The nation’s marshlands are receding at an alarming rate. As the waters are disappearing, so is a centuries-old way of life.
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Every morning at sunrise, Iraqi fisherman Ahmad Hassan Lelo emerges from his shack on the banks of the Tigris River in the heart of Baghdad, and every morning his heart breaks at the sight before him.
The once-mighty river that meandered past his home is a shadow of its former self. Its flowing waters—depleted by a devastating drought and dams and polluted by sewage and industrial waste—have become muddy and listless.
Mr. Lelo started to learn his trade by his father’s side as an 8-year-old boy, but today his primary source of income comes not from fishing but from ferrying people from one side of the river to the other in his small boat.
“This has been the worst year of my life,” the 56-year-old said. “The river is dead, and our livelihoods are dead with it.”
Mr. Lelo’s story is tragically common in a nation that has become a symbol of war, instability, poverty and vast arid deserts. Yet, until recently, this was not the case. Iraq takes its name from the Arabic word araqa, which can mean perspiring, deeply rooted and well-watered.
Millennia ago, Iraq’s abundant water supply made possible one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the glory of Mesopotamia within the Fertile Crescent. Yet the Mideast nation is now experiencing its worst drought in decades, and it is the 39th most water-stressed country globally, according to the United Nations.
The lush marshlands of southern Iraq—home to 500,000 farmers and fishermen in the 1950s—have long been known as the nation’s Garden of Eden. The ongoing environmental catastrophe has driven out everyone but fewer than 20,000 inhabitants now.
The year 2022 was Iraq’s driest year since 1930, a government adviser said in late September, depleting the country’s two main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, and fueling competition for water with neighboring countries.
Cradle of Civilization
While it is impossible to know exactly where the biblical Garden of Eden was located, Iraq has reason to use that term for its once-lush region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, emphasizes how verdant the Garden of Eden was thousands of years ago: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed…And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads” (2:7-8, 10).
Two of these “heads” were the now-ravaged Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Notice how God characterized the Euphrates when describing the Promised Land: “In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18).
The Tigris, referred to in the Bible as the Hiddekel, was also called “great” (Dan. 10:4).
What changed? Assuming the Iraq-Garden of Eden connection, how did the reputed waters that made Eden flourish become slow-moving channels of pollution? With access to waterways that were among Earth’s greatest resources, why are Mr. Lelo and so many others struggling to survive in professions that sustained previous generations of their ancestors?
Competition and Pollution
The basin of the Tigris, the second-largest river in Western Asia after the Euphrates, is shared by four countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
There are 14 dams along its course, and irrigation and hydroelectric projects are putting pressure on the river’s flows, according to the Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia, a report prepared by UN agencies.
Iraqi officials say lower river flows from upstream neighbors Iran and Turkey—which are building dams to ease their own lack of water—are worsening homegrown problems such as leaks, aging pipes and illegal siphoning of supplies.
Rising demand for water in Baghdad, a growing city of about 8 million people, is putting further strain on dwindling resources, while treatment plants are lacking, according to a 2022 report by the University of Baghdad.
“When the amount of water goes down, the pollution goes up,” said Moutaz Al-Dabbas, one of the report’s authors.
Pollution from untreated wastewater, including sewage and garbage dumping, poses an additional threat to fish and other wildlife in the Tigris around Baghdad, the report said.
In 2018, thousands of tons of freshwater carp—a foundational ingredient in one of the country’s best-known dishes—washed up dead in the Euphrates due to high levels of coliform bacteria, heavy metals and ammonia in the water.
“We call for the purification of all this water before it is dumped into the rivers,” Mr. Al-Dabbas said.
Iraq’s Environment Ministry said in September 2022 that it was forming a committee to evaluate water pollution in the country.
Bad for Business
At Baghdad’s Al-Shawakeh fish market, stallholders—many of whom are also fishermen—are worried about the river’s future and their earnings.
Baker Ali, 48, who sells fishing supplies at his store in the middle of the market, said he recently spent eight hours out on the river without catching anything.
“All of us have been hurt,” he said, lamenting a 90 percent sales slump at his shop compared with last year. “When the fishermen suffer, we all suffer.”
Nearby, freshly caught river fish flap in the makeshift pools of white polystyrene boxes destined for the city’s famous Masgouf restaurants. Masgouf, a dish featuring grilled carp, is often the first meal visitors to the country are encouraged to try.
But as water levels recede, many fear the fish will disappear from the country’s rivers, replaced by less-prized farmed carp.
“Last year was easier, the one before that easier still,” Mr. Ali said, adding that many of his relatives had already quit fishing. “There is no water, there is no fish.”
Sadek, 53, who asked not to give his surname, comes from a family of fishermen, but he has not been out on the water in almost a decade.
