Twilight of the Tigris: Iraq’s mighty river drying up

Twilight of the Tigris: Iraq’s mighty river drying up
The Tigris, the lifeline connecting the cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, has been choked by dams, most of them upstream in Turkey, and falling rainfall. (AFP)
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Updated 20 September 2022

Twilight of the Tigris: Iraq’s mighty river drying up

Twilight of the Tigris: Iraq’s mighty river drying up
  • Human activity and climate change have choked its once mighty flow

BAGHDAD: It was the river that is said to have watered the biblical Garden of Eden and helped give birth to civilization itself.

But today the Tigris is dying. Human activity and climate change have choked its once mighty flow through Iraq, where — with its twin 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 and by droughts and desertification.

Battered by one natural disaster after another, it is one of the five countries most exposed to climate change, according to the UN.

From April on, temperatures exceed 35 degrees Celsius and intense sandstorms often turn the sky orange, covering the country in a film of dust.

Hellish summers see the mercury top a blistering 50 degrees Celsius — near the limit of human endurance — with frequent power cuts shutting down air-conditioning for millions.

The Tigris, the lifeline connecting the storied cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, has been choked by dams, most of them upstream in Turkey, and falling rainfall.

An AFP video journalist traveled along the river’s 1,500-km 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 ancient way of life.

The Tigris’ journey through Iraq begins in the mountains of autonomous Kurdistan, near the borders of Turkey and Syria, where local people raise sheep and grow potatoes.

“Our life depends on the Tigris,” 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 was pouring in torrents,” he said, but over the last two or three years “there is less water every day.”

Iraq’s government and Kurdish farmers accuse Turkey, where the Tigris has its source, of withholding water in its dams, dramatically reducing the flow into Iraq.

According to Iraqi official statistics, the level of the Tigris entering Iraq has dropped to just 35 percent 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 the available water more efficiently,” tweeting in July that “water is largely wasted in Iraq.”

He may have a point, say experts. Iraqi farmers tend to flood their fields, as they have done since ancient Sumerian times, rather than irrigate them, resulting in huge water losses.

All that is left of the River Diyala, a tributary that meets the Tigris near the capital Baghdad in the central plains, are puddles of stagnant water dotting its parched bed.

Drought has dried up the watercourse that is crucial to the region’s agriculture. This year authorities have been forced to reduce Iraq’s cultivated areas by half, meaning no crops will be grown in the badly hit Diyala governorate.

“We will be forced to give up farming and sell our animals,” said Abu Mehdi, 42, who wears a white djellaba robe. “We were displaced by the war” against Iran in the 1980s, he said, “and now we are going to be displaced because of water. Without water, we can’t live in these areas at all.” The farmer went into debt to dig a 30-meter well to try 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 temperature increase of one degree Celsius and a precipitation decrease of 10 percent would cause a 20 percent reduction of available freshwater,” it said.

“Under these circumstances, nearly one-third of the irrigated land in Iraq will have no water.”

Water scarcity hitting farming and food security are already among the “main drivers of rural-to-urban migration” in Iraq, the UN and several nongovernment groups said in June.

And the International Organization for Migration said last month that “climate factors” had displaced more than 3,300 families in Iraq’s central and southern areas in the first three months of this year.

“Climate migration is already a reality in Iraq,” the IOM said.

This summer in Baghdad, the level of the Tigris dropped so low that people played volleyball in the middle of the river, splashing barely waist-deep through its waters.

Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources blames silt because of the river’s reduced flow, with sand and soil once washed downstream now settling to form sandbanks.

Until recently the Baghdad authorities used heavy machinery to dredge the silt, but with cash tight, work has slowed.

Years of war have destroyed much of Iraq’s water infrastructure, with many cities, factories, farms and even hospitals left to dump their waste straight into the river.

As sewage and rubbish from Greater Baghdad 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 struggling with political, security and economic crises.

