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IS 'Water War' Dries Marshes In Southern Iraq

A man walks on dry, cracked earth in the Chibayish marshes near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
A man walks on dry, cracked earth in the Chibayish marshes near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

In the 1990s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein drained the marshes of southern Iraq in order to punish the indigenous Shi'ite tribes that opposed him after the first Gulf War.

The desiccation of the marshes destroyed wildlife and the livelihoods of the local people who herded water buffalo there.

In 2003, the marshes were re-flooded and and many local buffalo breeders returned to the area.

But now, dozens of the buffalo herders are leaving again.

A buffalo breeder with his herd in the Al-Himar marshes near Nasiriyah in 2013.
A buffalo breeder with his herd in the Al-Himar marshes near Nasiriyah in 2013.

Areas of marshlands in the Al-Chibayish district of Dhi Qar Province are once again being deliberately dried out, according to pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat.

But while in the 1990s, Saddam was responsible for creating an environmental disaster in the marshes, the culprit this time is Islamic State (IS), which has cut off water supplies to the area after capturing dams along the Euphrates River to the north.

"History is repeating itself all over again," Sheikh Muhammad al-Asadi, an elder from the marshes, told Asharq Alawsat on June 19.

It is as if IS has the same mentality as Saddam, Asadi added.

Water Crisis

Water security in Iraq was a serious issue for many years before the advent of IS.

Even before the current crisis, overuse, pollution, and population growth had stretched the resources of the Euphrates River, the main source of water for 27 million people not just in Iraq but in Syria and Turkey, too.

"The control of water barrages and hydroelectric works have always been of great geostrategic importance in Iraq," says Matthew Machowski, a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Little wonder, then, that IS has taken strategic locations along the Euphrates in both Iraq and in Syria, where it has controlled the Tabqah Dam since early 2013.

Iraqi officials say that since IS's capture of the Ramadi dam in Iraq's Anbar Province last month, water shortages have worsened.

IS has partially closed the dam, a move that has forced more water from the Euphrates into Habaniyah Lake. Provincial security officials warned recently that "dire consequences and an environmental catastrophe" would be "inevitable" unless something was done.

Iraq's southern marshes are on the brink of that catastrophe.

An Iraqi man walks past canoes siting on dry land in the Chibayish marshes near Nasiriyah on June 25, 2015.
An Iraqi man walks past canoes siting on dry land in the Chibayish marshes near Nasiriyah on June 25, 2015.

"In an area where summer temperatures and the risk of drought are high, and the levels of basic sanitation extremely poor, any effort to disrupt the flow of water may have catastrophic results," says Machowski.

Dhi Qar Governor Yahya al-Nassiri, who toured the marshlands near Chabaish last week, said the area is facing a "disaster" and that local livestock and fishing industries are threatened with complete destruction.

And Saadi al-Majid, the director of Dhi Qar's Health Department, told Asharq Alawsat on June 26 that the province faces a cholera outbreak because of the water shortages in the marshes around the provincial capital, Nasiriyah, and the resultant impact on drinking water.

IS's 'Water War'

While the Dhi Qar marshlands face an environmental and public-health catastrophe, the IS "water war" is affecting other provinces and areas as well.

According to Furat al-Timimi of Iraq's parliamentary Agriculture and Water Committee, since IS took control of the Ramadi dam, the militants have been able to control the water reaching Babel, Karbala, Najaf, and Qadisiyah provinces.

The flow of water in the Euphrates River has dropped below 50 percent of its normal rate of 200 cubic meters per second since IS took over the Ramadi barrage, Tamimi told Radio Free Iraq on June 22.

Riadh Adday of the Babel Provincial Council said on June 20 that thousands of square kilometers of farms and orchards in Babel are dying because they are not receiving sufficient water. The drought is also threatening the province's animal resources.

Blaming Turkey

But the water shortages in the south of Iraq are not only caused by IS, Iraqi officials say.

Tamimi said that Iraq was already suffering from a shortfall in water from the Euphrates because Turkey reduced the water flow.

"As we have learned from the Syrian government, the Turkish side is not adhering to the agreed-upon quantities [to be] released by them. The three-party agreement between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq requires Turkey to release 500 cubic meters per second of the river's water but it has not done so," Timimi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq.

Syria has also complained that Turkey is failing to supply enough water. Syrian Water Resources Minister Kamal al-Sheikha told his Iraqi counterpart, Mohsin al-Shammari, earlier this month that Turkey had violated water-sharing agreements.

But even if Turkey were to increase the volume of water it allowed into Iraq, that would not reduce the threat from IS.

IS could cause considerable damage if it sabotages or otherwise mismanages the Ramadi and Fallujah dams, Ali Hashem, director general of the Engineering Design Center at the Water Resources Ministry, told Radio Free Iraq.

A boat on the marshes (file photo)
A boat on the marshes (file photo)

"The worst damage will be in Anbar, followed by the other provinces," Hashem said.

IS's control of the dam could have other implications for IS, which is likely to use its control over Iraqi water resources to gain tactical and military advantages.

"The water of the Euphrates has up till now served as a natural frontier between the IS and government-controlled territories. Soon enough the Iraqi forces -- already arguably stretched to their limits -- may have to extend their frontier lines beyond the bridge crossings south of Ramadi," QMUL's Machowski said.

"The front lines of Anbar Province may soon become much easier to penetrate for the IS insurgents."

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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