In the early hours of 18 June, gunmen broke into Faisal Hassan’s west Baghdad home killing him, his wife and their two young children. The motive was not sectarian, political or even economic – but water-related.
Forty-year-old Hasan was an employee of a local irrigation department in Abu Ghraib city – 32km west of Baghdad and famed in recent times for scandals surrounding its prison. The department he worked for supervised government water distribution to farmland in and around Abu Ghraib.
His death brings the number of irrigation department employees killed in this city to three in the past three months, Mohammed Khudhair, a police investigator, said. “All these employees had nothing to do with politics or anti-militant activities, but instead were victims of the nature of their work, which has become a risky one,” he said.
Risk of local feuds
In Iraq’s rural areas, traditional tribes and clans hold much sway and often attract stronger loyalty from members than the national government. Clans have clashed in the past over land resources and water, but with the absence of a strong government since 2003 and the decline in water supplies in recent years, analysts say local water feuds are on the rise and risk becoming armed conflicts.
Government officials can’t control the regulation of irrigation and stop those who violate their regulations either because of corruption or because they fear for their lives. So we have to solve this issue ourselves.
“Today, we don’t have a fully functioning government as it is totally preoccupied by the security situation and political wrangling so we don’t have a strong role to deter any possible widespread conflict,” Karbala-based analyst Jaafar Moahmmed Ali said. “Besides, we have an acute shortage of water nationwide and a very bad economic situation that makes it very hard for farmers to do other work.”
Tribal sheikh Ali Ismael al-Zubaidi from Diwaniya Governorate, about 200 km south of Baghdad, said he had been having “tough negotiations” over water allocations with another tribe that lives upstream from his.
“We have daily problems with water. They are siphoning water with huge electric water pumps and leave only drops for us,” al-Zubaidi said. “Government officials can’t control the regulation of irrigation and stop those who violate their regulations either because of corruption or because they fear for their lives. So we have to solve this issue ourselves.”
Al-Zubaidi said he needed to hold more meetings with the upstream tribe to resolve the water dispute “but that doesn’t mean that we can wait a long time. We will act swiftly to secure the water we need for our land even if we have to take up weapons.”
Historically, Iraq has been one of the more fertile nations in the region, thanks largely to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow southeasterly through the entire nation. There used to be a thick, green ribbon of fertile land snaking through the middle of the country, fed by the two rivers.
However, in recent years water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris have steadily fallen due to below-average rainfall and the construction of dams on the rivers in neighbouring Turkey and Syria.
In addition, the country’s agricultural sector has been paralysed by decades of war and insecurity, underinvestment and the unchecked felling of trees for firewood, which has increased soil salinity and caused desertification in some areas. Large tracts of once fertile agricultural land have been transformed into semi-arid desert and are causing an increasing number of sandstorms as soil-binding plants shrivel up.
In response, the government has adopted measures to regulate the amount of water being used for irrigation in each province but has faced difficulties implementing them.
“The farmers didn’t adhere to the water distribution regulations. We advise them to follow the regulations this year because we cannot guarantee the amount of water we’ll have,” Mahdi al-Qaisi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN, the United Nations news source.
Above image via TheNationalGuard: Max Labar, center, of Portland, Ore., a senior advisor for the Department of State, talks with tribal leaders regarding a water well that needs repair in the village of Turbaka, near the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq, Oct. 29, 2009. US Soldiers assigned to Foxtrot Company, 425th Infantry Airborne Long Range Surveillance unit of the Michigan Army National Guard Unit and a tribal leader, inspected water wells during a project oversight of several villages in the area.
(Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Carmichael Yepez, Joint Combat Camera Center Iraq)