Sitting behind a white plastic table in his fishing supplies shop, he blamed damage to the environment and government failures to tackle the issue for his decision to abandon fishing and for his declining sales.
“We spend an entire day without selling anything,” he said. “We cannot afford to live anymore.”
In a report for Vice News Tonight, reporter Ben Solomon rode a motorbike across cracked earth littered with clusters of dry reeds suggesting a more verdant time in the not-too-distant past. His Arab guide explained that the water here was once about 6.5 feet high, gesturing above his head to show the level.
Understanding this was once marshland, the reporter asked, “And now this is just totally dead?”
His guide’s response: “Like a desert.”
The report included Ahmed Salih, an environmental activist, saying: “An entire community used to live here. Villages and houses used to be here. People used to live and get married here. They used to raise cattle in the floating houses with their children.”
Studying the scarred earth, it would be easy to conclude that this was fiction. Yet the reality is causing residents to grow bitter against government leaders.
When asked about the ultimate source of all the trouble, Mr. Salih concluded: “The problem is, despite this damage and all of these calls for help, the government doesn’t care about it.
“What happens in my heart when I see this place is like what happened to this land. My heart is like the cracks in this land—cracked and broken.”
Mr. Solomon asked the matriarch of a family packing their home to move north if relocating is hard.
She replied: “What do you mean ‘hard’? When I can’t seem to stop crying that I’m leaving my people and my home…leaving my life—leaving my neighbors. I swear, ‘hard’ is an understatement.”
Asked if the government is helping, she said: “Nothing from the government. The government neglects the poor…Why? The people just want to live their lives—to have their own fish, birds and flock. Why cut the water?”
Grappling with insoluble problems itself, Iraq’s government blames the dams in neighboring countries that are preventing water flow.
As with the ruined rivers, the land conditions are also devastating the lives of those who rely on it to survive. Farmer Abed Hameed al-Brahimi has never seen anything like the drought now gripping the country. It has killed virtually everything around him—his rice farm, most of his livestock and chickens—and accelerated a rural exodus that is jeopardizing Iraq’s future stability.
Mr. Brahimi’s home now resembles a desert rather than the green oasis it was a year ago. Without water to irrigate his fields, he has not planted a single seed of rice, which used to feed his family of four and provide a surplus he could sell.
His guard dog does not bark. Thirsty and famished, it barely tilts its head toward the strangers traversing its domain, oblivious to the sounds and sights around it.
“What is happening to us has never happened before. We are completely destroyed,” Mr. Brahimi, 45, told Reuters, standing next to his brown fields in al-Meshkhab, a town some 124 miles south of the capital Baghdad. “This year our lives ended all at once.”
The abandonment of parched fields, suicides among destitute farmers and violent protests by jobless young men all point to a country struggling to recover from decades of war in the face of worsening weather disasters.
Iraq’s three-year drought has devastated its agriculture industry and is robbing many farmers of their only source of income, said Hadi Fathallah, a director at NAMEA Group, a Dubai-based consultancy firm. It is a recipe for social unrest, he said, as people are abandoning their farms to seek work in urban areas.
“You have a scary number of young men who cannot emigrate and cannot do anything. At the end of the day, they will blow up,” said Mr. Fathallah. “They can only protest. They have nothing else they can do and that will put a lot of pressure on stability and crime.”
More than 560 people were killed during months of protests in 2019 over corruption and lack of jobs, which unseated the government.
Iraq has one of the region’s highest youth unemployment rates, with more than a quarter of Iraqis aged 15 to 30 without work, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
Frustrations have risen with a year-long political deadlock that left Iraq without a functioning government until October 27, when a cabinet was finally approved.
Although soaring crude prices have boosted oil revenues, the government has no budget to deal with its dilapidated water infrastructure, power cuts, dire public services and poverty.
At the edge of his barren rice field, Mr. Brahimi beat the dry earth with his plow to demonstrate how it had been hardened by the scorching sun. It hardly budged under his blows.
“We don’t have clothes. We don’t have 1,000 Iraqi dinars [$0.69] to give our sons to buy school copybooks,” he said as his voice rose, the rage inside him barely contained. “We are mentally collapsing.”
Iraq is highly vulnerable to the impacts of environmental catastrophes. Temperatures already often hit 122 Fahrenheit, while rainfall is dwindling, along with water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that irrigate most of its farmlands.
The prolonged drought has forced authorities to make difficult decisions, said Hatem Hamid Hussein, Director General at the National Center for Water Resources Management.
Government rationing of limited water supplies has created a zero-sum game: supplying one area with water means depriving another.
“This year, the percentage of water in dams is only 11 percent of what we had in 2019,” said Mr. Hussein, adding that the government halved the water allocated for farming nationally in 2022, which means the amount of land that can be farmed also halved.
