Have the Tigris and Euphrates Run Dry?

BAGHDAD — Two of the largest rivers of the region run through Iraq, so why are Iraqis desperate for lack of water?

The vast majority of Iraqis live by the Euphrates river, and the Tigris with its many tributaries. The two rivers join near Basra city in the south to form the Shat al-Arab river basin. Iraq is also gifted with high quality ground water resources; about a fifth of the territory is farmland.

“The water we have in Iraq is more than enough for our living needs,” chief engineer Adil Mahmood of the Irrigation Authority in Baghdad told IPS. “In fact we can export water to neighbouring countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — who manage shortages in water resources with good planning.”

But now Iraqi farmers struggle to get water to their crops. There is severe lack of electricity to run pumps, and fuel to run generators.

“The water is there and the rivers have not dried up, but the problem lies in how to get it to our dying plantations,” Jabbar Ahmed, a farmer from Latifiya south of Baghdad told IPS. “It is a shame that we, our animals and our plants are thirsty in a country that has the two great rivers.”

Iraq now imports most agricultural products because of lack of irrigation.

“I used to sell fifty tonnes of tomatoes every year, but now I go to the market to buy my daily need,” Numan Majid from the Abu Ghraib area just west of Baghdad told IPS. “I tried hard to cope with the situation, but in vain. One cannot grow crops in Iraq any more with this water shortage.”

Some Iraqis talk of the times when this region taught the world how to use water.

“Sumerians were more advanced than we are now,” Mahmood Shakir, a historian from Baghdad University told IPS. “Over seven thousand years ago, the Sumerians dug channels to water their wheat farms and Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonia, brought water to his great Suspended Gardens in a way that made them one of the seven wonders.”

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, Iraq has a total area of 438,320 square kilometres and 924 km of inland waters. It is topographically shaped like a basin between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ancient Mesopotamia where Iraq now stands means literally the land between two rivers.

Now it is another story around those two rivers. “This gift from God is not used properly by the authorities because of the UN sanctions and then the chaos that followed U.S. occupation of the country,” said Jabbar Ahmed.

The U.S. company Bechtel, whose board members have close ties to the Bush administration, was to carry out reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq’s water and electrical infrastructure. But it left the country without carrying out most such tasks.

The average household in Iraq now gets two hours of electricity a day. About 70 percent of Iraqis have no access to safe drinking water, and only 19 percent have sewage access, according to the World Health Organisation. Unemployment stands at more than 60 percent.

Many Iraqi professionals blame the occupation, and companies that it brought in, such as Bechtel.

Amidst all this, the government is funding study of agricultural practices.

“The government is spending huge amounts of money on research into agriculture and irrigation,” Dr. Muath Sadiq, a researcher in agricultural reform in Baghdad told IPS. “I think that is simply a way to steal more money from the government budget.”

The research is not much good, he said, because the real problem “is clearly the shortage in electricity and fuel. To be more precise, the reason is the occupation and the corrupt governments it brought to the country.”

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)