Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraq: Drought Threatens Marshes

Iraq drought caused by natural, administrative and political factors prompted the Iraqis living near the marshes to migrate from their areas.

Iraq Drought Threatens Marshes
A man rows boat on Mesopotamian Marshes as the area dries up due to increasing temperatures and lack of rainfall in Nasiriyah, Iraq on July 09, 2023. Haidar Mohammed Ali / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

By the end of 2022, the river stage, population and wildlife of Iraqi marshes disappeared almost entirely. Such a thing comes as a result of dried-up water bodies and the low water levels of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

In July 2016, UNESCO placed the Iraqi marshes (the Ahwar) on the World Heritage List. Accordingly, the marshes became an international nature reserve spanning 35,000 square kilometres. However, by 2023, the marshes almost disappeared from the list.

The Iraqi Marshes

The Ahwar of Southern Iraq are located in the Mesopotamian Basin. This basin is a vast floodplain of wetlands formed by the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates. The area comprised the largest wetland ecosystem in western Eurasia. This rare desert water landscape is the natural habitat of essential wildlife.

The marshes form a triangular area bordered by three of southern Iraq’s largest cities: Nasiriyah to the west, Amarah to the northeast and Basra to the south. The Tigris and Euphrates branch out in this region.

A series of interconnected shallow freshwater lakes form seasonal floodplains, which usually overflow and merge into larger catchments during large floods. One of the most essential marshes is al-Chibayish, east of Nasiriyah. The al-Chibayish marshes are an extension of the Abu-Zark marsh and the Hammar marsh.

Badr Shaker al-Sayyab, an Iraqi poet, once wrote about the beauty of the Iraqi marshes. However, the marshes are now seeing an unprecedented retreat of water levels, triggering human migration and causing the loss of wildlife. Natural, administrative and political factors are all to blame. Political factors are directly related to the actions of neighbouring countries and their measures affecting the water level in the Tigris and Euphrates.


Forewarnings of drought in Iraq are alarming. Predictions indicate that its rivers may run dry entirely by 2040. On a visit to Iraq in March 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Iraq faces a risk of water shortage in the Tigris and Euphrates. Iraq should not be a riverless country. This is a challenge for the government.”

On the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought in 2022, a UN report stated that Iraq is among the top five countries most affected by climate change. The report pointed out that Iraq ranks 39th among countries experiencing water stress. The record low rainfall of 2021 – the second driest season in 40 years – led to water shortages, desertification and soil erosion.

The 2021 drought was not the first to affect the Arab world. In 2006, a NASA study confirmed that the Middle East was experiencing its worst drought in 900 years. According to NASA, the situation has been worsening ever since.

Drought is the primary culprit in the unprecedented drop in water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries. Other factors are attributed to Iran and Turkey. Khalid Shammal, spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, said, “Iraq receives less than 30 per cent of the water it is entitled to from the Tigris and Euphrates because of the construction of dams without coordination with Iraq.”

Turkish Dams

The Euphrates and Tigris originate in Turkey. The Tigris is approximately 1,718 km long and crosses the Syrian-Turkish border, flowing through Syria for about 50 km before entering Iraq. Notably, it runs mostly within Iraqi territory, around 1,400 km.

The Tigris used to meet the Euphrates at Qurna in southern Iraq to form the Shatt al-Arab River, which flows into the Gulf. However, the course of the Euphrates has changed and now meets the Tigris in the Karma area near Basra.

The Euphrates originates in the Taurus Mountains in Turkey and enters Syrian territory in Jarabulus, where it connects with the Balikh and Khabur Rivers. It enters Iraq at the city of al-Qa’im in the Anbar governorate. The length of the Euphrates from its source in Turkey to its mouth in Shatt al-Arab is about 2,940 km, 1,176 km in Turkey, 610 km in Syria and 1,160 km in Iraq.

