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Water crisis on the Euphrates

A critical drop in river levels is threatening the livelihoods of millions of people in southern Iraq, severely reducing electricity and supplies of drinking water. Martin Chulov reports.

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A water shortage described as the most critical since the earliest days of Iraq’s civilisation is threatening to leave up to two million people in the south of the country without electricity and almost as many without drinking water.

An already meagre supply of electricity to Iraq’s fourth-largest city, Nasiriyah, has fallen by 50% in recent weeks because of the rapidly falling levels of the Euphrates River, which has only two of four power-generating turbines left working.

If, as predicted, the river falls by a further 20 centimetres in the weeks ahead, engineers say the remaining two turbines also will close down, forcing a total blackout in the city.

Down river, where the Euphrates spills out into the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the north-eastern corner of the Persian Gulf, the lack of fresh water has raised salinity levels so high that two towns, of about 3,000 people, on the northern edge of Basra have been evacuated. “We can no longer drink this water,” said one local woman from the village of al-Fal. “Our animals are all dead and many people here are diseased.”

Iraqi officials have been attempting for months to grapple with the magnitude of the crisis, which, like much else in this fractured society, has many causes, both man-made and natural.

Two winters of significantly lower than normal rainfalls – half the annual average last year and one-third the year before – have followed six years of crippling instability, in which industry barely functioned and agriculture struggled to meet half of subsistence needs.

“For thousands of years Iraq’s agricultural lands were rich with planted wheat, rice and barley,” said Salah Aziz, director of planning in Iraq’s agricultural ministry, adding that land was “100% in use”.

“This year less than 50% of the land is in use and most of the yields are marginal. This year we cannot begin to cover even 40% of Iraq’s fruit and vegetable demand.”

During the last five chaotic years, many new dams and reservoirs have been built in Turkey, Syria and Iran, which share the Euphrates and its small tributaries. The effect has been to starve the Euphrates of its lifeblood, which throughout the ages has guaranteed bountiful water, even during drought. At the same time, irrigators have tried tilling marginal land in an attempt for quick yields and in all cases the projects have been abandoned.

“Not even during Saddam’s time did we face the prospect of something so grave,” said Nasiriyah’s governor, Qusey al-Ebadi. Just east of the city, the Marsh Arabs are also on the edge of a crisis – unprecedented even during the three decades of reprisals they faced under the former dictator.

“The current level of the Euphrates cannot feed the small tributaries that give water to the marshlands,” he continued. “The people there have started to dig wells for their own survival. There is no water to use for washing, because it is stagnant and contaminated. Many of the animals have contracted disease and died and people with animals are leaving their areas.”

Nowhere is Iraq’s water shortage more stark than in what used to be the marshlands. Towards the Iranian border and south to the gulf, rigid and yellowing reeds jut from a hard-baked landscape of cracked mud.

Skiffs that once plied the lowland waters lie dry and splintering and ducks wallow in fetid green ponds amid the maze of feeder streams. Steel cans of drinking water bought by desperate local people line dirt roads like over-sized letter boxes.

The Euphrates, once broad and endlessly green, is now narrow and drab. In parts, it is a slick black ooze, fit only for scores of bathing water buffalo. Giant pumps lay metres out of reach. Some are rusting. “Not long ago, the level of the Euphrates was at this rust line,” said Awda Khasaf, a local leader in the al-Akerya marshlands, as he pointed at the dwindling river.

“It has now dropped more than 1.5 metres. This river feeds all the agriculture lands and marsh lands in Nasiriyah. It smells like this because it is stagnant,” he said. “We turned to agriculture in 1991 after Saddam’s rampage, but now the government has ordered us to stop rice farming.”

Further up the river, Sheikh Amar Hameed, 44, from Abart village said: “We have lost the soul of our lives with the vanishing water. We have lost everything. We are buying drinking water now. The government must find a solution. The young will all become thieves. They have no prospects.”

Iraq’s water minister, Abdul Latif Rashid, recently estimated that up to 300,000 marshland residents are on the move, many of them newly uprooted and heading for nearby towns and cities that can do little to support them.

