Climate change comes to Iraq

Unprecedented droughts are drying up farm land, driving migration to cities, and compounding economic hardships and instability.
The Golaka spring ran dry in August 2021, outside the Bakr Bayf village in Garmian. (LIZZIE PORTER/Iraq Oil Report)

GARMIAN - In the village of Bakr Bayf, the springs have dried up. Once-lush pastures are stony and arid. There is no rain. Farmers and others are struggling to survive as drought enervates the land.

“Kani Bakh spring dried up in May,” said Star Najm Faraj, a farmer, known as Mam Sitar. “I was born in 1953, and in all my life, I have never heard of this spring drying up.”

The village’s other main spring, Golaka, had been used by nine generations of farmers, but in early August, it also ran dry. Residents began to leave.

“When Kani Bakh spring dried up, all the sheep owners started to move out,” says Mam Sitar, his feet crunching on dry shale in a channel where water once ran. “It was a signal to sheep owners that this is not a place where you can keep sheep. This is one of the major springs that has never dried up in living memory.”

Here in Garmian — a multi-district administrative area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — ways of life that have lasted for generations are shifting dramatically because of climate change. Officials have warned of the water shortages throughout the spring and summer, but action has not been able to keep up with the pace of the upheaval.

The water shortages in Garmian are just one example of a crisis that is affecting much of the country. From northern Iraq to the deserts of Basra, drought and other consequences of climate change are altering livelihoods, forcing villagers to move into already overcrowded cities, and driving instability that is likely to worsen in coming years, according to more than 20 officials and local residents interviewed over six months by Iraq Oil Report.

“If there is not enough rain soon, I would say we will witness mass displacement in most of the villages,” said Haji Omer, head of the Garmian Administration's crisis cell for drought-related issues. A second Garmian Administration official said that 150 villages were suffering from water shortages.

Although there are not comprehensive Iraq-wide figures on drought-related migration, the numbers available paint a partial picture. According to the UN’s migration agency, as of September this year, 2,982 families within central and southern Iraq and 477 families in the northern province of Ninewa have fled their homes because of the drought.

The crisis is also threatening to worsen the economic problems associated with Iraq's over-reliance on its oil industry and bloated public sector. In recent years, agriculture has been a rare source of non-government employment — the country has struggled to grow a private sector — so as farms dry up, there are few alternatives for Iraqi job seekers other than dependence on oil-funded government assistance.

The financial and personal toll has been heavy for people like Mam Sitar. On May 3, he moved his flock of 250 animals to a pasture in an area called Razian, which he rented for 5 million Iraqi dinars (about $3,500). It's over an hour’s drive from his home in Bakr Bayf, and he often sleeps outdoors in his new fields. During the relocation, he lost 15 sheep worth 250,000 dinars ($170) each, plus last season’s wheat crop, which did not germinate due to a lack of rainfall. His son, Falah, had already left the village to work as informal day laborers in the town of Kalar, over an hour’s drive away.

“Eight of 15 sheep-owning families from Bakr Bayf have left to find other places for their flocks,” Mam Sitar said. “Most of the families who have stayed have not left because they weren’t able to financially — they were not able to afford it. Bakr Bayf is just an example. Wherever you go, you will find similar.”

Star Najm Faraj, who is known as Mam Sitar, at his farm in the village of Bakr Bayf in October 2021. (LIZZIE PORTER/Iraq Oil Report)

The causes of drought

Garmian has received historically low levels of rainfall in the past year. Between October 2020 and June 2021, the two areas of Kalar and Kifri in Garmian saw just 117.5mm and 114.5mm of rain, respectively, according to Abdul Mutalib Rafat Abdullah, a professor at Garmian University and head of a scientific committee formed to investigate the water shortage crisis in the area. In most parts of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), rainfall under 200mm over such a period is considered a drought.

Climate change is a major factor in the crisis, observers say. The 2019 UNDP report said that due to “successive climatic changes in recent years,” including drought, high temperatures, and low and irregular precipitation, there has been “a clear impact” on both arable and pastoral farming, which has affected the livelihood of the population, “especially in rural areas” of the Kurdistan region.

