The ‘land of the two rivers’ renowned for its fertile valleys and agriculture is turning into a vast wasteland. Richard Donnelly explains how the US occupation and neoliberalism has drained the country of life.
Iraq is thirsty. A water crisis is gripping the country. One-in-five of its 38 million people do not have access to clean water, and its historically fruitful farming lands are increasingly scorched and sterile.
It shouldn’t be this way. Iraq has traditionally been characterised by its abundance of water in an otherwise arid region. The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the extensive system of waterways and marshes between them, have supported human civilisation for six thousand years. Indeed, the country’s name before its independence from Britain in 1938 — Mesopotamia in English and Bilad al-Rafidayn in Arabic — meant “the land between two rivers”.
Since the Sumerians became the first people to develop settled agriculture here in the fourth millennium BCE, Iraq’s twin rivers have fertilised the soil and provided fresh water for humans and cattle. But climate change, pollution and ecological degradation are changing this. Water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates are falling rapidly, while the sea level of the Arabian Gulf rises. The result is that water is washing back up these rivers from the sea, raising the concentration of salt in them to toxic proportions. This salt then seeps into the soil of huge tracts of land, turning the earth white and destroying its fertility. Iraq’s farmers are facing a bleak future.
It’s not just rural communities and agricultural workers that are suffering from these symptoms of the global climate and ecological crises. The salinity of Iraq’s rivers and the dumping of industrial waste into them is also driving an enormous public health catastrophe in the country’s cities. In 2018 alone, over 100,000 people in the city of Basra were hospitalised after drinking water that was unfit for human consumption.
But it is not just the ecological crisis that lies behind Iraq’s thirst. As in other parts of the world, the effects of climate change and pollution are refracted through the prism of wider social issues. The consequences of environmental degradation are exacerbated by social injustices, particularly those produced by the United States’ 2003 occupation and the cruel neoliberal political system that it has left in power. In turn, the ecological crisis is sharpening all of the pre-existing tensions within Iraqi society — and even feeding into a fightback against the corrupt economic and political elite.
And it is not only tensions within Iraqi society that are heightening. The difficulty of accessing water across the Middle East is also creating friction between the Iraqi state and its neighbours. Turkey, Syria and Iran are all building huge dams to divert rivers into their own irrigation systems and to generate electricity. Yet most of Iraq’s water comes from rivers whose sources lie in these countries. Under the impact of climate change and damming, the flow of water passing through Iraq’s rivers has fallen by 40 percent in recent decades.
Iraq has been a place of extraordinary tragedy in the 21st century. Its invasion by George W Bush and Tony Blair in 2003 led to two decades of brutal occupation, sectarian civil war and the US-enforced liberalisation of its economy. The developing water crisis is one more calamity in a disastrous recent history. But it also serves as a test case for how ecological degeneration, neoliberalism and imperialism will interact in a world increasingly dominated by the spectre of climate crisis—and what sort of resistance this will produce.
Water, war and neoliberalism
The transformation of weather patterns by climate change is at the heart of Iraq’s water crisis. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures have huge consequences in what is already one of the hottest parts of the world. While the average world temperature has gone up by around one percent since the Industrial Revolution, the average annual temperature in Iraq has increased by as much as two percent. The southern city of Basra has suffered temperatures of over 53 Celsius in recent years.
But Iraq may have been able to better adapt to these climatic changes were it not for the role played by US imperialism.
The US made its most callous contribution to the water crisis during its war against Iraq in 1990-91 and its invasion of the country in 2003. In both wars, it deliberately bombed water sanitation facilities and sewage works, striking at ordinary Iraqis’ ability to access water and grow food. The attacks were a form of collective punishment meted out to the Iraqi people, despite the huge numbers of them who opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein, the US’s bogeyman. American military leaders hoped that the strikes would weaken the grip of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party on power.
