This spring, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2 percent of Turkey’s power.
As temperatures in Southern Iraq approached 52 degrees Celsius (126°F) last July, Habib Salman, a 52-year-old farmer in the Al-Islah township, shot himself in the head, leaving behind an eleven-member family.
The stream on which their farm relied had recently dried up, jeopardizing his family’s survival. “We lost water, next farming, and next the household supplies, and then it was very hard for us to put food on the table,” says Rakla Abboud, Habib’s wife.
Now, she relies on a few cows and the support of her husband’s brothers to feed herself and her children. Leaving the barren land around her home is not an option, she says.
“I will never think of moving out, even if it gets worse, because the people here are the only family I have,” Rakla explains. “It will be difficult for me, a woman with just children and no man to support and protect me.”
Drought has plagued Iraq in recent years. But local farmers mainly blame an upstream neighbor for the disappearing rivers.
Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a development plan that entails the construction of 22 new hydroelectric dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, is projected to reduce 70 percent of the Euphrates’s flow when complete.
Most of those dams have already been built. Where the Euphrates passes Nasiriyah, about 370 kilometers south of Baghdad, its flow is sometimes as low as 18 cubic meters per second – a dramatic difference from the 90 cubic meters per second required to sustain the population, according to Jassim al-Asadi, director of Nature Iraq’s Chibayish office.
The remaining water is far more saline than before, as the lower levels in the river allow salty water from the Persian Gulf to creep upstream into the rivers.
Salim Mihsin Saeed is a farmer near Nasiriyah, in the same province as Habib Salman’s family.
“This land used to be a marsh, but the water constructions, hydrological constructions in Turkey, affected the whole country in terms of water quality and quantity,” he says, standing in front of his fruit and vegetable farm.
Salim uses a drip irrigation system on his farm, which pulls water from a nearby tributary of the Euphrates and diverts it along the rows of crops through pipes with tiny holes, allowing the water to slowly drip directly onto the roots of each plant.
The system costs three times as much to install as a regular pumping system, but it yields double the output in production. However, few Iraqis use drip irrigation, Salim says, for two reasons: “One, they can’t afford it; second they have no experience using drip irrigation.”
Farmers who can’t invest in more efficient irrigation systems are forced to migrate to wetter areas when the river runs low.
Water shortages have prompted 100,000 Iraqis to move from their native communities since 2005, according to a 2009 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report.
For those who remain, water issues are an increasing source of conflict, according to Sayid Abbas Sayid Sirwit, a sheikh responsible for overseeing the welfare and settling the disputes of locals in Maysan Province, east of Nasiriyah. Disputes over water in his township caused about twenty murders so far this year, he says.
Four years ago, Hakeema Kherallah Tahir’s eight-member family moved to a farm in al-Islah, near the house of Habib Salman.
“We lost our job in the last place we lived,” she says. “Farming became impossible there because of the lack of water.” But this land is also now arid, and Hakeema’s family will probably abandon it soon as well.
Many farmers in Southern Iraq are giving up their old lifestyle altogether and moving to cities, according to Alaa al-Bedran, chairman of the Basrah Farmers Union.
“Most of the farmers, and by saying most it means thousands of the farmers, are starting to sell their lands and move to Basrah city center to look for other jobs, mainly labor,” he says.
Jabir Haj Shliesh, a farmer in Nasiriyah, considered this option after he had to take his children out of school because of declining yield from his parched farm.
“Most of the people who used to live here moved outside the village and started working in the city centers,” he says.
But urban life presents new challenges. “When we move out, there is no one with a school certificate to get a job by. So it will be more difficult even if we move out,” Jabir explains.
Iraqis don’t only blame Turkey for their water woes, though Turkish dams are the main problem, says Ali Hussein Raddad, mayor of Al-Islah. He points out that the Iraqi government also does not manage water resources fairly.
“The biggest problem is water shortage because of dams upstream of Tigris in Turkey,” Raddad says. “But the water shortage also comes from the mismanagement of water shares between the sub-districts and the governorates.”
If neither Turkey nor Iraq can stop the decline in river quality and quantity, the results for Iraq’s farmers will be devastating. Agriculture will radically change in Southern Iraq: the land where it was first developed by Sumerians 8,000 years ago.
“About sixty percent of Iraq’s population depends on farming,” says Sheikh Sayid Abbas. “Half of those people depend on the Tigris. So there will be a great loss of jobs. The idea of earning a living will change here in Iraq.”
If Turkish dams reduce the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris into Iraq by 80 percent, as some project, the damage won’t be confined to farmers, according to Basrah University Marine Chemistry Professor Ali Abdul Zahra Douabul.
“It’s going to be seawater, the farming is going to be completely destroyed, and then of course all the industries here rely on, or they are being built on the basis that they are dealing with freshwater,” he says.
“Everything will have to be changed, and this is going to be huge because so many industries have to be changed in order to cope with such high salinity.”
The far-reaching impacts of Iraq’s declining rivers are just beginning to be understood. But the plight of Iraqi farmers portends a drier future for the entire nation.
This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.