Comment by John Robson to article :http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/26/water-shortage-threat-iraq
A reconstruction effort to match the 20 years of destruction should be a top priority
Thursday 10 September 2009
Your article on water shortages in southern Iraq is a timely reminder of the conditions facing a devastated rural community (Water shortage threatens two million people in southern Iraq, 27 August). It draws attention to those still affected by the wars that have raged over the last 20 years. The need for action is desperate.
The destruction of the Iraq marshes and the way of life of the Marsh Arabs has long been acknowledged, but awareness of the destruction of agriculture and rural life in the irrigated lands of the Euphrates and Tigris are less well known.
No significant action on these problems has ever been taken. A programme of reconstruction and development to match the 20 years of destruction now needs to be given top priority.
The government officials quoted in your article illustrate different ways of understanding and different priorities. Salah Aziz, director of planning, mentions the cultivation of "wheat, rice, barley, fruit and vegetables" and that "for thousands of years that land was 100% in use – this year less than 50%". The implication is that "significantly lower than normal rainfalls" are the reason for this – but rainfall in southern Iraq is never adequate for any crop.
From the early 1960s to the 1990s, I was directly involved in Iraq as an irrigation consultant, working with the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. I was aware of significant progress in many areas, but of only limited improvements in land settlement and farming. These latter weaknesses are still unresolved.
Farming and cultivation under the harsh climatic conditions of Mesopotamia require exceptional technical and management skills. A fresh approach is now needed to raise irrigated agriculture to a new level.
By comparison, conditions for rain-fed agriculture in northern Mesopotamia are far more favourable.
The lack of an international agreement on division and operation of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers between Turkey, Syria and Iraq demonstrates that it has been a low priority. But examples of working agreements exist (such as the Niles Water Agreement between Sudan and Egypt), and the situation is not irretrievable. Turkey requires its water mainly to generate power, plus some irrigation for agriculture during the slightly dryer summer season.
Historically there is relatively little need for diversion of supplies to the foothills along the Syrian border. Syria has relatively little river plain, and has never been a major abstracter. Similar conditions apply to the Tigris. But as a historic downstream user, Iraq's water needs must be internationally recognised. On the southern Iranian rivers flowing into the Iraqi marshes, a broad strategy for agreement could be drawn up, bringing more stability to this long-disputed area.
There is wide national and international responsibility for the tragic conditions under which the rural poor of Iraq are now living. Now is the time for effective international help.
John Robson was a rivers, irrigation and agriculture consultant in Iraq from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s