Turkey built 22 dams in the two rivers, 14 in the Euphrates and 8 in the Tigris. These dams directly affect the flow of water towards Syria and Iraq. The dams were part of the enormous Turkish Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). Turkey views this project as a development initiative for the eastern Anatolia region, providing a water storage capacity of 100 billion cubic metres. This capacity is three times larger than the storage capacity of all dams in Iraq and Syria combined.

In 2006, the cornerstone was laid for Turkey’s largest project and the third largest in the world: the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris.

In June 2018, Turkey announced it started filling the dam’s reservoir. Since the dam’s construction, according to Iraqi officials and experts, the Tigris’ water supply at the Turkish border fell from around 21 billion cubic metres to 9.7 billion cubic metres per year.

Similarly, the Ataturk Dam in the Euphrates River was constructed. This dam is the oldest of Turkey’s colossal dams and the centrepiece of the Southeastern Anatolia Project. The dam forms a lake of the same name, the third-largest in Turkey.

These dams, viewed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his country’s legitimate right, have reduced the share of water that Syria and Iraq receive. Turkey denies that the decline in Syria and Iraq’s share of water is the result of the construction of Turkish dams. It attributes the drought to the exploitation of water resources.

Historically, Turkey considers the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris its own, as former Turkish Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel exclaimed in 1993 when the Ataturk Dam was inaugurated.

At the time, Demirel said, “The water that originates from Turkey belongs to Turkey. Oil belongs to the countries where it originates. We don’t say we share their oil resources, nor can they say they share our water resources. Everyone should realise that the Tigris and Euphrates are not international rivers.”

For this very reason, Turkey does not agree to conclude any international agreement to ration water under the principles of international law.

The drought crisis has recently highlighted the issue again, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani attempted to revive the matter. The two countries agreed to form a joint committee to solve the water problem.

Iran: Cutting Tributaries

In the summer of 2011, an Iraqi government source in the Demarcation Commission reported that the Iranian side had informed the Commission it would intercept all water flowing to Iraq. At the time, Iran had already cut off more than 45 tributaries and seasonal streams that fed Iraq’s marshes and rivers.

In 2011, the Iraqi government announced that Iran had cut off the sources of the 50-kilometre-long Alwand River, thereby preventing it from entering Iraq entirely. This predicament dates back to 1960, during the Shah’s reign, when Tehran established a dam on the river and deprived the city of Khanaqin of water. Iran has also constructed dams in the Mandali and Naft Khaneh valleys that straddle the border with Iraq, cutting off the water supply to the Iraqi side.

Dr Jamal Ibrahim al-Halbousi, an expert at the al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, stated that “Iran has built more than 80 dams to cut off the 42 shared rivers and waterways defined by the independent protocol of the Algiers Agreement. These are 11 rivers in Sulaymaniyah, 17 in Diyala, 4 in Kut, 7 in Amarah and 3 in Basra.”

Passing the Bucket to the Next Government

The Iraqi National Charter, a coalition of independent parties, holds successive Iraqi governments since 2003 responsible for the drought, accusing them of “colluding with Iran in cutting off the tributaries even though they have had a greater impact on Iraq than the Turkish dams.”

The Charter also held governments responsible for eradicating the green spaces surrounding cities due to sectarian targeting of the residents of these areas to forcibly displace them.

Other parties fault the Iraqi regimes for similar issues, relating not only to the country’s low water levels and desertification but also to the neglect of infrastructure that contributes to sustainable water use. Another issue that governments have neglected is the decrease in green spaces in Iraq. The country that once boasted around 30 million palm trees currently has no more than 16 million trees left.

The disastrous drought in Iraq has forced thousands of families to abandon their villages as they can no longer make a living off what the marshes are producing. The same fate befell those engaged in agriculture on riverbeds and tributaries in neighbouring areas. The Diyala province is a prime example. Once dubbed the “Capital of the Oranges,” its green fields have turned into semi-desert areas practically devoid of life.

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