The Marsh Arabs are semi-nomadic and large numbers have remained displaced since Saddam drained the marshes in 1991.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, our neighbouring countries have built a number of structures for collecting water or diverting water for their agricultural lands,” Rashid said. “In some cases, they have diverted the path of the river for their internal use. This has had a very damaging effect. We have a large number of branches of the Tigris that we share with Iran. In most, their volumes are low, or completely dried up. In 2006-07 [the marshlands] almost reached 75% of original levels. Now the surface water is around 20%. Water resources have this year become not only serious, but critical. Iraq has not faced a water shortage like this.”

Officials have tried to compensate by digging wells and bores, especially in the ravaged provinces of the south and in Anbar, west of Baghdad. Delegations have also travelled to Turkey and Syria, where they were warmly received, but have achieved few changes. “We were expecting much more of a release from Turkey,” Rashid said. “Iran has been less receptive. We have had no response from them at all.”


www.guardian.co.uk

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Homepage image by Hassan Janal / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

严重得多

幼发拉底河的情况要比尼罗河严重得多。下游的伊拉克已经面临断电,甚至断水的危险,而在一向缺水的中东地区,上游的国家也需要用水,他们只有在满足自己需要的情况下才会去考虑邻国的要求。

Even more serious

The situation on the Euphrates River is even more serious than the one on the Nile. The areas in Iraq that are down river have already faced power outages and the danger of water shortages. In the Middle East, where there are always water shortages, the nations located up river have to use water too. They have to satisfy their own needs before considering the needs of the border countries. (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

水资源的公平利用

如何实现跨境河流水资源的公平利用?这个问题很难回答,尤其是在水资源严重缺乏的中东。

按理说,上游国家应该理解邻国的关切,一起协商解决资源共享的问题。但在现实中,普遍的情况是,上游国家占有天然优势,修建很多水利工程,希望尽可能地最大化利用水资源;而下游国家不仅分配到的水资源少,而且往往要承受很大的生态、环境影响。由此一来,国际纠纷就产生了。

我觉得,对于跨境河流管理,相关国家可以成立一个管理委员会,或是由区域性政府间国际组织出面进行协调,经过一系列的谈判,共同制定出对水资源的利用规划、或分配协议。

The fair use of water resources

How can we achieve the fair use of water resources across borders that share a river? This is a difficult question to answer, especially in an area like the Middle East, where water shortages are frequent. It seems reasonable for the countries that are located up river to understand the concerns of bordering countries, and that they would make a settlement to share the resources. But in reality, the countries that are up river have a natural advantage, and they build many hydraulic engineering projects in the hopes that they can maximize their exploitation of the water resources. On the other hand, countries that are down river have fewer water resources allocated to them, and they have to deal with huge ecological and environmental impacts. This is how international disputes are started. I think that in terms of cross-river management, the relevant countries might be able to set up a regulatory commission. Alternatively, a regional government can do the negotiations. After a series of negotiations, the countries could create a plan together to decide how to exploit the water resources, or they could create an allocation agreement. (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

水资源的国际法?

首先,我建议更正一点,“在过去5年的混乱时期,土耳其、叙利亚和伊朗修建了许多新的大坝和水库,这些国家都在幼发拉底河及其小支流的上游地区。”我对照了伊拉克的地图,伊朗并不使用幼发拉底河的上游,而是在下游幼发拉底河的一段为两国之间国界。
虽然实际情况会千差万别,但是我还是认为至少对水资源应建立最基本的法律,以保证居民的饮水,而且这样可以一定程度上减少因水资源爆发战争的可能。

Whether the international law of water resources should be established?

Firstly, I suggest correcting the following,“During the last five chaotic years, many new dams and reservoirs have been built in Turkey, Syria and Iran, which share the Euphrates and its small tributaries. ” By consulting the map of Iraq , I find that Iran doesn’t locate in the upper reaches of the Euphrates, rather, one part of the downstream forms the dividing line between the two countries. In any case,I still contend that the international law of water resources should be established to provide the guarantee for water supply on people life,and to avoid wars touched off by water resources to the extent.
(translated by Lei Wang)

Default thumb avatar
朱和海

幼发拉底河流域水争端

欲全面了解幼发拉底河流域水争端,最好先翻阅一下拙著《中东,为水而战》(增补本)第九章第211-244页以及第五章第87-92页。

The Euphrates conflict

To fully understand the Euphrates conflict, it would be best to first have a look at my humble work entitled "The Middle East, War for Water" (enlarged edition), chapter 9, pages 211-244 and chapter 5, pages 87-92.