23 October 2020

Dialogue as a solution to save fish resources from saltwater intrusion in Southern Iraq

The phenomenon of saltwater intrusion happens in particular in Abu Al-Khaseeb district and Siba subdistrict. Official government documents indicate the displacement of more than 350 families from these two areas in the same year. Those who stayed share fears from what the salinity will bring in the future. Hakim Abdul-Rida (55 years old), is one of those concerned by the coming days,  His orchard has been badly damaged by saltwater intrusion in previous years. To this day, this southern farmer still hangs on to his orchard in Siba subdistrict south of Basra city. He continues farming, not surrendering to this salt enemy,  in order to keep and maintain his source of income. Nonetheless, fears of witnessing the reoccurrence of the orchard’s destruction loom over the hope of continuing work and production.

Official government documents estimate the damage to agricultural crops because of the salt intrusion at around 30 billion dinars in 2018 alone, including destroying more than 30,000 trees and more than 60,000 dunams of vegetables crops and animal feed because of the salt concentrations. Ahmad Hilal, head of Siba subdistrict, attributes the salt intrusion in the Shatt Al-Arab to lack of water discharge releasing from Qal’at Saleh regulatory gate and from “Karun” river coming from Iran. Hilal highlights that the areas damaged the most by the salinity are Al-Faw district in the far south of Basra and the adjacent Siba subdistrict.

The salt concentrations of the Arabian Gulf water are the result of salt compounds like calcium, sodium, and magnesium chloride. These affect leaf vegetable crops which don’t tolerate concentrations higher than 4000 PPM, or 0.3%. On top of that, the salt tongue intrusion in Shatt Al-Arab also contributes to the desertification of the areas next to the river, says Mohsen Abdul Hai Dsher, the assistant dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Basrah, and a soil and water resources expert. The latter Iraqi expert adds, “Even the industrial sector in Basra Governorate is largely impacted in terms of volume of production or lack of production when the salt concentrations skyrocket.” Dsher attributes this to the fact that fertilisers and petrochemical factories as well as the oil fields require fresh water for constant cooling in the production cycle. Those factories face the danger of having to suspend work in the times when the salt advances in Shatt Al-Arab.

Huge Damage

"The subdistrict has been hugely damaged environmentally and lost vast areas of its agricultural lands. This in turn has impacted the production volume of crops which normally supply the local markets in Basra."

Hilal points out the years with the most damage incurred were 2009 and 2018, when agricultural lands, aquatic life, and domesticated animals whose grazing depends on freshwater and the grasses growing on the riverside, have been affected. Hilal also notes the role played by the increase in rainfall and snowfall in upstream countries, in turn translating into an increase in the rivers’ water discharges, in overcoming the reoccurring salinity crisis in the four critical months of summer every year.

In the same context, the head of Siba subdistrict points out that “the problem of the increased salt concentrations in the water of Shatt Al-Arab has led to more than 100,000 cases of poisoning all over Basra Governorate. The subdistrict has been hugely damaged environmentally and lost vast areas of its agricultural lands. This in turn has impacted the production volume of crops which normally supply the local markets in Basra.” The damage includes the local fish market, in particular, and “Buffalo and cow” husbandry has also suffered a blow.

According to Hilal, 25-27 thousand dunams of the agricultural lands situated between Shatt Al-Arab and Basra-Faw road have been affected by salinisation.  Locals have resorted to temporary solutions like blocking the rivers during high and low tides heavily affecting the saltwater intrusion. This way the locals are able to protect their crops from the high salt concentrations in the water of Shatt Al-Arab branches.  Hilal stresses the importance of finding solutions to the excess use of water locally, and of abiding by the governorates’ water allocations. This comes as the allocations of the water discharges releasing into Basra from  Maysan Governorate are exceeded by the locals in an area of roughly 40 km north of Basra.

Fish resources under strain

Walid Al-Sharifi, the mayor of Al-Faw district in the far south of  Basra, warns against the sea salt intrusion in Al-Faw district.  He points out the dead river fish, which have recently become present in Shat Al -Arab branches. These fish have come with previous frequent water discharges releasing into the subdistrict’s rivers. In this context, Al-Sharifie appeals to the relevant authorities to find effective solutions to preserve the rivers’ fish resources and the agricultural lands restored in the last two years thanks to frequent freshwater discharges released into the district. Al-Sharifi does not conceal his concerns of the reoccurrence of dead fish scenes when the sea salt intrusion reaches its peak in August.

Official statistics by the Southern Region Environmental Directorate in 2018 confirm losses in date production have exceeded 12 million kg- the equivalent to roughly 2.5 billion Iraqi dinars. The statistics also show livestock losses roughly reached 35 billion dinars in the same year.

Dialogue as a solution

“The best solution to put an end to the saltwater intrusion in Shatt Al-Arab is dialogue and reaching agreements with the upstream countries regarding water discharges”

In the current water crisis and the salt intrusion due to lack of water discharges releasing into the rivers as well as poor management, everyone is searching for solutions and mechanisms to mitigate losses and get rid of factors threatening social stability and security in the region. The head of the Southern Region Environmental Directorate in Iraq in Basra, Walid Hamad Al-Musawi, sees “The best solution to put an end to the saltwater intrusion in Shatt Al-Arab is dialogue and reaching agreements with the upstream countries regarding water discharges,” highlighting the key role of Turkey and Iran in increasing water discharges and subsequently pushing the salt tongue to the Gulf. It is also possible, according to Al-Musawi, to sponsor other solutions to stop the saltwater intrusion, like concluding agreements between Iraq and Turkey to purchase additional water allocation that would in turn guarantee salinization does not reoccur in Shatt Al-Arab. Al-Musawi also stresses the role of efficient water management as another way to put an end to the saltwater intrusion, especially in heavy rainfalls seasons. This can be done by building dams or artificial lakes that would store excess water in times of abundance. He also points out that building industrial lakes and digging branches for Shatt Al-Arab may be good recommendations to preserve freshwater, therefore restoring additional agricultural lands in Basra.

In the meanwhile, Hakim Abdul-Rida, or Haj Abu Imad as he is known in his local community in Al-Siba town, hangs on to the hope that the pump he uses to water his plants, continues to work and does not one day become blocked by the salts coming from Shatt Al-Arab, and stops working. He wants to carry on with his work to maintain agriculture in his orchard, and to restore it to its previous state. Abu Imad is worried one day he will wake up to see nothing but seawater drowning his palms and trees.


By Hussain Abd Wadi, an Iraqi journalist. Prepared in cooperation with Clingendael Institute and Free Press Unlimited.
Read the original article in Arabic here
Photo credit: Mohammed Alsoufi/ Flickr