Almost 2,000 kilometres in size, Lake Razzaza is Iraq’s second largest lake. But increasing saline levels and decreasing water levels mean that the area is heading for economic, social and environmental disaster. And nobody seems to have any solutions.
Once it was a centre for the local fishing industry, a lake teeming with commercial activity, fish and avian life. Today Lake Razzaza is littered with abandoned fishing nets and the debris of the small wooden boots that used to ply their trade here.
Two decades ago, the lake, which lies west of Karbala and south-west of Baghdad, spanned around 1,800 kilometres and as such, was the second largest waterway in Iraq. It was fed by the Euphrates River and nearby Lake Habbaniyah as well as rainfall, groundwater sources and the occasional flooding.
Various fish species thrived in the lake – created in 1969 thanks to a drainage canal built to subvert the Euphrates’ flood waters – as did migrating birds and the fishermen that came here to earn a good living.
But the last floods occurred in the late 90s and even earlier, in 1991, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ordered the closure of waterways that fed Lake Razzaza. Since then the lake has been dying a slow, dry death. In fact, locals fear that the lake may dry out completely in the next two years.
Saline levels in the remaining water have risen dramatically and fish species that were once sought after have disappeared, as have the birds that used to inhabit the area. The fishermen have also started to move on.
Hussein al-Amiri is one of these. He now runs a small fish shop selling seafood bred in artificial lakes on the outskirts of Karbala. Some of his old fishing nets still hang on the walls of his new store, even though he no longer uses them. Al-Amiri says they remind him of his former fishing colleagues, many of whom have also changed professions. Some of them, al-Amiri noted, now run taxi services carrying passengers on the busy route between Karbala and Najaf, two Iraqi cities that are considered especially holy for Shiite Muslims.
“We still meet from time to time,” al-Amiri told NIQASH. “And we remember the good old days. In fact,” he continues, smiling, “my friends say that I’m the most loyal to my former trade. I replaced it with another that’s quite similar. I didn’t abandon the fish and the lake completely like them.”
And while the fishermen are lamenting the loss of trade, there are other, equally unhappy effects that will follow, should Lake Razzaza dry up. “It will not only lead to further loss of fish and other aquatic species,” Munir Sabbar Nayef, the head of the directorate of water resources in Karbala, told NIQASH. “And there will be more serious environmental damage. The whole area will suffer from higher temperatures in general.”
The lake may become a source of pollution itself, as stagnant water harbours disease and other waste, Nayef added.
Nayef said that fears that Lake Razzaza will be dry within two years are justified: “It needs huge quantities of water and Iraq cannot able to supply this. If the current situation continues, then Iraq will lose this lake forever.”
The water directorate believed the solution was political. Water levels in Iraq have fallen significantly over the past three to five years and, according to experts, this was due to decreases in rainfall as well as policies in neighbouring Turkey involving the damming of waterways flowing into Iraq. The country’s water resources officials believe this is due, in part, to the development of separate, national irrigation systems in Iraq and neighbouring countries, when a more cooperative approach may have been more beneficial.
“Under existing conditions, Iraq will not be able to access sufficient water,” Nayef told NIQASH. “We have repeatedly complained that Turkey is taking Iraq’s share of water. The Ministry of Water Resources has made it clear that Iraq is not getting its fair share of water, as stipulated in bilateral agreements between the two countries.”
In fact, at the end of May 2011, the Iraqi government suspended an agreement meant to foster cooperation on strategic issues with Turkey, previously signed by both parties. One of the issues that has required cooperation in the past has been that of water resources as well as things like trade ties. This year’s suspension of the agreement was to put pressure on the Turkish government to reconsider its ways with water. As a result Turkey promised to reconsider Iraq’s water needs after Turkish national elections held in June 2011. However up until now, no talks have been initiated nor resolutions made.
No international laws require Turkey to give Iraq the amount of water they have asked for. “The problem can only be solved through bilateral agreements,” Iraqi MP Fuad al-Doraki told NIQASH. “If Turkey does not accept a fair solution to the water problem, then Iraq can only use any economic and diplomatic means at its disposal to pressure the Turkish side.”
Al-Doraki believes that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s Baath party is to blame for the way in which the country’s water woes began. In 1991, after the southern Iraqi marshes became a refuge for Iraqis involved in anti-governmental, Shiite Muslim-dominated rebellions, the Baath regime – led by Sunni Muslims – began to aggressively drain the marshes. This was in order to reduce food sources for anyone dwelling there as well as to punish the local Shiite Muslim population for insurrections.
Part of this involved the construction of dams to stop the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the marshes. Another part of the policy – which, by 1992, had caused the marshes to dry out and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of the marsh dwellers – was to ask Turkey to reduce water flow into Iraq’s south.
Al-Doraki believes this was all the excuse that the Turkish needed. It also “made the Turkish officials think that Iraq got more water than it needed anyway,” al-Doraki argued.
It’s this detrimental policy, enacted with no consideration for Iraq’s future, that continues to wreak havoc on places like Lake Razzaza. Experts say that Iraq should be building effective systems to stop the loss of its own fresh water into the sea and that it should increase its own water reserves by building dams and streams.
For the time being though, it seems that after 20 years, Iraq is still paying the price for decades of unthinking water policies. And shortly, it will be the city of Karbala, and more specifically the fishermen and wildlife of Lake Razzaza, who pay the highest price.