"Al-Faw is the hardest-hit area in the governorate, with 182,000 square kilometres of its rich farmland now having degenerated into a wasteland," he said.



According to Mustafa al-Attiyah, chairman of the Committee on Construction and Development in Basra, a contract was signed last month to build eight water-purification plants near Al-Faw and Basra city. On October 9, following a bilateral deal with Tehran, Iranian ships have docked off the coast to pump drinkable water on shore.



Some officials remain worried that this has all come too late.



"The problem has kept snowballing. Now that agriculture is finished in the area and Al-Faw has been declared a disaster zone, the provincial government and some humanitarian organisations are beginning to act, but the measures they have taken so far are marginal and largely ineffectual,” Mubadir said.



“The plans envisioned to address the problem will take at least a year to produce any real results, in which time the whole of Al-Faw will have turned into a big swamp, without a single green patch left.”



This assessment is echoed by Shakir, who wept as he recalled the plentiful harvests of the past.



"The streams were once overflowing with fresh water and we used to grow all sorts of fruit and vegetables and to plant ever more palm trees, but the rising level of salinity in these streams has killed all our crops and animals, including the water buffalos and the poultry,” he said.



Shakir continued, “The local government in Basra has announced that measures are being taken to address the problem, but these measures will take a long time to yield any results, and the farmers here cannot keep waiting."



FAMILIES FORCED TO MOVE



Al-Faw resident Abu Raad, 55, has little hope that the government or aid organisations will be able to stop the flow of contaminated water, or the exodus of local families.



About 250 families have left Al-Faw “for more hospitable towns, without so much as a glimpse of hope visible on the horizon”, he said. “Instead, the tragedy of Faw has come to be exploited as a convenient tool for political point scoring and electoral promotion. Every official who visits Basra makes a point of visiting Al-Faw, only to shower us with promises that are never kept."



Nasir al-Jubouri, 60, a resident of nearby al-Dawrah village, says that before the water crisis he was one of the richest men in the area. Now, the price of fresh water – at a reported 20,000 dinars (17 dollars) per tonne – and the death of his livestock have left him almost penniless.



“I had to stop [buying fresh water] because I couldn't afford it any more. But our main problem is not that we are short of drinking water. Our biggest problem is the saline irrigation water that has devastated our plantations and palm groves,” Jubouri said.



The fresh water supplied by the offshore Iranian tankers, he said, has brought little benefit, “[The water] is unfit to drink because it smells of gas, which is why we have thought of rejecting it. But it seems that the issue is too big for us to have a say."



Shakir wondered aloud, “How can I part with this village? How can I leave the land among whose date palms, sparrows and streams I learned to make my first steps as a toddler, and where I have always wished to take my last step in this world?



“I am not going to leave my village. It is not that I trust the government or the politicians, or that I believe things will get any better in the future. It is simply because there is no other choice. This is where I am going to die and this is where I am going to be buried.”



Ali Abu Iraq is an IWPR-trained journalist in Basra.

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