BAGHDAD: It was the river that is said to have watered the biblical Garden of Eden and helped give rise to civilization itself.
But today the Tigris is dying. Human activity and climate change have choked its once mighty flow through Iraq, where it—with its twin river, the Euphrates—made Mesopotamia a cradle of civilization thousands of years ago.
Iraq may be oil-rich, but the country is plagued by poverty, drought and desertification after decades of war.
Hit by one natural disaster after another, it is one of the five countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the UN.
From April, temperatures exceed 35 degrees Celsius and violent sandstorms often turn the sky orange and blanket the country in a layer of dust.
In hellish summers, the mercury reaches a blistering 50 degrees Celsius — near the limit of human endurance — with frequent power outages turning off air conditioning for millions.
The Tigris, the lifeline connecting the fabled cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, has been choked by dams, most of them upstream in Turkey, and falling rains.
An AFP video journalist traveled along the 1,500km stretch of river across Iraq, from the rugged Kurdish north to the Gulf south, to document the ecological catastrophe that is forcing people to change their old ways.
The Tigris’ journey through Iraq begins in the mountains of autonomous Kurdistan near the borders of Turkey and Syria, where local people raise sheep and grow potatoes.
“Our lives depend on the Tigris,” said farmer Pibo Hassan Dolmassa, 41, in a dusty coat in the town of Faysh Khabur. “All our work, our agriculture, depends on it.
“The water used to flow freely,” he said, but for the past two or three years, “there has been less water flowing every day.”
The Iraqi government and Kurdish farmers accuse Turkey, where the Tigris originates, of retaining water in its levees, dramatically reducing inflow into Iraq.
According to official Iraqi statistics, the level of the Tigris entering Iraq has dropped to just 35 percent of its average over the past century.
Baghdad regularly urges Ankara to release more water.
But Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Guney, urged Iraq to “use available water more efficiently,” tweeting in July that “water in Iraq is largely wasted.”
He may be right, experts say. Iraqi farmers tend to flood their fields as they have done since ancient Sumerian times instead of irrigating them, resulting in huge water losses.
All that remains of the Diyala River, a tributary that joins the Tigris near the central plain capital Baghdad, is puddles of stagnant water dotting its parched bed.
The drought has dried up the watercourse important to the region’s agriculture. This year, authorities have been forced to cut Iraq’s acreage by half, meaning crops are no longer being grown in the hard-hit Diyala governorate.
“We will be forced to give up farming and sell our animals,” said Abu Mehdi, 42, wearing a white djellaba robe. “We were displaced by the war” against Iran in the 1980s, he said, “and now we are displaced for water. Without water, we cannot live in these areas at all.” The farmer went into debt to dig a 30-meter well to get water. “We sold everything,” Abu Mehdi said, but “it was a failure.”
The World Bank warned last year that much of Iraq could face a similar fate.
“By 2050, a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature and a 10 percent decrease in precipitation would result in a 20 percent reduction in available freshwater,” it said.
“In these circumstances, almost a third of Iraq’s irrigated land will have no water.”
Water scarcity, which affects agriculture and food security, is already among the “key drivers of rural-urban migration” in Iraq, the United Nations and several nongovernmental groups said in June.
And the International Organization for Migration said last month that “climate factors” displaced more than 3,300 families in central and southern Iraq in the first three months of this year.
“Climate migration is already a reality in Iraq,” the IOM said.
That summer, the level of the Tigris in Baghdad was so low that people were playing volleyball in the middle of the river and splashing barely waist-deep in its water.
Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources blames silt for the river’s reduced flow as sand and soil that once washed downstream are now settling and forming sandbars.
Until recently, Baghdad authorities used heavy machinery to dredge the silt, but with tight budgets the work has slowed.
Years of war has destroyed much of Iraq’s water infrastructure, leaving many cities, factories, farms and even hospitals to dump their waste directly into the river.
As sewage and garbage from Greater Baghdad flow into the shrinking Tigris, pollution is creating a concentrated toxic soup that threatens marine life and human health.
Environmental policy is not a high priority for Iraqi governments grappling with political, security and economic crises.
Environmental awareness among the general public also remains low, said Green Climate Group activist Hajjer Hadi, although “every Iraqi feels climate change through rising temperatures, reduced rainfall, falling water levels and dust storms,” she said. “See those palm trees? They’re thirsty,” said Molla Al-Rached, a 65-year-old farmer, pointing to the brown skeletons of a once-green palm grove.
“You need water! Should I try watering her with a glass of water?” he asked bitterly. “Or with a bottle?”
“There is no fresh water, there is no more life,” said the farmer, with a beige keffiyeh shawl wrapped around his head. He lives in Ras Al-Bisha, where the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Shatt Al-Arab, flows into the Gulf, near the borders of Iran and Kuwait.
In nearby Basra — once dubbed the Venice of the Middle East — many of the depleted waterways are clogged with rubbish.
In the north, many of the once-famous Mesopotamian swamps — the vast wetlands home to the “swamp Arabs” and their unique culture — have become desert since Saddam Hussein drained them to punish his people in the 1980s.
But another threat plagues the Shatt Al-Arab: Salt water from the Gulf is pushing upstream as the river flow decreases.
The United Nations and local farmers say increasing salinity is already affecting agricultural yields, with a trend set to worsen as global warming raises sea levels.
Al-Rached said he has to buy water for his livestock from tankers and wildlife is now entering populated areas in search of water.
“My government doesn’t provide me with water,” he said. “I want water, I want to live. I want to plant like my ancestors.”
Barefoot fisherman Naim Haddad stands in his boat like a Venetian gondolier, steering it home as the sun sets on the waters of the Shatt Al-Arab.
“From father to son, we’ve dedicated our lives to fishing,” said the 40-year-old, holding up the day’s catch.
In a country where grilled carp is the national dish, the father of eight prides himself on “no government salary, no allowances”.
But salinity takes its toll as it crowds out the most valuable freshwater species, which are being replaced by marine fish.
“In the summer we have salt water,” Haddad said. “The sea water rises and comes here.”
Last month, local authorities reported that salinity in the river north of Basra has reached 6,800 parts per million – almost seven times that of fresh water.
Haddad cannot switch to sea fishing because his small boat is unsuitable for the choppy Gulf waters, where he would also risk clashing with the Iranian and Kuwaiti coast guards. And so the fisherman is at the mercy of Iraq’s shrinking rivers, his fate tied to theirs. “When the water goes,” he said, “the fishing goes. And our livelihood too.”