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‘The green land is a barren desert’: water scarcity hits Iraq’s Fertile Crescent

In the heart of a region known as the Fertile Crescent, Abdul Hadi Mizher dug a well on his family farm. The Iraqi farmer drilled 16m into the hard earth. But despite the depth, not a single drop of water emerged.

Iraq has had a particularly dry summer but Mizher’s family have been here for four generations, growing wheat and vegetables and raising cows and this year is exceptional.

“The green land has been transformed into a barren desert,” says Mizher, 35. “I don’t remember seeing this in my lifetime.”

Water levels in the country’s great rivers Euphrates and Tigris, on whose ancient banks Mesopotamia’s civilisations emerged 8,000 years ago, have dropped by half.

Abdul Hadi Mizher tries to draw water from a 16m deep well he drilled on this farm.
Abdul Hadi Mizher tries to draw water from a 16m deep well he drilled on this farm. Photograph: Muntadher Adel

Government officials say the culprit is the upstream proliferation of hydrology projects by neighbouring Turkey and Iran, a longstanding problem compounded by poor water management and steady decline in rainfall.

Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable nation to climate crisis. It is also an oil-rich country that has been raking in $10bn (£8.3bn) in monthly revenues amid soaring prices. But corruption is endemic, and successive governments have failed to prepare for what experts warn is coming.

“The people in charge aren’t looking at the country’s future. All they care about is how much they are benefiting from the positions they are holding,” says Nadhir al-Ansari, an Iraqi water engineer and professor at Sweden’s Luleå University. “The people who have taken over the water ministry have no expertise.”

Al-Ansari’s research predicts that precipitation in Iraq will decrease by 15-20% this century, reducing the water in the Tigris and Euphrates by up to 73%, with grave implications for groundwater levels.

The consequences have already been devastating for farmers who rely on the rivers. Mizher’s crops failed completely this year, leaving his family of 13 without an income. The farmer has begun selling off his emaciated cows for a fraction of their usual price, eroding the farm’s asset base.

“The primary responsibility is with the Iraqi government to provide the infrastructure,” Mizher says. “There’s no planning, no support for the farmers.”

The Iraqi government did not respond to requests for comment.

Iraq’s agricultural sector has faced decades of decline due to conflict, lack of investment and global heating, with farmers’ margins squeezed by the rising cost of inputs and cheap agricultural imports. Rather than modernising the sector, the government said it would reduce farmland by half this year in response to the drought, a painful blow to a sector employing 18% of the population.

Mizher’s farm is a few kilometres west of the ancient city of Babylon, whose empire flourished in the second millennium BC thanks to King Hammurabi’s expansion of Sumerian irrigation networks. Iraq still relies on the same, open-surface irrigation methods.

The Mizher family’s crops have failed, with their once-fertile land dried out.
The Mizher family’s crops have failed, with their once-fertile land dried out. Photograph: Muntadher Adel

“With the current technique, which has been used for 8,000 years, water losses are very high,” says al-Ansari.

Irrigation water in Iraq flows through a network of open-air canals, resulting in high rates of evaporation in summer, when temperatures exceed 50C. More water is squandered when it reaches the fields, as farmers use wasteful flood techniques instead of more precise drip or sprinkler irrigation.

Authorities have resorted to rationing. Mizher’s irrigation canal, an offshoot from a tributary of the Euphrates, is flooded only once every three weeks. By the time the water reaches the farm, it has been reduced to a trickle, hardly enough to meet household needs let alone water the fields.

The crops have withered away, including grass intended for cattle feed. One of the cows is already too weak to stand, her calf begging for milk she cannot produce.

“This is the first victim, but I expect there will be many more by the end of the summer,” Mizher says. Unable to afford fodder, he has sold 11 of the family’s 17 cattle for as little as $20 each. They would usually fetch between $800 and $1,000.

The lack of water has heightened age-old tensions along the irrigation canal between farms, with accusations of diverting more water than is fair. “There is no oversight by the government to impose sanctions on those who overuse the water,” says Mizher, whose farm is downsteam.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced across southern Iraq due to water scarcity. Many have headed for overcrowded cities, where the lack of jobs and services has stirred unrest.

So far Mizher is refusing to give up the farm. “This is the land of my ancestors.”

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