Ecological awareness also remains low among the general public, said activist Hajjer Hadi of the Green Climate group, even if “every Iraqi feels climate change through rising temperatures, lower rainfall, falling water levels and dust storms,” she said. “You see these 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 irrigate them with a glass of water?” he asked bitterly. “Or with a bottle?“

“There is no fresh water, there is no more life,” said the farmer, a beige keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his head. He lives at Ras Al-Bisha where the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt Al-Arab, empties into the Gulf, near the borders with Iran and Kuwait.

In nearby Basra — once dubbed the Venice of the Middle East — many of the depleted waterways are choked with rubbish.

To the north, much of the once famed 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 its population.

But another threat is impacting the Shatt Al-Arab: Salt water from the Gulf is pushing ever further upstream as the river flow declines.

The UN and local farmers say rising salination is already hitting farm yields, in a trend set to worsen as global warming raises sea levels.

Al-Rached said he has to buy water  from tankers for his livestock, and wildlife is now encroaching into settled areas in search of water.

“My government doesn’t provide me with water,” he said. “I want water, I want to live. I want to plant, like my ancestors.”

Standing barefoot in his boat like a Venetian gondolier, fisherman Naim Haddad steers it home as the sun sets on the waters of the Shatt Al-Arab.

“From father to son, we have dedicated our lives to fishing,” said the 40-year-old holding up the day’s catch.

In a country where grilled carp is the national dish, the father of eight is proud that he receives “no government salary, no allowances.”

But salination is taking its toll as it pushes out the most prized freshwater species which are replaced by ocean fish.

“In the summer, we have salt water,” said Haddad. “The seawater rises and comes here.”

Last month local authorities reported that salt levels in the river north of Basra reached 6,800 parts per million — nearly seven times that of fresh water.

Haddad can’t switch to fishing at sea because his small boat is unsuitable for the choppier Gulf waters, where he would also risk run-ins with the Iranian and Kuwaiti coast guards. And so the fisherman is left at the mercy of Iraq’s shrinking rivers, his fate tied to theirs. “If the water goes,” he said, “the fishing goes. And so does our livelihood.”

OIC welcomes UN resolutions on Palestinian cause

OIC welcomes UN resolutions on Palestinian cause
Updated 25 sec ago

OIC welcomes UN resolutions on Palestinian cause

OIC welcomes UN resolutions on Palestinian cause

JEDDAH: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) welcomed the UN General Assembly’s adoption of five crucial resolutions on Palestine and the Middle East, including a text that calls on Israel to cease all actions aimed at ‘altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.‘
The Assembly adopted resolutions related to the mandate and work of the Committee on the “Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the Division of Palestinian Rights in the United Nations Secretariat,” the media program on the Palestinian cause and the basic principles of a “peaceful solution” to the Palestinian cause.
It also adopted a resolution to commemorate Nakba Day, when Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948 following the foundation of Israel.
The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said, during the debate that Israeli exceptionalism has only emboldened Israel’s worst instincts, a UN Assembly noted.
“Today the Assembly will finally acknowledge the historical injustice that befell the Palestinian people, adopting a resolution that decides to commemorate in the Assembly Hall the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nakba,” it added.
The OIC praised the positions of the countries that contributed to sponsoring and supporting these resolutions, affirming their commitment to international law and in line with their historical positions based on the principles of truth, justice and peace, state news agency SPA meanwhile reported.

Unified strategy needed to resolve water shortage in Arab world, Egypt conference hears

Unified strategy needed to resolve water shortage in Arab world, Egypt conference hears
Updated 02 December 2022

Unified strategy needed to resolve water shortage in Arab world, Egypt conference hears

Unified strategy needed to resolve water shortage in Arab world, Egypt conference hears

CAIRO: The fourth Arab Water Conference titled “Arab Water Security for Life, Development and Peace,” organized by Palestine, the Arab League and the Arab Water Experts Network in Cairo, kicked off on Nov. 30.

The two-day conference was held under the auspices of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with the participation of ministers of water resources as well as delegations from Arab countries and concerned regional organizations.

The conference on Wednesday and Thursday included working sessions and presentations of scientific papers dealing with issues related to water scarcity, drought and climate change.