But the bombings also had another aim. The destruction of important parts of Iraq’s water system opened opportunities for “reconstruction” by private US firms. Even before Hussein was captured at the end of 2003, the US created an occupational government called the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to hand out contracts to rebuild Iraq. Lucrative deals at inflated prices, which any future civilian government would be locked into, were made with big US engineering companies like Bechtel.
However, many of these reconstruction projects were simply never completed. Protected by the US, companies like Bechtel were able to pull out of their contracts with the Iraqi state once the CPA handed over power to a new Iraqi government in 2004. Municipal water systems across Iraq were left incomplete. A decade and a half later, many of these still remain unfinished — monuments to the US’s ruinous attempt to impose a neoliberal transformation of the Iraqi economy.
The US’s governor of Iraq was Paul Bremer. Having served in the Reagan administration in the 1980s, he was possessed with an ideological fervour for privatisation and the free market. He turned Iraq into a testing ground for neoliberal dogma, opening up the entire economy to private companies and lifting all controls on foreign ownership. A flat tax on all individual and corporate income was imposed, so that a worker on an Iraqi construction site would pay the same share of this income to the state as the huge multinational that employed him.
The privatisation of state-owned industries and the exploding inequality that followed from these measures provided fertile conditions for the growth of large scale corruption. This was compounded by the emergence of a sectarian political system devised by the US to play Iraq’s three main ethnic groups — Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds — off against another, thus splitting the resistance to the occupation. This allowed the political elite of each group to develop a clientelist system of patronage, using their power over sections of the state to give state contracts to their friends and political allies — even if they couldn’t fulfill those contracts.
One measure of just how corrupt Iraq has become since the US invasion is the number of public sector jobs. In 2003, this number stood at one million, but today it is closer to three million. Since the public services provided by the Iraqi state have been cut drastically after the American invasion, few of these “jobs” are associated with useful projects like rebuilding Iraq’s shattered water infrastructure. Instead, millions of “ghost employees” have been recruited onto the state payroll through networks of confessional patronage or are being paid by the government to be part of sectarian paramilitary groups that are aligned with various leading politicians.
The result of this endemic corruption is that investment rarely finds its way to the frontline of the projects that it is allocated to. Money earmarked for rebuilding the sanitation centres and other parts of the water network has disappeared into the pockets of crooked politicians and private companies. The grim consequence is that poisonous yellow water runs from the taps in many Iraqi households.
Laboratory for environmental warfare
Irrigation systems were another target of US bombs during the invasion, and they also remain partially unreconstructed because of the corruption of the Iraqi state. The neoliberal economic reforms introduced by Bremer and the CPA compounded the problems for Iraqi farmer by lifting all protections on foreign imports and thus flooding the country with cheaper American agricultural products.
The CPA wanted to use these free market reforms to reshape the Iraqi farming sector, turning it away from production to fulfil domestic food needs and towards producing cash crops for an export market. This process has involved increasing use of monoculture methods of farming in which a single crop is produced year after year in a large area of land. This has the same detrimental effects in Iraq as it does across the world — falling biodiversity and soil zapped of nutrients.
US agribusiness benefits from monocropping because farmers become more and more reliant on genetically modified seeds and fertilisers produced by American companies such as Cargill and Monsanto. But the damage to the soil, alongside the difficulty of accessing water and the effects of salt on the earth, are coming together to accelerate the desertification of the country. Iraq’s government warns that about 92 percent of the country is at risk of becoming desert.
The US assault on Iraq’s water and irrigation systems was not the only time that the country had seen water used as a weapon. Iraq has a long history as a laboratory for environmental warfare.
In 1991, Hussein diverted the Tigris and Euphrates to drain the huge marshlands in Iraq’s southwestern corner. His aim was to punish its inhabitants, the so-called Marsh Arabs, for allowing refugees from a failed uprising to hide among them. This destroyed the way of life of the Marsh Arabs, who used the wetlands as a network of waterways and a source of food. Up to 120,000 ended up in refugee camps in Iran and just 20,000 remain in Iraq today.
