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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

After decades of war Iraq faces water scarcity, floods, desertification and climate disruption

Iraq has suffered decades of war with much of the social and agricultural infrastructure being damaged and now poorly maintained. Climate change was already impacting the country under Saddam Hussein with desertification and reduced river flow rates. Climate impacts of desertification, water scarcity, flood damage from more intense rain when it falls, are all taking their toll on food production. The legacy of decades of war, UN sanctions and a dictatorial regime have only added and multiplied these impacts.

The fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has provided the basis for agricultural production feeding Iraq's population which has tripled between 1970 and 2007 to 30 million people. Indeed, ancient Mesopotamia may have been one of the birth places for agricultural civilisation. But according to Matteo Mantovani at TEDxBaghdad "Agriculture is dying in the place where it was born." he told the audience.

Mantovani is working with the Iraqi Ministry of Environment to fulfill the requirements of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He is currently leading a team of specialists in the creation of Iraq's first national greenhouse gas inventory with the goal of developing strategies and policies for emissions reductions.

Fertile Crescent under threat by end of century

Iraq is characterized by cold winters and hot summers, with limited rainfall, high evaporation rate and water scarcity. Only 28% of land is arable and this is declining with desertification. Iraq loses around 250 square kilometres (96 square miles) of arable land annually due to degradation of various kinds. Already 31% of land is classified as desert with an additional 54% under threat.

Dr. Hassan Janabi, Iraq Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, has written a perceptive paper on the climate challenge facing Iraq - Climate Change Imapct on Iraqi Water and Agriculture Sectors. He paints a pessimistic picture for the future based upon IPCC predictions:

"The predictions of the General Circulation Models (GCMs) used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change present a pessimistic picture of the flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Precipitation in the highlands of Turkey is predicted to be reduced by 10-60%, which in turn translates into a similar decline in the flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One recent study predicted that the Euphrates river flow will be reduced by 29% to 73% and the entire Fertile Crescent may disappear by the end of the century. The negative impact of climate change on Iraq is further magnified by human intervention in the natural cycle."

Desertification is a major problem reducing agricultural productivity and food availability. Declining soil moisture and lack of vegetation cover results in huge dust storms originating in the western desert causing myriad health problems of choking, asthma, and eye problems, with the incidence and intensity of these dust storms increasing. Dr Janabi continues:

"This has been evident in the rapid expansion of the desertification process, increasingly frequent and intense dust storms, prolonged drought conditions, a reduction in rainfall across the country and unprecedented heat waves with temperatures rising above 50°C just last summer. (The recorded temperature in Iraq has risen significantly."

"The average temperature for the period 1988-2007 is higher than the average temperature for the earlier twenty years by 1°C in Baghdad and 1.5°C degrees in Nasiriya south of Baghdad). Similar trends can be seen in the recorded rainfall. For instance, rainfall in Baghdad during the past decade is less than the long-term average by about 50% (excluding the recent rainfall in Baghdad in late December 2012)."

"FAO scientists believe that an increase of 1% in average temperature results in a 10% loss in agricultural productivity. It is therefore hardly surprising that the productivity of cultivated land in Iraq has declined until domestically produced food meets only 30% of the population's needs."

Water Scarcity and Flooding events

Iraq relies on more than half it's water originating outside it's own borders: mainly in Turkey, and to a lesser extent Iran and Syria. Flow rates in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have fallen to a third of normal capacity. This will get much worse with Turkey's large scale dam building.

As crop production relies substantially on seasonal availability of water, river flows and irrigation. The interference in river flows will add to the woes of the country.

James Denselow reported in an 2009 article on Climate Change and Iraq in the Huffington Post:

Despite World Bank opposition, Turkey is proceeding with large scale dam building as part of its "south-eastern Anatolia project", involving the construction of 22 irrigation dams and 19 hydroelectric plants. The subsequent reduction in river flows in Iraq led a recently emboldened Baghdad parliament to pass a resolution last May urging the government to demand a greater share of water resources from neighbors. However, with internal issues still volatile (over 400 civilians died in June 2009) the Iraqi state is in no real position to exert effective pressure on its neighbors.

