The Shatt al-Arab: increasingly salty. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )
Ali Taleb is starting to find his farm unaffordable and it’s all because of water. Taleb lives in the agricultural district in southern Iraq known as Abu Al Khaseeb and he usually buys tank water to irrigate plants in his small orchard, feed his animals and for his own needs. But the prices recently went up.
“The price for one [water] ton of usable water in Basra has risen from around 8,000 [around US$6] to 10,000 dinars,” Taleb told NIQASH, “because the desalination plants stopped working.”
It gets worse every summer but this year has been terrible, Taleb says.
There have been many promises but no practical steps.
The nearby city of Basra sits at the point where two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates meet in the Shatt al-Arab, and flow into the sea. And every year, there is what is known as salt-water intrusion into the Shatt al-Arab, from the seas of the Arabian Gulf. This makes the river water that was once farmed to irrigate farms and feed the city saltier, even, in some cases, too salty to use.
This year the saline water has come further inland than ever. Some even reached the Katiban river irrigation channel, which is supposed to be transporting fresh water between districts.
“The salinity now is unbearable,’ says Wissam al-Asadi, who heads the municipal agriculture department in one of the affected districts, Sayabia.
The saline levels have reached 4.4 parts per thousand, or ppt, in the Shatt al-Arab and around 1 in the irrigation channel, al-Asadi points out. “So the Katiban channel is almost useless.”
Seawater usually has a salinity level of around 35 ppt and rivers usually sit at around 0.5 ppt.
There are a number of well-documented reasons why this happens. The flow of the two major rivers has been decreased through lack of rainfall as well as the damming or diversion of the rivers themselves, or their tributaries, across the border and in other Iraqi provinces. For example, Iran has blocked its Karun river, which has an impact, and also pumps waste water and salt water over the border.
“The changes in the river water are reflected by environmental changes,” says Ahmed Jassim Hanoun, director of the department for the protection of the environment at Basra’s Ministry of the Environment. “We have seen the fresh water become suitable for marine life. We have even recorded sea fish in the rivers and that is pretty strange.”
The local authorities appear unable to do much about this deepening crisis, and one of the reasons for the recent spate of anti-government protests in Iraq.
“There have been many promises but no practical steps,” says Zahra al-Bajari, who heads the Basra council’s development and reconstruction committee. She would like to see more desalination plants built and the ones that were promised to Basra previously, completed, including a desalination plant in Haritha with the potential to provide 200,000 cubic meters of drinking water a day.
“The project was supposed to start operations this August but work stopped after the departure of international staff, because of the lack of security around the recent demonstrations,” al-Bajari said.
The Shatt al-Arab is “a dead river”, Alaa Hashim al-Badran, head of the union of agricultural engineers in Basra, complains. The concentration of salt in the water actually damages pipes and water tanks, he adds.
The salt water also causes problems inside domestic water tanks, he continues. When the tanks are heated and the temperature of the salt water rises, along with no water movement and a high nutrient content, the same kinds of algae blooms that affect open waterways can occur. Because of the colour, of the algae blooms, they’re often known as a “red tide”. This can happen inside private water tanks and can be poisonous.
Provincial official, Wissam al-Asadi, has first-hand experience of this. “My eight-month-old son’s feet were washed in this kind of water by mistake and he got a bad rash. Even my own doctor didn’t know how to treat him – he gave us two medications and advised us not to use that water again,” al-Asadi says.
And that is just the people of Basra. Animals have died in their thousands because of thirst and the salty conditions. Freshwater inhabitants like the Euphrates softshell turtles have died and nobody can find the wels catfish anymore.
Al-Badran says that this year, the saline water is bringing about a major environmental disaster. Yet somehow, before the anti-government protests spurred on, in part, by a lack of potable water, the Iraqi government did not appear ready, or able, to pay much attention.
“We’ve been warning the government about this since 2008,” al-Badran complains. “We have proposed growing animal feed that is resistant to saline water and establishing water basins for buffaloes, similar to those in the marshes set up by international organisations. But they don’t listen to us. In Baghdad discussions about a dam on the Shatt al-Arab have become ensnared in discussions that go nowhere.”
And, for the people of Basra, things may get even worse. The salty water is having an ongoing impact. For example, a fertilizer plant in Khor Al Zubair had to stop work because it depends on water from the Shatt al-Arab. That’s caused major financial losses. And there are growing fears that local thermal power stations which use the Shatt al-Arab water may also stop working. If the percentage of salt water goes up much more then there will be less fresh water that can be turned into steam and therefore, less power production.