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Salt Levels in Shatt al-Arab Threaten Environmental Disaster

Saleem al-Wazzan
Farmers along the Shatt al-Arab waterway are crying over their bad luck. Not only do they suffer daily difficulties related to a lack of electricity and general supplies, but now salt water is flowing into the…
2.09.2009  |  Basra

As the level of fresh water flowing into the Shatt al-Arab from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers has declined, salt water from the Persian Gulf has increasingly poured in.

Three months ago several municipal councils in the Faw villages (90 km from the centre of Basra’s province) sent the first danger signals, announcing an increase in the water salinity level of rivers connected to the Shatt al-Arab. They warned that the high salt level was harming agriculture and killing livestock.

Amer Suleiman, director of Basra’s agriculture directorate, has announced that his department will soon declare Basra a “disaster area” because of the high salinity level. "The future of agriculture in Basra is at risk and if things continue to deteriorate there is no hope for Basra to recover,” he told Niqash.

The new crisis comes on the back of long-standing ecological problems caused by oil leaks and sewage ejections into the water.

Local inhabitants say that wildlife, including palm trees and Faw’s famous henna trees, as well as agriculture and livestock are already dying as a result of the crisis, resulting in severe economic difficulties for those living along the water.

According to Abdul-Min’em Khayoun, director of Basra’s water department, “salinity levels have increased more than five-fold during the last months.”

Baradi’eah water purification plant, which supplies water for a number of residential areas, says the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) salinity level, which measures water purity, has increased to 6015 from approximately 1000.

At the same time, officials say the lack of available water supplies is forcing electricity plants that rely on water to cut back production, contributing to further power cuts across the region.

“The low water levels in the Shatt al-Arab have negatively affected electricity generating plants in the province and contributed to electricity power-cuts during most hours of the day,” said Jamal Gholam, the Director of Najibiyah station, one of the biggest electricity generating plant in southern Iraq.

Gholam told local media outlets that “the Najibiyah [southwest of Basra] and Haritha [North of Basra] plants will soon be closed as a result of water scarcity.”

An official from the provincial council blamed the crisis on the decrease in the water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers coming from Syria and Turkey. “The two countries are not providing Iraq with its agreed upon share of these waters,” said the official, pointing to the building of dams which restrict the flow of water into Iraq.

The official also accused Iran of blocking the water flow to Iraq, saying that the “Iran’s diversion of the Karun and Karkha river paths - the two rivers that feed the Shatt al-Arab - to pass through Iran have also contributed to the worsening crisis.”

Local inhabitants express astonishment that the government has not reacted to “Iranian infringements” on Iraq’s share of the Shatt al-Arab’s waters. "The problem was aggravated because the Iranians closed the Karun River and diverted its course,” said Karim Hameed, who owns land in Faw district.

Proposed solutions and alternatives appear modest given the size of the expected crisis. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have begun talks regarding the flow of the two rivers.

Additionally, Dr. Saleh Ismail Najm, dean of Basra’s engineering school, has called for the adoption of an "emergency plan" of desalination methods. “We must think differently: adopt desalination and invest in groundwater for agriculture," he told Niqash.

Basra’s provincial administration has already started sending water convoys to the approximately 95,000 inhabitants of Faw and says it will build 10 desalination plants.

However, farmers believe that these initiatives are not enough.

Hameed told Niqash that “he is thinking of leaving the district and settling in the city. More than 150 family emigrated from Faw have already left for the city and remaining families feel very pessimistic about government promises because they usually take many years to materialize.”