"Climate change, the change in temperatures, drought, have made (upstream) countries depend on irrigating their land from the rivers. As a result, it has affected Iraq's water share from the Tigris and Euphrates," Ali Hashim, director general of the state commission operating water and drainage projects told Reuters in a November 2010 article.

Reductions in flow are already reducing power from Iraq's hydro-electric power stations which provided up to 20 per cent of Iraq's power needs according to the 2012 UN factsheet on Climate Change in Iraq.

But the paradox in climate variability and climate change produces more droughts and dust storms as well as more intense heavy rain events, which cause flash flooding, washing away topsoil as well as inundating roads and houses. Years of damage and neglect to sewerage and drainage systems means that floods produce a fetid mess, with poorer suburbs bearing the brunt of the damage. Strong accusations of political corruption reverberate on the failure of the Government to launch major infrastructure projects using oil export income to repair the decades of war torn damage and neglect.

The drought of 2007 to 2009 was particularly severe adding to the trend for desertification and soil erosion. The number and severity of dust storms also increased: Baghdad endured 122 dust storms in 2008 and 82 in 2009, up from only three or four a year recorded in the 1970s according to a 2010 Reuters report.

This last winter intense rain events caused major flooding and disruptions. A heavy rain event over much of central Iraq and Baghdad in December 2012 caused the worst flooding in 30 years with Iraqi authorities even declaring a national holiday due to bad weather and heavy rain.

Heavy flooding was repeated in northern and central Iraq in late January and early February 2013 according to this report by Patrick Cockburn. Xinhua reported that Torrential rain causes flooding in Iraq villages. The Tigris river was at it's highest flood level in 50 years submerging whole villages near the cities of Shirqat, Baiji, Alam, Tikrit and Samarra in Salahudin province, and washing away roads and bridges.

In the south of the country, flood waters in early January combined with heavy rains caused intense floods near Nasiriya, a little north of Lake Hammar on the shores of the Euphrates River. Over 8,000 people were evacuated, and at least 180 houses were destroyed.

Even though these winter rains have eased the long drought conditions, the prospect for water availability still looks bleak. A seminar in November 2012 of Al Mustansiriyah University Weather Sciences Department identified a long term shortage of water resources accompanied by an intense drop of water level in Dijla and Euphrates Rivers due to the reduction of water flows from neighboring countries.

Restoring the Degraded Marshlands

Much of the water that flowed down the Tigris and Euthrates rivers once ended up in the marshes and wetlands in the southern delta - an area once double the size of Lebanon. The Saddam Hussein regime after the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s drained 90 per cent of these marshes.

"These unique wetlands, which have been a major contributor to food production and to the preservation of biodiversity in the area, were transformed into lifeless dry land as the result of a political decision. Unfortunately for Iraq, this decision coincided with the assumption by neighboring countries of almost complete control over water resources, forcing tens of thousands of inhabitants to flee the area." describes Dr. Hassan Janabi.

Since the downfall of the Hussein regime the new Iraqi regime has reversed the policy on the marshlands with additional water inflow, but the marshlands have changed irrevocably. Only about half the former marshland has been able to be partially restored as wetlands. The water flows are no longer there, being diverted in Syria and Turkey for their own hydro electric power and irrigation purposes. The water in the restored wetlands is more saline than before it was drained, too salty to grow rice. Salt tolerent fish have been introduced, but the Marsh Arabs who have returned don't like the fish.

Aljazeera featured a video report on Climate changes threaten Iraqi wetlands (29 November 2012)

Dr. Hassan Janabi summed up the need for the future, after decades of war, sanctions, and disruption in Iraq.
There is a pressing need to factor in the impact of climate change on Iraqi agriculture and other climate sensitive activities in the country. Obviously, Iraq's capacity to adapt to climate change at the moment is marginal. However, it is never too late to develop the country's capacity to adjust to this unavoidable eventuality both at the human and the economic levels. Iraq has the financial resources to invest in its future and to neutralize the negative impact of global warming on its economy. Moreover its youthful population is a significant human asset that can help guarantee a successful transition towards a better future and sustainable development.

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