Among the topics addressed were challenges posed by water scarcity and solutions to these, water demand and drought management, climate change, shared water resources and water diplomacy.

The conference also covered water desalination technology, the management of groundwater resources, the financing of and investment in the water sector, and challenges related to water in the Arab region.

Abbas, in a speech delivered on his behalf by Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amr, stressed that resolving the issue of water shortage in the Arab world requires developing a unified and comprehensive strategy that defends the right to water in the face of occupation, exploitation, or encroachment. It also entails the development of plans to confront water and food deficits due to existing challenges.

Abbas said: “Arab water security poses a major challenge to nearly 453 million Arab citizens, and it is an issue that captures the attention of Arab countries, as represented by the Arab League’s decision to establish the Council of Arab Water Ministers.”

He added that the transnational waters of the Arab world are a matter of security.

“We stand with our brothers in Egypt and Sudan in their demands on everything related to the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and in ensuring that their water, agricultural or energy-related security is not compromised,” Abbas said.

He called for reaching a binding legal agreement between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, in line with the statement issued by the UN Security Council in September 2021, in a manner that perpetuates cooperation and consolidates common interests among the peoples of the region.

He also called for joint Arab cooperation to find alternative sources of water for major projects that benefit everyone in light of the severe water shortage in Arab countries.

Hani Sweilem, Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation, affirmed that the water issue in Egypt is one of the most important pillars of Egyptian national security and a major axis in achieving sustainable development. 

He said Egypt is one of the driest countries in the world, as rainfall in the country is estimated to be 1.3 billion cubic meters annually.

He said 97 percent of Egypt’s water depends on the Nile, which comes from outside its borders.

Over the years, the per capita share of water in Egypt decreased to about 560 cubic meters annually, compared to the global water poverty line, which determines the per capita share at 1,000 cubic meters annually, Sweilem said.

Egypt, Greece carry out joint air exercise MENA-II

Egypt, Greece carry out joint air exercise MENA-II
Updated 02 December 2022

Egypt, Greece carry out joint air exercise MENA-II

Egypt, Greece carry out joint air exercise MENA-II

CAIRO: The Egyptian and Greek air forces carried out the joint air exercise MENA-II with the participation of multirole combat aircraft.

The exercise comes within the framework of supporting and strengthening military cooperation relations with friendly and brotherly countries, said Egyptian military spokesman Gharib Abdel-Hafez.

The training included the implementation of a number of theoretical lectures to unify concepts, refine skills, and coordinate the management of joint operations in various methods of modern air combat.

Multirole fighters from both sides carried out joint sorties to train in attacking hostile targets and defending vital assets efficiently.

The training showed the extent to which the participating personnel have reached a high level of professionalism in carrying out all tasks, Abdel-Hafez said. 

The training “reflects the extent to which the air forces of both countries possess advanced human and technical capabilities that qualify them for joint action under various circumstances,” he added.

According to the Egyptian military, the training is an extension of a series of joint exercises being conducted in light of the Egyptian and Greek armed forces’ growing partnership and military cooperation in a variety of fields.

The MEDUSA-12 drills lasted several days in the Mediterranean Sea last month, and forces from Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, and the US took part.

Observers from the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Germany, France, Romania, Congo, and Morocco were also present.

In August, Egyptian and Greek naval forces engaged in a joint exercise in the Mediterranean, within the range of the Egyptian Northern Fleet.

According to the Egyptian military, the drills contributed to exchanging joint experiences with Greek naval forces, and helped both sides achieve common aims and maintain maritime security and stability in the region.

Tunisia’s spicy harissa gets UNESCO heritage status

Tunisia’s spicy harissa gets UNESCO heritage status
Updated 02 December 2022

Tunisia’s spicy harissa gets UNESCO heritage status

Tunisia’s spicy harissa gets UNESCO heritage status
  • Harissa is a paste made with sun-dried hot peppers, freshly prepared spices and olive oil

TUNIS: UNESCO has added Tunisia’s spicy national condiment harissa to its list of intangible cultural heritage, saying it was part of the North African country’s identity.