The problems are compounded by the water policies of neighbouring Turkey and Iran. Both are building dams upstream on rivers that flow into Iraq to try to mitigate their own water shortages.

In Garmian, the water surface level of the Darbandikhan dam has dropped by 18 meters due to drastically reduced inflows on the Sirwan river, which originates in Iran and is the dam’s main water source, according to its director, Abdulrahman Khany.

“The problem this year specifically is because of the lack of rain, snow, and water inflows, even on the Iranian side,” said Khany, in an interview in his office overlooking the dam in September. “Secondly, the Iranians have built tunnels to divert the water in their dams away from the Sirwan basin, towards Iran’s interior.”

Iranian government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The whole Kurdistan region is in the Tigris basin, so is also affected by upstream damming in Turkey. Federal Iraqi officials have been leading negotiations with Ankara over water-sharing. Last month, a technical advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources told Iraqi state media that talks with Turkey had reached “the signing of a shared understanding document approved by the Turkish government and put into action,” without sharing details of the agreement’s contents.

The reduced river flows have negatively impacted water quality, farming, and irrigation in Garmian, with water shortages being compounded by poor waste management.

“Truthfully, in some towns and cities, there are no water treatment or filtration plants — for example, in Darbandikhan,” said Khany. “It’s been a not-insignificant period — around 10 years or 15 years — that they’ve been working on a station."

He blamed a lack of budget for the stalled work, with authorities resorting to more basic water treatment processes like chlorination. “We need to get going with serious steps in order to avoid pollution,” he added. “Especially if the water inflows reduce, the pollution increases.”

With such little rainfall, and dam reservoirs strained, residents are ever-more reliant on underground water wells. But those are also now being pushed to the limits.

“The water shortage forced many people to come and ask to dig new wells,” said Hamd Jumma Jbraeil, director of Garmian’s ground water directorate, in an interview at his office in Kalar in September. “The problem is that all the village residents depend on household wells, since they do not have a water grid. This made many households immediately ask for licenses to dig wells once their springs dried up.”

Poor water management and deterioration of water quality are also major challenges in the Kurdistan region, according to a 2019 UNDP report on the region’s agricultural sector. “The lack of an appropriate management system to allocate water is the main issue in the KRI,” the report said.

There is generally poor understanding about the need for water conservation, according to three officials in Garmian.

“Honestly, general awareness in society is needed so that water resources are preserved,” Khany said, calling for laws against polluting waterways with plastics and other waste, as well as public information campaigns.

Following months of drought, the reservoir area behind a dam near Bakr Bayf village in Garmian lies dry. (LIZZIE PORTER/Iraq Oil Report)

Altered livelihoods

The water shortages have already had major social and economic impacts, forcing farmers like Mam Sitar to move to more expensive land that is still suitable for grazing, or deal with crop failures by buying feedstock for their herds instead.

In Baky Bayf village, those who remain are struggling to survive.

In a bone-dry, stony field on the village’s edge, Kamal Mohammed Faraj, 49, grazes his 400 sheep on chicken excrement. It is the only source of something resembling nourishment.

“Chicken poop is the only thing left, as we cannot afford buying anything else [to feed them],” says Kamal, who has already spent 20 million Iraqi dinars ($14,000) on feedstock for his herd this year, because the crops he would normally feed them had failed.

The crop failure has led to other problems. Because Kamal is having to resort to low-quality feed, his sheep won't be worth as much, reducing his income even further.

“A lot of the sheep have not gone through puberty, so a lot of them will not have any offspring,” he says. “And even their meat won’t be properly edible, because the quality of what they are eating is bad.”

If the rains don’t come soon, he too will be forced to leave Bakr Bayf. “I will have to leave, because I cannot survive like this,” he says.

Local officials agree that the crisis is severe, and expect further significant movements of people into towns that already cannot cope.

“Many people are expecting to have a good rainy season this winter; if there isn’t, there will be a disaster,” said Jilwan Adel Shukr, director of Sheikh Tawil subdistrict, where Bakr Bayf village is located. “There will be a mass rural-to-urban migration, and in the urban areas you already have lots of issues: the government cannot provide services, and there is not enough employment. There are not any public sector jobs. We are basically an agricultural economy, and if people stop doing agricultural activities, what else can they do?”