And the US’s deliberate targeting of water infrastructure has inspired similar tactics from other players in the long and bloody conflict that has unfurled since the invasion in 2003. The ultra-sectarian Sunni armed group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged in 2014 and quickly developed a strategy of using control over water to entrench their grip over large parts of Iraq. In June 2015, its fighters seized the Ramadi dam and cut the water supply to towns held by the Iraqi army.
ISIS has now been all but defeated, but the aftershocks of their brutal campaigns of military conquest, and the subsequent war against them by the US, Iran and the Iraqi state, continue to be felt by Iraq’s farmers. Again, the widespread corruption in the Iraqi government means that vital infrastructure damaged by the war isn’t being fixed. Moreover, the effects of climate change mean that farmers called up to fight against ISIS are returning to their land to find it choked of fresh water.
Oil, inequality and resistance
It is frequently workers in the Global South who are at the centre of extractive industries such as oil, coal and gas. The economies of poorer countries have been shaped by richer nations to focus on producing raw materials for the core of international capitalist system. But while the global economy is dependent on the extraction of fossil fuels, it is working class people in the Global South who are the last to receive any of the wealth generated by these industries — and the first to be hit by the consequences of climate change.
This irony is not lost of the people of Basra, which is Iraq’s second city and a huge centre of the oil industry. As well as being surrounded by huge oilfields, the city itself is also a major port and a transit centre for petroleum exports. But despite the enormous oil reserves that lie beneath their feet, ordinary Basrans see few of the benefits. Their oil may power the world economy, but they often have just a few hours of electricity per day. And, with climate change regularly driving temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius, the inability to power air conditioning can make life unbearable.
The decline of Iraqi agriculture is also fuelling migration towards the big cities. The huge slums around cities such as Basra are growing as refugees from the economic consequences of climate change in rural areas gravitate towards urban centres that hold out the possibility of employment. But the corruption of Iraqi sectarian neoliberal elite mean that these slums are largely left detached from the water system, the electricity grid and the sewage network. One effect of this is that household waste ends up being directly dumped into the Shatt al-Arab river, which has been one of the factors behind the particularly enormous scale of the public health crisis driven by dirty water in Basra.
But while the interaction of climate change with the bloody consequences of the US occupation and the marketisation of the Iraq economy is producing vast suffering, it is also motivating anger.
In September 2018 that rage exploded in Basra. Protesters took to the streets to demand access to clean water. Later, riots broke out and almost every government building in the city was burnt down. To explain their fury to the world, protestors posted videos of the black sludge coming out of their taps to social media. It was a dramatic example of how the environmental crisis can intensify the tensions between ordinary people and their rulers.
Today, the people of Basra are back on the streets. Alongside cities such as Najaf, Nasiriyah and Baghdad, Basra has seen huge protests since October 2019. Protesters have occupied its squares and demanded an end to the sectarian political system. Young people who can’t find jobs and feel shut out by the corrupt political system are the leading edge of the demonstrations. Their demands are broader than the earlier water riots in Basra. Nevertheless, the water crisis serves as a constant reminder of the disaster wrought by the US invasion and the crooked political setup it has left in place.
The water crisis in Iraq shows us a picture of humanity’s near future as we hurtle towards climate catastrophe. Climate change will drive thirst, hunger and displacement worldwide. But it is the Global South that will shoulder more than its share of the burden, and working class people will be hit first and worst by the effects of environmental collapse. Imperialism and neoliberalism will make ordinary people pay for the ecological crisis, even as the rich continue to turn huge profits on fossil fuels.
Yet Iraq shows us another potential future too. This is one in which mass movements against poverty, inequality and imperialism become fused with the question of how we preserve the conditions for life on earth. With events like the water riots in Basra, we are today only just beginning to see what an explosive future this might be.