Heavy rainfall has affected Iraq and the wider region over the past weeks. However, rivers, lakes, and dams – long on the verge of drying up – are now swelling with water and giving opportunities to avert the dangers of drought.
The last few weeks have seen some of the heaviest rain in Iraq and across the entire region in years. In Iran, hundreds of cities, towns and villages have been devastated by the floods and dozens have been killed as a result. In north-eastern Syria, hundreds of villages and towns have also been affected by flooding and heavy rain, and farmers have been suffering as a result. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the torrential rain has been both a blessing and a curse, causing mass flooding in large parts of the country, whilst also providing abundant water in a country that faces an ongoing water crisis.
The flooding has displaced thousands of people in southern and northern provinces of Iraq. In Salahuddin Province, 270 families have fled their homes. In Maysan Province, more than 500 families have been displaced, with a further 2000 families currently at risk. Meanwhile, hundreds of families living along river banks in the Kurdistan Region, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Diyala and Basra have also been forced to leave their homes.
The flood has also damaged tens of thousands of agricultural lands in southern Iraq, especially in the province of Basra, where 40,000 acres worth of barley and wheat were flooded in the northern district of Qurna within the first week of the flood. Other agricultural areas in low-lying plains were badly affected by the floods.
However, despite the seemingly destructive impact of the floods, the heavy rainfall may have a positive side to it, as rivers, lakes and dams, which have been on the verge of drying up, are now swelling with water. Water management has long been a central issue for Iraq and water more generally has been at the forefront of the Iraqi psyche for millennia, at a religious, cultural and symbolic level.
The land of Iraq has historically been referred to by the regional toponym, Mesopotamia, which translates to the “land between the two rivers” in Ancient Greek. Additionally, the water in Iraq also forms a central part of the oldest religion in the country, the Mandaean faith, further highlighting the cultural and historical importance of water in the country. However, Iraq is currently suffering from a water crisis that is threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions in the country along with Iraq’s key natural ecosystems.
Iraq has long been at risk by droughts due to severe water shortages caused by punishingly dry weather throughout the year, geopolitics and water mismanagement by local and central authorities. Last summer, protests as a result of the catastrophically scarce water supplies for residents across the country, particularly in southern provinces such as Basra.
The water shortage led to displacement in many parts of the country and threatened hundreds of thousands of acres of once fertile farmland and the country’s iconic natural ecosystems such as the southern marshes. This, in turn, has exacerbated the country’s food security crisis as only half of agricultural areas in the country received irrigation due to the lack of water. As a result, cereal production for 2018 was estimated to be 4.3 million tonnes below average.
This spring’s heavy rain has provided some hope that the country will not endure similar water conditions to last year, where the summer was among the hottest and driest on record. Following the flood, the country’s main water reservoirs have either reached capacity or are nearing it, with the Director of the General Authority for the operation of irrigation and drainage projects in the Ministry of Water Resources, Ali Hashem, confirming that overall water reserves have risen to 37 billion cubic meters, the highest in 25 years. Meanwhile, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) have claimed that 75% of the Iraqi marshes, which have been drying up for years, have been filled with water following torrential rain and water flows from neighbouring Iran.
The wet winter and spring have provided the Iraqi Government with an opportunity to avert the impending danger of drought, which threatens large swathes of the country. The extent to which authorities will take advantage of this depends on whether the Ministry of Water Resources, the body responsible for managing water supplies in the country, can formulate a strategy that distributes water sustainably by coordinating national and regional interests and needs in Iraq, and develop a concrete treatment plan to revitalise and protect Iraq’s natural resources and ecosystems.