Baghdad (AFP), September 20 – It is the river that is said to have watered the biblical Garden of Eden and helped give birth to civilization itself.
But today, the Tiger is dying.
Human activity and climate change have choked off its once mighty flow through Iraq, where – along with its sister river the Euphrates – it made Mesopotamia a cradle of civilization thousands of years ago.
Iraq may be oil-rich, but the country is plagued by poverty after decades of war, drought and desertification.
Battered by one natural disaster after another, it is one of the five countries most at risk from climate change, according to the UN.
Starting in April, temperatures soar above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and intense sandstorms often turn the skies orange, blanketing the country in a film of dust.
Hellish summers see the mercury reach 50 degrees Celsius – near the limit of human endurance – with frequent power outages knocking out air conditioning for millions.
The Tigris, the lifeline linking the fabled cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, has been choked by dams, mostly upstream in Turkey, and rainfall.
An AFP video reporter traveled the 1,500 kilometers of the river’s course through Iraq, from the rugged Kurdish north to the gulf in the south, to document the ecological disaster that is forcing people to change their old way of life.
– Kurdish North: ‘Less water every day’ –
The Tiger’s journey through Iraq begins in the mountains of autonomous Kurdistan, near the borders of Turkey and Syria, where local people herd sheep and grow potatoes.
“Our life depends on the Tiger,” said farmer Pibo Hassan Dolmassa, 41, wearing a dusty coat, in the town of Faysh Khabur. “All our work, our agriculture depends on it.
“Before, the water flowed in torrents”, he says, but for two or three years “there is less water every day”.
The Iraqi government and Kurdish farmers accuse Turkey, where the Tigris rises, of holding back water in its dams, drastically reducing the flow to Iraq.
According to official Iraqi statistics, the level of the Tigris entering Iraq has dropped to just 35% of its average over the past century.
Baghdad regularly asks Ankara to release more water.
But Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Guney, urged Iraq to “use available water more efficiently”, tweeting in July that “water is largely wasted in Iraq”.
He may be right, experts say. Iraqi farmers tend to flood their fields, as they have done since Sumerian times, rather than irrigating them, resulting in huge water losses.
– Central Plains: ‘We sold everything’ –
All that’s left of the Diyala River, a tributary that meets the Tigris near the capital Baghdad in the central plains, are puddles of stagnant water dotting its parched bed.
The drought has dried up the watercourse essential to agriculture in the region.
This year, authorities have been forced to halve cultivated areas in Iraq, meaning no crops will be grown in the hard-hit Diyala governorate.
“We will be forced to abandon agriculture and sell our animals,” said Abu Mehdi, 42, who wears a white djellaba.
“We were displaced by the war” against Iran in the 1980s, he says, “and now we are going to be displaced by water. Without water, we cannot live in these areas at all.
The farmer went into debt to dig a 30-meter (100-foot) well in an attempt to get water. “We sold everything,” Abu Mehdi said, but “it was a failure.”
The World Bank warned last year that much of Iraq is likely to face a similar fate.
“By 2050, a one degree Celsius increase in temperature and a 10% decrease in precipitation would lead to a 20% reduction in available fresh water,” he said.
“Under these circumstances, almost a third of the irrigated land in Iraq will have no water.”
Water scarcity hitting agriculture and food security are already among the “main drivers of rural exodus” in Iraq, the UN and several non-governmental groups said in June.
And the International Organization for Migration said last month that “climatic factors” had displaced more than 3,300 families in central and southern regions of Iraq in the first three months of this year.
“Climate migration is already a reality in Iraq,” IOM said.
– Baghdad: sandbanks and pollution –
This summer in Baghdad, the level of the Tigris fell so low that people played volleyball in the middle of the river, splashing barely waist deep in its waters.
The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources blames silt for the reduced flow of the river, with sand and soil once washed downstream now settling to form sandbars.
Until recently, authorities in Baghdad used heavy machinery to dredge silt, but with cash tight, work has slowed.
Years of war have destroyed much of Iraq’s water infrastructure, with many towns, factories, farms and even hospitals abandoned to dump their waste directly into the river.
As Greater Baghdad’s sewage and trash pour into the shrinking Tigris, the pollution creates a concentrated toxic soup that threatens marine life and human health.
Environmental policies have not been a high priority for Iraqi governments grappling with political, security and economic crises.
Ecological awareness also remains low among the general public, said activist Hajer Hadi of the group Green Climate, even though “every Iraqi feels climate change through rising temperatures, falling rainfall, falling levels of water and dust storms,” she said.
– South: salt water, dead palm trees –
“See those palm trees? They are thirsty,” said Molla al-Rached, a 65-year-old farmer, pointing to the brown skeletons of what was once a verdant palm grove.
“They need water! Should I try to douse them with a glass of water? he asked bitterly. “Or with a bottle?”
“There is no fresh water, there is no more life,” says the peasant, a beige keffiyeh wrapped around his head.
He lives in Ras al-Bisha where the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Shatt al-Arab, flows into the Gulf, near the borders with Iran and Kuwait.
In nearby Basra – once dubbed the Venice of the Middle East – many depleted waterways are choked with trash.
To the north, much of the famous Mesopotamian marshes – the vast wetland home to the “Marsh Arabs” and their unique culture – have been reduced to desert since Saddam Hussein drained them in the 1980s to punish his population.
But another threat weighs on the Shatt al-Arab: the salty water of the Gulf pushes always more upstream as the flow of the river decreases.
The UN and local farmers say increased salinization is already affecting crop yields, a trend that is expected to worsen as global warming causes sea levels to rise.
Al-Rashed said he had to buy water from tankers for his livestock, and now wildlife is invading populated areas in search of water.
“My government does not provide me with water,” he said. “I want water, I want to live. I want to plant, like my ancestors.
– River delta: a fisherman’s ordeal –
Standing barefoot in his boat like a Venetian gondolier, fisherman Naim Haddad takes him home as the sun sets over the waters of Shatt al-Arab.
“From father to son, we have dedicated our lives to fishing,” says the forty-year-old holding the catch of the day.
In a country where grilled carp is the national dish, the father of eight is proud to receive “no government salary, no allowance”.
But salinization takes its toll as it drives out the most prized freshwater species which are replaced by sea fish.
“In the summer we have salt water,” Haddad said. “Sea water rises and comes here.”
Last month, local authorities reported that salt levels in the river north of Basra had reached 6,800 parts per million, almost seven times that of fresh water.
Haddad cannot switch to sea fishing because his small boat is not suitable for the rougher waters of the Gulf, where he would also risk running into the Iranian and Kuwaiti coastguards.
And so the fisherman is left at the mercy of Iraq’s narrowing rivers, his fate tied to theirs.
“If the water goes away,” he said, “the fishing goes away.” And so it is with our livelihood.