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Climate challenge for Iraq as welcome rain revives rivers and lakes

The wettest winter in a generation has revived the country’s waterways, but raised questions about whether 20th century infrastructure can cope.

(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

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.

After years of meagre rain and scorching summers, the water has restored freshwater marshes of southern Iraq — a region some scholars see as the biblical Garden of Eden — and transformed parched land into fields of grain and cereal.

But the deluge has also 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, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their many tributaries have burst their banks and flooded plains and cities in Iraq, despite the country’s considerable networks of dams and canals.

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This Monday, April 22, 2019, aerial photo shows high levels of water in the Shatt al-Arab waterway near Basra, Iraq. After years of disappointing rains and scorching hot summers, the wettest winter in a generation has revived Iraq’s rivers and filled its lakes, bringing welcome relief to a country facing severe water challenges in the climate change era. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Despite a trend towards a hotter, drier climate, an unseasonably chilly April and high humidity damaged crops on the farmlands around Baghdad.

Prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called it imperative to revamp infrastructure and water policies to prepare for more extreme weather events, although the rain this year poses 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,” he told a press conference last month.

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 metres of water in the country’s reservoirs.

That is 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.

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A thriving farm in Youssifiyah (Hadi Mizban/AP)

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.

Modernisation 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 rain 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 110 miles upstream, contaminating them with salt.

This year, that will not 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 favourable 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, although no formal agreement exists.

“Iraqis have a right to water,” Mr 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 to Baghdad to discuss water administration. And as Iraq simultaneously plans to expand its own oil production, it has a vital resource to leverage in water negotiations.

PA

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