Iraq's Water Woes
By Captain Timothy Hsia
News today in Iraq is centered on contracts currently being negotiated between the Government of Iraq and major oil companies. This has occupied much of the attention of America and the rest of the world as the price of oil continues to skyrocket. However, Iraqis for the vast majority are not only interested in the future of their oil but also concentrated on another pressing natural resource problem, the scarcity of water.
Sandwiched between Baghdad and Mosul is the Diyala River Valley (DRV), and within the DRV is a region known as the Breadbasket of Iraq. Farmers have worked the land here since Biblical times. Baqubah, the capital of Diyala, is Arabic for Jacob's house. The region historically has been so abundant agriculturally that the produce from this area has been able to not only sustain the local region but also vast parts of Iraq. Today however, the way of life of these farmers has become imperiled for one simple reason: there is simply not enough water for their crops. Drought like conditions now exist in many regions of the Diyala River Valley and potable water is scarce. When Iraqi kids encounter soldiers on patrols they not only ask for soccer balls but also water bottles.
Wars and conflict have come and gone, but the farmers in the DRV have remained. Their way of life is simple; they farm and work the land. Saddam Hussein poured government funds into this resource rich region because of its ability to produce high agriculture yields. Consequently, today the region is renowned as not only an agricultural power house but also a region with latent Ba'athist sympathies.
Under Saddam, waterways were centrally planned and water usage was highly regulated. Farmers upstream were not allowed to divert the flow of water and hence waterways were preserved for farmers located downstream. The collapse of the Saddam government brought an end to the highly regulated water system along with an absence of maintenance of manmade waterways. As a result of the lack of central control exerted by the government today, it is difficult if not impossible to limit water usage as the Columbia River is in America. In an act of defiance, the Sunni farmers in the region boycotted the provincial elections in early 2005. This proved to be a costly decision as the Shia dominated Iraqi government has yet to provide any meaningful governmental assistance to the Sunnis in Diyala.
In many of the farmer's perspectives, little progress has been made since the collapse of Saddam's government. It is interesting to note that the notorious terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in the Diyala province. The farmers in the region harbored Zarqawi because of their dissatisfaction with the ability of the government to provide essential services such as addressing the continuing water woes. These farmers way of lives has become endangered as the amount of available water has dwindled. As the farmer's yields have dropped, their ability to pay back loans to the Iraqi Agricultural Bank has diminished and many farmers in the DRV have begun defaulting on their loans.
Today's water woes in the DRV are not due solely to the ongoing war or the Iraqi government's lack of ability to address essential services. The Diyala River and Hamrin Lake are the two main sources of water in the region. However, the water level in both these bodies of waters is directly impacted by Iran. The Hamrin Lake used to store up to two billion cubic meters of water. If one were to reference the lake in any map of Iraq it stands out as one of Iraq's largest lakes. However, today its existence is in serious jeopardy and instead of crossing a bridge to get across the lake, one can simply drive thru what once was a lake. Mufawaq Howar, a Water Resource Department expert states that "Hamrin Lake contains only 20 percent of its capacity." There is a great chance that this body of water will simply disappear in the coming summer months. Iranians have diverted water to the lake to fill their own dams for energy purposes. The Diyala River suffers a similar fate as water from the river is also being diverted by the Iranians for hydroelectric power and irrigation for their own agricultural industry. In Iraq a thin line exists between what in the West constitutes two separate crises, the energy and food crises.
Iraq's water woes also affect US military personnel as servicemen living at Forward Operating Bases in the Diyala region rely on the same water sources for the majority of its water needs. Thus far, there has been little effort on these bases to conserve water despite the fact that water is a precious commodity outside of these bases. American bases should seek to moderate their water intake in order to assist the locals who live in the region. American servicemen can indirectly contribute to defeating the insurgency by limiting unnecessary water usage on these bases.
America's exit strategy will begin when the government of Iraq can begin providing its people with essential services such as fair and equitable access to water. However, the United States and the Iraqi government cannot do this alone as the water crisis in the Diyala River has indicated. Iraq's neighbor, Iran needs to act like the friendly neighbor which its leaders rhetorically trump. Iraq's leaders must confront Iran concerning the vitality of its waterways. Iraq's future will hinge not only on the United States but also its regional neighbors.
US Army Captain Tim Hsia is currently serving in Iraq with the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment.