“Before, the water rose three kilometers higher!” Bapir says. Today, Lake Dukan, which irrigates his corner of Iraqi Kurdistan, is receding, and a farmer is struggling to irrigate it. Doubtful: drought and dams upstream, in Iran.
Bapir Kalkani, an agricultural trade unionist, is setting the scene in this region of northern Iraq. In 2019, “Where I am, there was water. She climbed three kilometers higher. But she retreated,” warms 56-year-old Mr. Kalkani.
Under the scorching sun, the plain is occupied by sesame and beans.
At the end of this false plain is a large artificial lake created in the 1950s after the construction of the Dukan Dam for the region’s irrigation and drinking needs, as well as for electricity generation.
This dam cuts the Little Zab, a tributary of the Tigris River that originates in neighboring Iran. But for several years now, little Zab has been shrinking, like all Iraqi rivers, and the lake too.
Iraq is presented by his leadership as one of the five countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and desertification.
According to the Iraqi government, water supplies have decreased by 60% compared to last year. With the disappearance of rainfall and three years of consecutive droughts, Iraq was forced to halve its cultivated agricultural area.
On the shores of Lake Dukan, Bapir Kalkani laments: “If it wasn’t for a little rain in late spring, there would be no crops in Kurdistan this year.” Previously, farmers dug shallow wells fed by the Dukan for irrigation. Not anymore. “The wells have lost 70% of their water,” says Mr. Kalkani.
– Sesame seeds –
Shirko Aziz Ahmed watering his sesame field. He had to drill a well several meters deep, from which water is pumped out by a diesel engine. “Sesame seeds need nine waterings. So I will dig even more because the water level is dropping,” he sighs.
Bapir Kalkani, an agricultural trade unionist, inspects his wheat field in the Raniya district, near the Dukan Dam, in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, on July 2, 2022, in northeast Iraq. (AFP – AHMAD AL-RUBAI)
But drought is not the only reason.
Iran has built several dams on its part of the Lesser Zab. In particular, Kolsa, “caused an 80% drop in little Zab’s levels,” explains Banafsheh Keinush of the Middle East Institute, a research center in Washington.
Iran is experiencing “one of the worst droughts in its history” and has overhauled its irrigation system, a project that includes “the construction of many small dams,” she explains.
The Dukan dam is also suffering from a drop in the flow of little Zab, its director Kochar Jamal Taufik assures: “Now the dam is only 41% loaded.” It releases drinking water “for three million people, in particular (in the urban basins) Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk”, downstream.
But just 300mm compared to an annual average of 600mm, rainfall in 2021 hasn’t been plentiful. And 2022 will be similar to the previous year, says Taufik.
“We release 90 cubic meters of water per second, compared to 200-250 when the reservoir is full,” he says. Corollary: Farmers are ordered to grow plants “that don’t use too much water.”
– New dams –
As for the Iranian dams that “reduce the flow” of the little Zab, Baghdad “sent delegates to Iran, but I heard that the Iranians are not cooperating,” Mr. Tawfiq notes.
Tehran claims that rivers coming from Iran contribute “about 6%” to the Tigris and Euphrates basin, Banafsheh Keinush emphasizes. “So Iran says to the Iraqis: + solve your problems related to the Tigris and Euphrates, with Turkey +”, where two rivers are born.
But Iraq is not free from criticism, says Azzam Alwash, founder of the NGO Iraqi Nature and adviser to the Iraqi president.
Iraqi Kurdistan intends to start building new dams to “ensure water security.” However, these drafts were drawn up “without agreement between Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad,” laments Mr. Alvas.
Downstream, in central and southern Iraq, “lack of coordination and modernization of the irrigation system will lead to disaster” with even more severe water shortages than those already affecting those areas, he predicted.