As farming becomes a less viable option, there will be greater pressures on other parts of the economy, including the oil sector, say local officials and residents in Garmian.

“There will be more pressure on the oil companies, because the people disappointed by their initial jobs like farming and sheep rearing will try to get hired by the oil companies, because that will be their only hope,” said Adel Shukr.

Iraq’s unemployment rate is 22.7% - 2.3 million of the country’s 10.3 million-person labor force, according to the World Bank. If agriculture becomes a less viable option, other sectors will be squeezed and competition for scarce jobs could lead to unrest.

“Many of those who don’t get the job opportunities will make trouble for the [oil field] operators,” said Adel Shukr.

Farmer Kamal Mohammed Faraj, 49, tends to a flock of sheep in October 2021. Because pasture land has gone dry in Garmian, the sheep are feeding on chicken excrement. (LIZZIE PORTER/Iraq Oil Report)

A national problem

Drought is badly affecting other parts of Iraq and the Kurdistan region, too.

“The drought that has hit Garmian region and Erbil has had a huge impact on agricultural land and livestock farms,” said Begard Talabani, the KRG minister of agriculture and water resources, in an interview with Iraq Oil Report. “In addition to Garmian and Erbil, parts of Halabja, especially orchards in Hawraman [an area that straddles the border with Iran], have also been affected by drought.”

Water issues in Garmian and the Kurdistan Region are also affecting governorates further south, because most of the water that flows to the rest of Iraq comes through Kurdistan.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the water at the Dukan and Darbandikhan dams serves the central and southern areas of Iraq, and not our region,” said Khany, the Darbandikhan dam director.

In Diyala province, just south of Sulaimaniya, residents have complained of taps running dry and have voiced their anger by posting complaints on local officials’ social media pages.

“Water is underdelivered to Khanaqin’s neighborhoods for two reasons: one is the shortage of power, and the other is the depletion in the water sources,” Hassan Agha Jan, the water directorate director in Khanaqin, in northern Diyala, said in June. “Power shortages are an issue because the water distribution networks require power in order to function in a proper way.”

Diyala is already suffering from violence associated with an insurgency fought by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group. In late October, tribal and community tensions came to the fore after an attack claimed by IS on a Shia village prompted a violent, bloody response on a neighbouring Sunni village.

Both the KRG and federal governments are making some efforts to try to mitigate the water crisis. This month the Ministry of Finance in Baghdad allocated 3 billion dinars ($2 million) from emergency reserves to the Ministry of Water Resources to pay for works in water pumping stations to face off water shortages across federal Iraq.

In Dhi Qar, paramilitary groups operating under the government's al-Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization) program published photos of their members providing tanked water to residents of the Sayyed Dakhil district north of Nassiriya, after citizens there broke into the main governorate building in protest over the lack of water and drought. That was an escalation from a previous protest outside the district building 10 days earlier.

Stop-gap emergency response measures are unlikely to contain the crisis. In the past, protests similar to those in Dhi Qar over a lack of potable water and other government service failures have turned violent. In 2018, demonstrations in Basra targeted political offices and oil fields and sparked nationwide protests that helped undermine then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's bid for a second term; Basra authorities responded in part by calling on international oil companies to help provide clean water.

Now, similar factors that caused those protests are at risk of combusting throughout Iraq.

In Basra, the UN’s migration agency last month warned of severe overcrowding as people move into the city from farms that have failed due to drought. In Garmian, residents are increasingly desperate for water.

“Already a lack of water has made several families in some villages compete over water from a well, or the limited water from a spring,” said Jbraeil, of the Garmian groundwater directorate.
“Water shortages could spark social unrest.”

Back in Bakr Bayf, Mam Sitar is just waiting for rain.

“If God is not merciful, and does not let rain start falling again – that is what is expected, and that is what we want – we will have nothing,” he said. “We are quite helpless.”

Lizzie Porter and Mohammed Hussein reported from Garmian. Rawaz Tahir reported from Erbil. Amir Ali reported from Khanaqin. Staff reporting from Kirkuk and Dhi Qar are anonymous for their security. Jassim al-Jabiri and Ali al-Aqily reported from Basra.

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