Below-average rainfall and insufficient water in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have left Iraq bone dry for a second straight year, wrecking swaths of farm land, threatening drinking water supplies and intensifying fierce sandstorms that have coated the country in brown dust.
The drought has dealt a harsh blow to hopes that reductions in sectarian violence over the last year would fuel an economic recovery. Instead, the government's budget suffered a double-hit: Lower than expected oil prices have crimped revenues and the scarcity of water will force Iraq to spend money to import most of the crops, especially wheat and rice, to meet domestic demand.
"Look at this land. There is no water," said Ashur Mohamed Ahmood, slipping the tip of his black cane into deep cracks in his parched field. He cautioned children not to run, fearing their small bare feet would get stuck in the crevices crisscrossing the farm on the outskirts of Baghdad.
"Without water there are no plants. This is the plant," he says, uprooting a weed and throwing it back to the ground.
Historically, Iraq has been one of the more fertile nations in the region, thanks to the Tigris and Euphrates, which flow southeasterly through the entire nation. But for a second year, cropland in the north and west is parched and farmers in south and central Iraq are suffering from low water flows in both rivers — a phenomenon caused in part by the construction of dams built in neighboring Turkey and Syria.
"Which country closed the water on us?" Ahmood asked, reflecting the common belief among Iraqis that their country's neighbors are responsible for their plight. "Let them open the water for us so we can live here and water our plants."
As farmers complain of their ruined crops, the drought can be felt across the nation as gritty sandstorms lash Iraqis with increased frequency this summer. Last week's storm left tree leaves and vehicles coated with what looks like tan talcum powder.
Sandstorms hit more often
A decline in acreage where plant roots once knitted the soil has only increased the severity of sandstorms, which are blowing across Iraq with increased frequency — nearly 20 so far this year. Two people died in the eastern city of Kut, and hundreds of Iraqis complaining of respiratory problems crowded emergency rooms across Iraq during the most recent three-day sandstorm, which many said was the worst in memory.
The storms often ground commercial flights. They scuttled U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's scheduled trip earlier this month from Baghdad to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where much of the country's wheat is grown.
Adding to the farmers' difficulties, the dwindling water supplies are suffering from high amounts of salt. "The impact of the drought will continue for years to come unless there will be huge efforts to bring in modern irrigation systems and abundant water to drain areas affected with high levels of salinity," said Mahdi al-Qaisi, undersecretary of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Desertification, especially in mid- and southern Iraq, has been accelerated by people cutting down trees for firewood, underinvestment and the pounding the land has taken from military vehicles and operations, he said.
The severity of the drought has resulted in a testy water dispute between Iraq and Turkey, which has built five dams along the Euphrates upstream from where it enters western Iraq. The quarrel recently cooled when Turkey agreed to release more water from its dams.
Aoun Thiab Abdullah, director of the Iraqi Water Resources Ministry's national water resources center, said Iraq needs at least 500 cubic meters of water a second to flow from the Euphrates — nearly twice the current level — so that it can meet its needs in the south, especially in the areas where rice is grown.
This year's grain harvest was forecast to be among the worst in a decade — virtually unchanged from last year and down about 45 percent from a normal year's harvest, according to Michael Shean at the U.S. Agriculture Department's foreign agriculture service. Rice won't be harvested until October, but water shortages earlier this year prompted Iraq to cut its rice crop in half in central and southern provinces.
Alewi al-Shimmari, a father of six in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, used to grow rice on his entire 100-acre farm, but the drought has left all but 12 acres useless for farming.
"More than 50 percent of families working as farmers left their villages and went to the city," al-Shimmari said. "Lands that once were green farms are now turned to desert."
U.S. State Department reconstruction teams in Anbar, an arid province in western Iraq, are helping Iraqis to continue drawing water from depleted lakes and ensure that water treatment plants can adequately treat the supply of drinking water.
They say some lakes in Anbar Province are 9 to 12 yards lower this year compared with last year. The water is so low that water intake pipes are exposed and cannot suck the water up into treatment plants.
What water can be drawn is heavy with sediment. That coupled with increased salinity, sewage waste dumped into the Euphrates and agricultural runoff is making it increasingly difficult for water treatment plants to cleanse the supply of drinking water.
Snakes add to plight
As if ongoing bombings and drought weren't enough, Hassan al-Asadi, a member of the Dhi Qar provincial council in southern Iraq, said that a few months ago, water snakes that had lost their natural habitat along the rivers started to show up around houses near al-Chibaiysh marshland.
"The snakes were looking for food and dozens of people were bitten," he said, adding that for a time, Iraqi soldiers and policemen were shooting about 70 wayward snakes a day.