17 August 2020
  • armed conflict
  • Conflict drivers
  • drought
  • climate security

Drought ignites tribal conflicts in Southern Iraq

Having received a death threat by members of a clan that is in dispute with his own, Farhan Mathloum, a 48 years old school teacher who works in a school in the tense northern region of Basra, could not go to work. The dispute is the result of an inherited blood feud that can be traced back to a disagreement on how to share water. “We always inherit the legacies, including the mistakes, of others. Here people quarrel over the most trivial things. When a dispute starts, no voice is louder than the clash of weapons,” says Mathloum.

 This is but one of tens of tribal armed conflicts witnessed, every now and then, in some hot areas in the south of Iraq. The clans are not hesitant to bear arms and fight amongst themselves to dominate or gain control. Water tops the list of natural resources fought over by the clans, especially since the southern regions are witnessing recurring severe droughts. These are caused by decreasing water flow from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, an increase in the demand for water, radical environmental changes, and poor water management. These droughts can be a serious threat to the fragile societal stability in light of the lack of good government policies to manage water and other natural resources.

The abundance-drought paradox

Never in history has Mesopotamia known thirst and drought-like it does today. Despite the fact that Iraq is located in a dry subtropical climate, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have been the source of more than 50 billion cubic meters of freshwater/year, on top of a full strategic water reservoir. According to hydrological records, Iraq’s freshwater supply over the period 1933-1971 was 79.6 billion cubic meters/year, as per the data of the Ministry of Water Resources. Awn Thiab, an advisor to the Ministry of Water Resources, points out, “This average has gradually declined following the inauguration of the Turkish Keban Dam in 1974. It was around 71.3 billion cubic meters/year over the period of 19721998, and dropped to 47.14 billion cubic meters/year over the period of 1999-2018” Iraq faces, since the last overwhelming flood in 1988, a series of catastrophic episodes of drought and aridity.  

Climate change tips the scales

Many factors exacerbate drought and water scarcity in Iraq. These factors include the construction of giant headwaters dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers by Turkey, and on Karkheh and Karun Rivers by Iran, in addition to internal water policies that have worsened the water reality. Ahmed Khafaja, an environmental changes specialist, points out, “Draining the Iraqi marshes in the 1990s by Saddam Hussein’s regime, caused the surface area of these water bodies to shrink by 90%. Subsequently, Iraq has lost nearly 45% of its water supplies.”

Lack of rain and increased evaporation brought about by higher temperatures hugely affect the scarcity of water resources in Iraq, which is considered to be among the countries heavily impacted by climate change. Ahmed Al-Hassan, a climatologist at the University of Basrah, says, “Climate change clearly plays a direct role in the increased risk of drought recurrence in Iraq.” Al-Hassan emphasised that the country “has witnessed unprecedented dramatic droughts during the last climate cycle (the last 30 years).” According to the same researcher, analysis of climate data indicates three consecutive drought episodes (between 1998 and 2018) in Iraq due to lack of rain. Safaa Al-Asadi, a researcher in water resources geography says, “Annual rate of water evaporation in Iraq reaches about 8.5 billion cubic meters/year, an amount that effectively threatens the already shrinking Iraqi water reserve.”

 During 2017 and 2018, the water reserve shrank to concerning levels, at around 12 billion cubic meters only, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. This has propelled the Ministry to take a number of exceptional measures to secure drinking water. Examples of these measures include strict farmers’ water allocation, as well as banning some water-intensive crops like rice and yellow corn.  

Armament for the sake of Water

This grim water reality is one of the causes of societal (tribal) disputes in the south of Iraq. In Northern Basrah, for example, armed tribal disputes whose root causes can be traced back to the water crisis, broke out in the last decades and resulted in the death and injury of tens of people. Safi Muwali, a 60 year old local notable, points out,

“Tribal disputes caused by water scarcity roughly make up 10% of all on-going disputes. This, however, is subject to increase if more drought is faced in the future.”

 Agronomist Ali Salem, who is an employee of the Agriculture Department of Basrah, speaks of two inherited tribal disputes in Northern Basrah) that remain unresolved. Disputes have also erupted in the southern part of Shatt al-Arabas buffalo herds owned by displaced people from the marshes went looking for food and water in a region that does not belong to the displaced people nor do they have grazing rights to it, resulting in clashes between the two groups of people. 

Other regions in Dhi Qar and Maysan governorates have also witnessed similar disputes and clashes caused by water scarcity and the methods followed by the clans in the south of Iraq to control water. For example, disputes in the Al-Chibayish marshes which is part of Dhi Qar and Basrah governorates,  have escalated to armed fighting between two clans because of the regression of the marshes’ water during drought seasons. Haj Saleh Mahdi, 68 years old, speaks of an infamous fight that broke out between the two clans because of drought and the subsequent search for water in a lean year in the 1960s. It resulted in a bloody dispute between the two parties over the allocation of irrigation water to their adjacent rice farms. Even though some of the youth in this part of the countryside have recently started to take up civil and government jobs in the cities, their inherited conflicts have moved with them. 

There is therefore a clear link between the escalation of tribal disputes and years of drought. It can also be concluded that the stability of the local communities in the south of Iraq will face further friction hand in hand with the changes in climate suffered by the region and the dominance of radical droughts. 

Future Challenges and promising solutions

In the face of this crisis-affected environmental and societal context looming over the south of Iraq, and in the light of the heated conflict over water, it is likely that the future will pose a lot of risks. This requires new initiatives in order to find solutions and put an end to societal tensions.

  • Better water management

According to agronomist Ali Salem, “Maintaining the old conventional methods of excess irrigation and flooding crops will squander a lot of water, each drop of which is desperately needed at the moment.” In order to avoid unjustified squandering, water rationing should be encouraged via revamping the old irrigation systems in Iraq and replacing them with new ones like drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation systems. Alaa Al-Badran, an agricultural expert, notes,

“The success of dry farming in Iraq depends on the possibility of recycling the waste drainage water after the removal of minerals and pollutants in special treatment plants, or at least using this water in fish farming and irrigation of crops with high tolerance to salinity.”

Recent sustained efforts by Iraqi researchers to trial the efficiency of sewage water in agricultural irrigation have been aimed at facing the predicted acute freshwater shortage. 

  • Involving local communities

To integrate all the pillars needed for success, the opinion of local communities must be taken on board. Some social notables point out the importance of heeding the wisdom in reaching partnership rather than antagonism in water. Safi Muwali suggests educating the farmers and helping them to learn modern farming methods and water rationing through organizing specialized training and guidance workshops, in an effort to end disputes and maintain societal peace.

Unless the authorities seriously and swiftly seek to alleviate the consequences of drought and climate change, the members of rural clans will not stop their disputes over sharing the shrinking water. Eventually, they may even give up farming altogether and look for another source of income, leaving behind the countryside. There is currently a growing concern over farmers leaving the countryside and moving to the cities when despair takes over their life. In addition, any emigration of this sort will cause additional burdens on infrastructure and public services in the cities, which already suffer from being worn out, being obsolete, and failure. 

 By Dr Shukri Al Hasan, Researcher from Iraq/Basra. This is a slightly shortened version of the Arabic article that is first published here. Supported by PSI - FPU media fellowship. 
Photo credit: Mohammed Alsoufi/ Flickr