KRG providing water tankers to meet shortage bears no sign of long-term plan to face drought

28-08-2021 02:47
Sirwan river near Halabja, the water level decreased, 24-5-2021. Photo; Hussein Salih.

PEREGRAF – Sangar Salar

The drought in the Kurdistan Region has not only affected livelihoods as water tanks sit empty on rooftops, but it has also affected the agricultural sector. Despite all the damage it has caused, with more expected to come, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has done little to nothing beyond providing water tankers to temporarily solve the issue.

The main reason for the dry year is lack of rain, the past three decades haven’t seen so little snow and rain as last year, PEREGRAF has learned.

"The lowest rate of rainfall since 1992 was recorded this year," said Fazil Ibrahim, Director-General of Meteorology and Seismology in the Kurdistan Region, explaining that there were 170 millimeters (mm) of rain in Erbil while the normal rate should be 400 millimeters per year.

In addition to lack of rainfall, inconsistent raining in its season caused the “relative drought” in the Kurdistan Region and especially Garmyan administration, added Ibrahim.

However, the Region gets the dry spell every five years, meaning this is not the first drought to have occurred, Ibrahim noted, the first one was from 1998 to 1999.

Drought added to the already-existing crises this year

The dams saw the first signs of a rainless year and the people were the ones who directly suffered from, weary of lack of drinking water in the scorching summer heat.

"We release less water because the water level has dropped, it’s not enough for the type of farming that requires a lot of water," said Kochar Jamal, director of the Dukan Dam, which is the main source of water for Sulaimaniyah.

Water levels in Dukan increased so much in 2019 that it overflowed the bell-mouth spillway, but it is 14 meters below the bell-mouth this year, Jamal said.

"We went from flood to drought in two years," said Dukan dam manager, noting that they have planned to distribute water in a way that does not impact citizens and save enough for next year in case of a continued drought.

The already-suffering agricultural sector was further damaged this year. "The Regional government has not taken any practical steps to confront the drought," Abdulsatar Majid, former Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources and the current chair of Agriculture and Irrigation Committee in parliament said.

The MP says he proposed an agricultural insurance project to help and compensate farmers’ losses, in which the government would initially participate with one billion Iraqi dinars (IQDs), but "they said this will be a financial burden on the government, that’s why they can’t agree to the project and so it was rejected."

Majid cast his doubts on the government's excuse, asking "why will it be a financial burden while there is so much wealth and money in the Region but it is being stolen" and believes rejecting their proposal "shows this government’s negligence towards the agricultural sector."

Months after the drought and the end of the rainy seasons, the government has not yet announced plans to solve the issue.

Qubad Talabani, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region who in a short Facebook post published a meeting in May, wrote, "Drought and water crises are a serious threat if we don’t work on it carefully," adding that they had formed a high-level board to deal with the crisis.

Lack of rain has cut crop production by half

"The issue of water shortages and drought is a serious threat to the Kurdistan Region, and there is a greater threat to central and southern Iraq," Shwan Karim, deputy chair of the Agriculture and Irrigation Committee told PEREGRAF.

"Drought and declining groundwater levels are being worked on very seriously," he said. "A long-term plan has been prepared. Several medium and small dams will be built. What the government can do is confine between 20 and 100 billion cubic meters of water" which he said the government will secure a budget for its not-yet-planned implementation.

The dams are built on Tigris, Lesser and Greater and Sirwan River

"The regional government had allocated three billion dinars in the past to deal with the drought. Unfortunately, the decrease in water levels had created so much pressure on the cities and towns that all the money was used only to deliver drinking water," Karim said.

This is while a greater budget was demanded by the provinces and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Karim added the previous parliament term, the first reading for a water protection bill was held. "We brought this project back and have worked on it. We have made our project bigger with the help of relevant parties and experts. We the second reading of the bill will be held and passed in the upcoming Autumn term in the Kurdistan [Region] parliament," he said.

In the bill, the formation of a board has been requested from the ministry of agriculture with the participation of ministries and other parties so that they can work on water conservation and water usage.

The shortage of groundwater and surface water is the great disaster

"The water level of the dam has decreased by 9.40 meters compared to last year," said Rahman Khani, the director of Darbandikhan Dam.

The confined water in the dam is 650 million cubic meters, less than last year. "We've seen two other waves of drought. The difference between this year and the previous years is that dams built on the Iranian weren’t impacting Sirwan [river] as much as now, the situation is worse this year."

Iran cut off Sirwan water for a period of time but released it a few months later, at a lower rate.

Khani deemed it necessary for the high drought response committee to take necessary measures in areas with water shortages and to have long-term strategic plans for the unfinished dams.

In Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and many other areas, shortage of water or drinking water are yet an issue, and people are forced to rely on buying water. Residents of several neighborhoods protested for days in the capital city Erbil earlier this month, forcing the government to provide them with water but in tankers.

"The council of ministers has not allocated a budget for any other issue to face drought," said Kastro Maruf, head of the Sulaimaniyah’s agriculture and water resources in the provincial council committee, "but the ministry of agriculture has done its duty."

He added the provincial council supports the agriculture ministry report on combating drought, compensating farmers and shepherds, distribution of seeds, fuel, and fish for dams among other issues. So far, only dams have been worked on.

Maruf says the ministry of agriculture has asked for 25 billion dinars to deal with drought, but the money has not been spent. “No institution working to face the drought in the Kurdistan Region has a plan prepared. Part of the reason is carelessness, another part is the government is not responding to their demands.”

After the emergence of the water crisis this year, the KRG decided to allocate 13.4 billion dinars to complete the dam construction project, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Agriculture in July this year.

"We don’t have any financial estimates on what the drought losses are” but crops, and wheat especially have been damaged the most, according to Hussein Hama Karim to PEREGRAF, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources.

In the Kurdistan Region, there are more than five million dunams land in Kurdistan Region rely on rainwater and a million they rely on irrigation.

"Due to the lack of water and lack of rain, grasslands have decreased, which has had a major impact on animal food, so livestock has been severely damaged with the decrease of forage and water," said the spokesperson.

These impacts can be clearly seen in the market, especially in summer products, as production decreases due to lack of rain and does not meet local demands.

In addition to decreasing water levels of dams, groundwater has also decreased in some areas, which has affected beekeeping and fish produce because they lay eggs on the shores and when water decreases most of their eggs are destroyed.

Hama Karim said they had allowed barley imports to increase forage, but have prevented bringing animals to the Region’s grasslands from outside.

The water situation in other parts of Iraq is also bad, particularly in areas that rely on water from the Kurdistan Region's dams.

Moreover, the water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the hundreds of branches that flow from Turkey have decreased significantly, in addition to dozens of small rivers flowing in from Iran. Some of these are water sources for the Kurdistan Region's dams, but Iran has built dams on its own land, hoards the water and creates a blockage for water flow into the Kurdistan Region.