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Iraq's drought: Eden drying out

Date farmers Idris and Sarieh Alaa al-Din (photo by Hugh Sykes/BBC)
Lush appearances are deceptive at the Alaa ad-Din brothers' date plantation

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad

The Garden of Eden is in danger of turning into a dustbowl. The legendary Eden was in Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates. For hundreds of miles between their lower reaches there is fabulously fertile farmland.

But it's hardly rained in Iraq for more than two years, the river levels have dropped by half in some places, and farmland is drying out.

The drought is having a devastating effect on Iraq's most renowned export after oil - its dates.

Iraq used to produce three-quarters of the world's entire date crop every year. Now, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran export more dates than Iraq.

At a date farm in Baghdad - near the city centre - it all seems lush and lyrical.

Abandoned boats lie high and dry where the water level used to be. Sandbanks which were once under the surface now stretch high above it

There's a strong smell of fresh mint in the air. Herbs, and vegetables like Jew's Mallow, are grown between the trees; their roots fix nitrogen in the soil, which helps to nourish the palms with natural fertiliser.

But the dates are not well.

The plantation is farmed by two brothers with warm smiles - Idris and Sarieh Alaa ad-Din. They say the drought is so bad they only get dates every two years now.

From their 1,500 palm trees, they tell me they used to collect up to 50 tonnes of dates every harvest every year - last year they only got 30 tonnes.

They have had no harvest at all this year.

Since 2007, Iraq has had a lot less than half its normal rainfall. This has had another effect on the date harvest - rain cleans the trees, and washes away pests that degrade the crop. Now the insects thrive, and the trees suffer.

Idris and Sarieh say the last time there was any serious rain here was six months ago.

Falling river level

Flowing through Baghdad near the date plantation, the River Tigris is shrinking away from its banks.

River Tigris (photo by Hugh Sykes/BBC)
In Baghdad, the ailing River Tigris is shrinking away from its banks

Ducks still quack contentedly. White Egrets cluster by deep green bulrushes that move gently in a warm breeze. A kingfisher plops into the water and re-emerges with a small fish and flies rapidly away.

But the Tigris is ailing.

A friendly, moustachioed, middle-aged policeman gave me a glass of tea, chatted about better days and then walked down the embankment steps to show me how high the river used to reach just six years ago - half way up the steps.

There are wide patches of dry earth between the Tigris and the embankment. Abandoned boats lie high and dry where the water level used to be. Sandbanks which were once under the surface now stretch high above it.

The Tigris - and the Euphrates to the west - are 50% to 70% lower than they were 10 years ago.

At the National Centre for Water Management in Baghdad, senior engineer Zuhair Hassan Ahmed showed me graphs recording the levels of the two rivers over the past 10 years.

The "water year" starts in October. The hand-drawn lines for 2008 and 2009, for the Tigris and the Euphrates, confirm that their levels are well below the mean.

And Mr Ahmed explains that drought in Iraq is only part of the problem. The shortage of water for each river, he tells me, is caused mainly by lack of rain and snowmelt in the mountains of Turkey where the rivers rise.

Another factor is a series of dams on the Euphrates in Turkey and Syria, reducing flow before the river enters Iraq.

Turkey has recently agreed to increase the flow, but Zuhair Ahmed fears it may not be enough.

Multiple threats

There is also a vicious circle. Hardly any rain means farmland turns to dust.

Baghdad used to expect to endure about eight serious dust storms a year. Now there are more than 30 storms that turn the air of the capital orange.

In southern Iraq, river flow is so sluggish that salt water from the Gulf has reached further upstream, making it hard to supply safe drinking water to Basra.

And, near Basra city, the drought is hampering attempts to re-flood the vast marshes that were drained by Saddam Hussein's regime.

The traveller and author Wilfred Thesiger wrote tenderly about that community in The Marsh Arabs:

"Canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reedbeds, narrow waterways that wound still deeper into the Marshes ... reed houses built upon water, black dripping buffaloes ... stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine."

It's not like that any more.

One Iraqi agriculture specialist says the shortage of rainfall and river water have created "a real serious disaster".



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