The UN’s cultural agency is meeting in Morocco to examine proposals for its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to protect cultural traditions, practices and knowledge.

“Just inscribed on the #IntangibleHeritage List: Harissa, knowledge, skills and culinary and social practices,” it tweeted on Thursday.

Harissa is a paste made with sun-dried hot peppers, freshly prepared spices and olive oil, which preserves it and slightly reduces its spiciness. 

It is found in almost every restaurant in Tunisia and also exported worldwide.

Tunisia’s application for the status notes that harissa is “an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society,” usually prepared in a family or community setting.

“Harissa is used as a condiment, an ingredient, and even a dish in its own right, and is well-known throughout Tunisia, where it is consumed and produced, particularly in the regions where chilli peppers are grown,” it said.

“It is perceived as an identifying element of national culinary heritage, and a factor of social cohesion.”

The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage aims to safeguard and raise awareness about the “intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned.”

UNESCO stresses that the list honors traditions, practices and knowledge and all such forms of culture that are “human treasures” that must be protected.

On Wednesday, the organization also recognized French baguettes, adding them to more than 530 items on the list.

Lebanese parliament fails for 8th time to elect new president

Lebanese parliament fails for 8th time to elect new president
Updated 02 December 2022

Lebanese parliament fails for 8th time to elect new president

Lebanese parliament fails for 8th time to elect new president
  • UN official Filippo Grandi promises to help issue of Syrian refugees
  • ‘We are working with Damascus regime to remove serious obstacles,’ Grandi says

BEIRUT: Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has urged the international community to cooperate to help end the Syrian refugee crisis as parliament failed for the eighth time to elect a new president, further exacerbating his country’s political and economic strife.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri has scheduled the ninth election session for next Thursday.

Mikati met the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Thursday, and said: “The UN Human Rights Office and other relevant international organizations must coordinate with the Lebanese government through its competent bodies to solve this dilemma.

“This issue puts more pressure on Lebanon, since the country no longer has the financial, service and political capacity to bear the repercussions.

“The priority at this stage is to return the Syrian refugees successfully to their country after the situation there stabilizes.”

The delegation that accompanied Grandi on his visit to Beirut included UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Lebanon Ayaki Ito and UN Deputy Special Coordinator in Lebanon Imran Riza.

It is estimated there are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, about 880,000 of whom are registered with the UNHCR. Some 400,000 are workers.

Lebanon had aimed to deport 15,000 Syrian refugees per month, but lists were not approved, some families backed out of returning through fear, and international organizations warned of the forced return of refugees before security was established in Syria.

Mikati warned about two months ago that Lebanon could “take an undesirable position for Western countries by expelling Syrian refugees through legal means, if the international community does not cooperate.”

Grandi stressed the enormous challenges facing Lebanon following his meeting with Mikati.

He said: “Hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians and other refugees is a very stressful responsibility for the country.

“We discussed future prospects, and I expressed to him (Mikati) that the UN will continue its support, including humanitarian support for the Lebanese people and everyone living in the country.

“The OHCHR is responsible for the refugees, and we continue to mobilize international resources for them and for those who want to return to Syria.”

Grandi praised Lebanon’s support for the voluntary return of refugees.

He said: “We are working with the Syrian regime to remove the serious obstacles that have accumulated over the years that prevent people from returning.

“We have made some progress, but there is still more work for people to be confident in making the decision to return.

“There are many challenges in Syria as well, and I have always referred to the Security Council resolution, which stipulated the need for early recovery in Syria, and we must work with donors in this regard.”

Lebanese MPs failed to elect a new president on Thursday, despite 111 out of 128 attending the eighth election session.

MP Michel Moawad received 37 votes, while 52 blanks were cast by Hezbollah and its allies.

The MPs of Hezbollah and its allies left the voting hall as the second round lost its quorum.

Moawad said: “I do not reject dialogue and extend my hand to all parties to work together under the umbrella of the constitution.

“A president who forms an extension of the existing approach, or the so-called gray president who softens the edges, will deepen the collapse.”