Fluctuating water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq’s primary sources of surface water, will continue to mar agricultural development unless more equitable water access rights are agreed with neighbouring countries and modern irrigation techniques are more widely adopted to reduce wastage, says a government official.
“Iraq must take a legal step with the [help of the] UN and international organizations and community to determine its water rights with these countries… We must start using modern irrigation technology as we are still using the old, traditional ways which waste huge amounts of water,” said Abdul-Razzaq Jassim Hassoun, head of the Planning Ministry’s Agricultural Statistics Department.
The Ministry of Agriculture was promoting modern irrigation systems, particularly drip and sprinkle irrigation systems. Sprinkler irrigation would need 4-6 years to complete, but could save 3.6 billion cubic metres of water a year, said Deputy Agriculture Minister Riadh Al-Qaisi.
Since 2003, Iraq has tried to reach agreement with Turkey, Syria and Iran over water allocations but nothing has been agreed. The three countries argue that their increasing need for water due to drought makes it impossible to reach an agreement, and they urge Iraq to adopt modern irrigation techniques, instead.
In December, the Iraqi Cabinet authorized the minister of foreign affairs to lead negotiations with Turkey and Syria on a water-sharing agreement, but so far no meetings have been held, according to Water Resources Ministry spokesman Ali Hashim; he mentioned that on 20 February Iraq signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understating with Iran to activate already existing joint committees on water issues. “We hope this will lead to agreements in the future,” he said. The minister was also planning a visit to Turkey “very soon”.
“What is clear now is that water resources in Iraq mainly from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are continually decreasing due to huge dams being constructed in Turkey and Syria,” said the Planning Ministry’s Hassoun.
According to the Water Resources Ministry, 22 dams and 19 hydro-power plants have been constructed on the Euphrates in Turkey, while five dams have been constructed in Syria. Iraq has seven dams on the river.
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Since 2003, water flow rates in the Tigris and Euphrates have fluctuated significantly, the Planning Ministry said in a recent report. The highest flow rate on the 2,700km-long Euphrates averaged 27.4 billion cubic metres in 2003, before it went down to its lowest level of 14.7 billion in 2008, increasing to 19.3 billion in 2010.
On the 1,900km-long Tigris, water flow averaged 49.48 billion cubic metres in 2003. This decreased to its lowest level of 20.37 billion in 2008, before increasing again to 47.7 billion in 2010. The river has two tributaries entering Iraq from Iran.
The fluctuating water levels, along with oil development and agricultural plans have also adversely affected the recovery of Iraq’s southern marshlands, the report said. The marshlands (in the provinces of Nassiririya, Mayssan and Basra) covered 8,350sqkm in the early 1970s but had shrunk by 90 percent by 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s retaliatory attacks on Shia communities in the region. They recovered 63.4 percent of their area in 2006 and increased to 70.1 percent of their area in 2008, but went down to 45 percent by 2010, the report added.
According to the UN, water levels in the two rivers have fallen to less than a third of normal capacity since 2003; 20 percent of households in Iraq use an unsafe drinking water source, and 16 percent report that they have daily problems with supply.
In rural areas, only 43 percent have access to safe drinking water, and water for agriculture is often scarce and of poor quality - a situation that has caused many to leave their rural communities in search of water and livelihoods, increasing urbanization, the UN said in its 2011 fact sheet on water in Iraq.
Effect on agriculture
The decreased water levels in the two rivers, lack of rain and high levels of soil salinity have greatly affected Iraq’s agriculture and animal resources, according to Al-Qaisi.
Since 2007, Iraq has been forced to reduce the number of hectares used for rice, wheat and vegetable cultivation due to water shortages, al-Qaisi said. Since 2008, the area where rice is cultivated has been restricted to the provinces of Najaf, Diwaniya and Muthana.
According to Trade Ministry figures, Iraq consumes slightly over 1.2 million tons of rice a year yet last year’s production stood at only 83,000 tons. The country also consumes 4.4 million tons of wheat a year, of which only about 1.75 million tons is produced locally.