A boat on the Euphrates. (photo: عبد الله العنزي )
It is not a lack of water that is causing problems in Iraq’s central Dhi Qar province, says local farmer Ghazi Ajeel. It is the way it is distributed. There is conflict about how much water every landowner can take from irrigation canals and then the dispersal network is also old, prone to leaks and evaporation in the heat.
“The problem is painful and the government has not even tried to resolve it,” Ajeel told NIQASH. “I have to appeal to authorities and bureaucrats just in order to be able to take my share of water. If I didn’t though, all my crops would die.”
There is a vast network of irrigation canals in this area. It starts from the northern borders of the province and ends at the southern border to Basra province. The canals are essential to the livelihood of the farmers settled on all sides of them. But the size of the network really increases chances of losing water along the route and makes the farmers and their products more vulnerable to weather conditions.
There are around 9,000 kilometres worth of irrigation canals, Hussein al-Kanani, director of the local department of water resource, said. “But only around 300 kilometres of those are lined with materials that prevent leaks and losses,” he explained.
Around 40 percent of all of the water in these channels could be being wasted, suggests Jassim al-Asadi, a senior manager with Nature Iraq. The dirt channels narrow all the time because the water encourages the growth of reeds. These should be pruned back constantly but this doesn’t happen.
Miqdad al-Yasiri, a former president of the local agricultural association, believes that the canal problem could be remedied if all of the channels were mapped. After that, dilapidated or ineffective flood gates should be renovated and more gates could be installed, particularly in places where farmers living nearby could easily control them. He also thought a centrally-controlled electronic system would be a worthwhile investment.
"The best way to conserve water is through the adoption of modern methods,” al-Yasiri argued. “These would result in a closed irrigation system that ensures that water reaches farmers.”
A rainy winter has meant that Dhi Qar is safe from drought this season. In fact, there has been so much water that some of it had to be diverted out of high-rising rivers. Yet another threat to farmers’ survival are the rules set by local bureaucrats as to how much water each landowner may have. Ratios of land to water are set by the authorities and are based on how much water is available in dams. However current ratios would allow for the irrigation of only about one fifth of the arable land in Dhi Qar.
“Many farmers who are not included in this agricultural plan will have to water their land by their own efforts,” says Faraj Nahi, a director at the local department of agriculture.
The water department justifies certain farmers missing out with three reasons. Firstly, they say they must also supply drinking water from the province’s rivers. Secondly, they have to make sure enough water enters the southern marshes and, thirdly, they argue they need to maintain water levels at the Nasiriyah power plant.
It’s not just the local authorities causing problems with water. In past years, when water has been scarce, hoarding water and diverting supplies has led to violent conflicts in Dhi Qar too.
When one tribe has a dispute with another tribe, they may use the rivers that run through their properties as a weapon, explains Nasser Abed, a local farmer. For example, in one village a number of farmers dug out a streambed to irrigate their crops. Unfortunately cattle belonging to other farmers in a nearby village – members of another tribe – drowned in the new waterway. During the conflict that ensured, the tribe, on whose land the stream originated, then cut off the water supply to the other, offending village.