Over the last 30 years, Jassim Al-Asadi has witnessed the Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq where he was born undergo dramatic changes.
Once the largest wetland in the Middle East, the marshes’ wending waterways and thick towering reeds historically stretched across 20,000 square kilometers, supporting rich biodiversity and the unique Marsh Arab culture.
In the early 1990s they shrunk to 7% of their historical extent after being drained by Saddam Hussein, to flush out the Shiite rebels hiding in them. Their partial restoration post-2003 is widely heralded as a success. But now, Al-Asadi, managing director of local NGO Nature Iraq, fears for their future again.
A proposed dam-building spree in the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq threatens several major tributaries of the Tigris River, which, along with the Euphrates, feeds the marshes.
“The shortage of water will be reflected in the amount of water allocated to the marshes,” Al-Asadi explains. This will affect water quality and biodiversity of the marshes, an UNESCO World Heritage site, and “distinct ecosystem that we must preserve forever,” he urges.
While the Kurdistan Region, located in the country’s north, historically enjoyed ample water resources, they are under increasing stress due to droughts, internal mismanagement that causes unnecessary waste, upstream water infrastructure, and reduced rain and snowfall.
The Tigris and Euphrates’ once-abundant flows have fallen 30% since the 1980s, with the Iraqi government predicting a further decline of up to 50% before 2030.
Since 2014, to compensate for these losses and secure its own water resources, the Kurdistan Regional Government, the official ruling body of the region, has proposed building 245 dams over an undefined time period. These would be in addition to 17 existing dams and would leave no river in the territory undammed.
The Kurdistan Region has suffered its own dam-related water shortages, too.
In recent summers, Iranian dams and water diversion projects have caused flows of the Sirwan and Little Zab rivers — vital sources for the Kurdistan Region and key tributaries of the Tigris — to drop significantly, affecting drinking supplies, livelihoods and power production.
“Dams are important for the region’s power generation and to ensure water for domestic use, irrigation, fisheries and tourism,” says Akram Ahmed, director general of the Kurdistan Region’s Directorate of Dams and Water Reservoirs.
It’s an ongoing process in which 35 dams have been given priority. Of those, 14 are currently being constructed, Ahmed confirms. They are looking for investors as the funds allocated by the Kurdistan Regional Government have been insufficient, he adds.