“If this winter is not rich in rain, it will be impossible next summer to even ensure drinking water,” he said.
The farmers who grow Iraq’s famous amber rice in al-Meshkhab were only allocated enough water to irrigate 5 percent of their farms this year. The remainder were unable to plant.
The long-grained rice—which takes its name from the perfume it emits, like that of amber resin—is a source of great pride and the foundation of national dishes like lamb quzi. It takes six months to grow in water-flooded paddy fields.
“Before this, in al-Meshkhab we grew the best amber rice,” said Mr. Brahimi’s neighbor, Haidar Serhan, 45, standing by his dried-out field.
“Now we cannot do anything. Everyone is leaving because of hunger,” Mr. Serhan said, describing how many of his neighbors and friends have borrowed money or sold their assets to migrate to the capital in search of work.
“What can I do? I have put my fate in the hands of God. I can’t go to Baghdad,” he said, adding that migrating would be too difficult and expensive for him.
After decades of war, insurgency and displacement, the UN’s World Food Program said 2.4 million of Iraq’s 39 million people are in acute need of food and livelihood assistance.
Aqeel Abdullah Al-Fatlawy will not give up without a fight. This year, he helped organize a series of farmers’ demonstrations at the local water authority offices, demanding a larger cut of the water allocation.
“We are heading into a famine here,” said the 48-year-old, describing how many of his friends cannot feed their families.
Almost all local employment is tied to farming, and with its demise, jobs have disappeared, he said.
Agriculture is the second-largest contributor to Iraq’s gross domestic product after oil, employing almost 20 percent of the workforce, according to the WFP.
The sector contracted by 18 percent last year because of drought and the rising cost of inputs, according to the World Bank.
The WFP has called for more research and investment to help farmers handle adverse climate conditions rather than abandoning their lands, which only drives up local food costs and shortages.
But it is not easy.
“I have no solutions,” said Abdulkhalik Mohammad al-Mayali, 59, a local official who coordinates between al-Meshkhab and the central government.
Farmers come to his office every day to complain about their dying animals or lost crops, he said.
“We have a lot of psychological and mental issues appearing in society,” Mr. al-Mayali added, describing how the drought has forced people to abandon their homes and move into slums on the outskirts of town.
For some, the cost is too much to bear. Crushed by debt, 10 farmers have taken their own lives by suicide in the last year in al-Meshkhab, a region of 180,000 people, he said.
Mr. al-Mayali vowed to raise the farmers’ concerns in the capital. But Mr. Al-Fatlawy was skeptical.
“He is a politician, he talks in slogans and does nothing,” he said.
Back on the farm, Abed al-Hussein Kusayr worries that time is running out. He did not plant this year and sold half of his livestock because he could not afford the soaring price of fodder and feed.
If he does not plant in the coming season, he may permanently lose his farm to salinity—a common problem in arid lands where rainfall is too low to percolate through the soil.
“As time passes, this land will be over,” said the 50-year-old father of four, surveying his dead rice fields. “If there was water, there would be life. Now that there is no water, there is no life.”
Iraq is only one nation in the Middle East that is now a shadow of its early glory and suffering at the hands of government mismanagement and corruption.
Recall rice farmer Mr. Serhan’s words: “What can I do? I have put my fate in the hands of God.”
The Bible not only describes how the Iraqi region looked anciently—it also answers Mr. Sehran’s question.
Isaiah 29:19 sets the stage, describing a coming time when the “poor among men shall rejoice” in God because He intervened in world affairs.
Six chapters later, Isaiah explains what world conditions will be like then: “The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing…Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes” (35:1-2, 5-7).
The dried-out marshes of southern Iraq are just one example of ruined lands on every continent, whether caused by man or events beyond his control. These will soon change.
God will refashion Earth’s surface to give all human beings what He always envisioned—“new heavens and a new Earth, wherein dwells righteousness” (II Pet. 3:13). God promises that the people of Iraq will once again dwell in a perspiring, deeply rooted well-watered land alongside all mankind, this time under His care, in landscapes unparalleled in history—the best mankind has ever known.
But focus further on the phrase “wherein dwells righteousness.” Pure physical waters have long been a symbol of much purer spiritual waters—the life-transforming “living water” Jesus Christ offered (John 4:10-11; 7:38).
God’s Kingdom will make this available to all mankind, including those in drought-stricken Iraq. The Bible promises that just when mankind needs it most, “living waters shall go out from Jerusalem…And the Lord shall be king over all the Earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and His name one” (Zech. 14:8-9).
Only under this Kingdom of God can mankind enjoy the physical—and more importantly, spiritual—prosperity the Creator always intended. The hard life endured by drought-stricken Iraqis, hard in ways unfathomable to most in the Western world, will finally change.
Hope will finally come to a people that currently have none.
This article contains information from Reuters and The Associated Press.