IIn the heart of a region known as the Fertile Crescent, Abd al-Hadi Mezher dug a well on his family’s farm. The Iraqi farmer dug 16 meters into the hard ground. But despite the depth, not a single drop of water appeared.
Iraq has had a particularly dry summer, but the Mezher family has been here for four generations, growing wheat, vegetables, raising cows and this year is exceptional.
“The green land has turned into a barren desert. I don’t remember seeing this in my life,” says Mezher, 35.
The water levels of the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates witnessed in the country, where the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia appeared on their banks 8000 years ago, reduced by half.
Government officials say the culprit is upstream spread hydrology projects by neighboring Turkey and Iran, a long-standing problem exacerbated by poor water management and a steady decline in rainfall.
Iraq is Fifth country at risk to the climate crisis. It is also an oil-rich country $10 billion (£8.3 billion) in monthly revenue amid high prices. But corruption is rife, and successive governments have failed to prepare for what experts warn is coming.
“Officials are not looking at the country’s future. All they care about is how well they benefit from the positions they hold,” says Nazir al-Ansari, an Iraqi water engineer and professor at Sweden’s Lulea University. “People who have taken over the water ministry have no experience.”
Al-Ansari’s research predicts rain in Iraq will reduce By 15-20% this century, reducing the waters in the Tigris and Euphrates by up to 73%, with serious repercussions on groundwater levels.
The consequences have already been devastating for farmers who depend on rivers. Mizhar’s crops have completely failed this year, leaving his family of 13 without an income. The farmer began selling his lean cows for a fraction of their usual price, eroding the farm’s asset base.
“The primary responsibility lies with the Iraqi government to provide the infrastructure,” says Mezher. “There is no planning and no support for farmers.”
The Iraqi government did not respond to requests for comment.
Iraq’s agricultural sector has faced decades of decline due to conflict, lack of investment and global heating, with farmers’ margins shrinking due to the high cost of agricultural inputs and cheap imports. Rather than modernizing the sector, the government has said it will cut farmland by half this year in response to the drought, a heavy blow to a sector that employs 18% of the population.
Mezher Farm is located a few kilometers west of the ancient city of Babylon, whose empire flourished in the second millennium BC thanks to King Hammurabi’s expansion of Sumerian irrigation systems. Iraq still depends on the same methods of surface irrigation.
“With current technology, which has been in use for 8000 years, the water losses are very high,” says Al Ansari.
Irrigation water in Iraq flows through a network of open canals, resulting in high evaporation rates in summer, when temperatures exceed 50°C. More water is wasted when it reaches the fields, as farmers use wasteful flood techniques instead of drip irrigation or the more precise sprinkler.
The authorities resorted to rationing. The irrigation canal of Muzher, a branch of the Euphrates River, is flooded only once every three weeks. By the time the water reaches the farm, it has reduced to a small amount, barely enough to meet household needs, let alone irrigate the fields.
Crops withered, including grass intended for livestock feeding. A cow is too weak to stand, and its calf begs for milk that it cannot produce.
“This is the first victim, but I expect there will be more by the end of the summer,” Mezher says. Unable to provide fodder, he sold 11 of the family’s 17 cows for less than $20 each. They usually bring in between $800 and $1,000.
Water shortages have exacerbated old tensions along the irrigation canal between farms, with accusations of diverting more water than is reasonable. “There is no oversight by the government to impose penalties on those who overuse the water,” says Mezher, whose farm suffers from abuse.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced across southern Iraq due to water scarcity. Many headed to crowded cities where a lack of jobs and services sparked unrest.
So far, Mezher refuses to give up the farm. “This is the land of my ancestors.”
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