Water resources in Iraq face critical challenges that threaten their sustainability and have a profound impact on the livelihoods of the population and the environment. In the past four years, the country has experienced a deeply concerning decline in water sources and a noticeable degradation in water quality, which have affected the viability of agriculture in certain areas.
Iraq is at the epicenter of a global drought crisis. It ranks as the world’s
fifth-most vulnerable country, in terms of climate change. It is losing an estimated 8–12 billion cubic meters of surface water annually due to evaporation. And even as increasing heat turns Iraq’s water into vapor, less water is pouring in: the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates are diminishing because of neighboring countries’ policies and their development projects on these rivers and their tributaries. Further, internal water mismanagement—including unregistered agricultural projects and fish farms—exacerbates the situation. This mismanagement is overseen by individuals who lack authorization for their work from relevant ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry of Water Resources.
The human costs of Iraq’s water crisis are clear enough, ranging from polluted water that has sickened thousands to abandoned farms, mass migration, and destroyed ecosystems. Here, I present a different and important perspective: a view from earth’s orbit. Satellite images reveal the staggering degradation and disappearance of Iraq’s water resources—as well as some facts about the causes of the crisis.
Strategic Reservoirs and Natural Lakes
Lakes and reservoirs formed by dams play a crucial role as vital water sources in Iraq. They also serve as significant indicators of fluctuating water conditions, providing insights into the country’s strategic water reserves. Over the past four years, there has been a noticeable decline in water levels across most of these strategic lakes and reservoirs. This decline can be attributed to reduced water inflows, the impact of climate change, and the depletion of lake waters resulting from human activities, including the creation of artificial lakes. Examples of such lakes include Hamrin, along with natural ones like al-Habbaniyah in Anbar governorate, al-Razzaza (the second-largest lake in Iraq, spanning Karbala and Anbar), Sawa in Muthanna, al-Tharthar in the northwest of Tikrit governorate and northern Anbar, and Dukan in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The images captured by the
Sentinel Hub satellites, utilizing the Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI) for water spot monitoring, reveal a significant decrease in the water levels of Lake Qadisiyah, a man-made body on the Euphrates in Anbar. With a surface area of five hundred square kilometers and a storage capacity of 8.2 billion cubic meters, this lake holds strategic importance as the key reservoir for the Haditha Dam. Lake Qadisiyah is recognized as the fourth-largest lake in Iraq. However, the lake is currently grappling with a severe reduction in water inflows.
Qadisiyah Lake in July 2019 (left) and July 2023 (right). Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), NDWI images
Iraq has experienced notable climatic changes,
including a significant reduction in rainfall. Coupled with escalating evaporation rates, these factors have had a profound impact on the natural landscape. Satellite images have revealed the alarming disappearance of Sawa Lake in Muthanna governorate. Sawa Lake is a naturally occurring body of about twelve square kilometers that is fed by an underground aquifer connected to the Euphrates. Despite previous reports of the governorate’s efforts to restore water to the lake in May 2022, recent photographs circulated in Iraqi and international media indicate that the lake has almost completely vanished. This serves as a stark illustration of the severity of the water crisis and its detrimental effects on the region’s ecosystems.
Sawa Lake in June 2019 (left) and June 2023 (right). Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), true color images
Sawa Lake heavily relies on groundwater as its primary source of replenishment. Unfortunately, this groundwater supply has also experienced a decline due to various factors, including insufficient rainfall, disruptions caused by climate change, and the unregulated digging of artesian wells. The demand for these wells has intensified as the water crisis has worsened. Consequently, the combination of reduced rainfall, climate disturbances, and uncontrolled well excavation has exacerbated the overall scarcity of water, leading to the depletion of groundwater. The condition of Sawa Lake shows the interconnectedness of the issues contributing to the water crisis—and, relatedly, the need for comprehensive measures to address the water crisis and regulate the utilization of groundwater resources.
Marshes on the Brink
The famous marshes of the Tigris and Euphrates floodplains also face significant environmental challenges, primarily related to drought and climate change.
Saddam Hussein’s regime systematically drained the marshes, but they were partially restored to life in 2006. In 2016, UNESCO recognized the marshes, which host an ancient culture and unique biodiversity,
as a World Heritage site.
Yet the marshes have been pushed back to the brink due to severe drought conditions. Upstream desertification, lower inflows, and climate change have all made the effects of the drought worse, and strained the marshes’ ecosystem.
The Iraqi Marshes in August 2019 (left) and August 2023 (right). Source: Sentinel Hub satellites (EO browser), true color images
Satellite images provide clear evidence of the diminishing green areas within the marshlands over the past four years, with a corresponding increase in barren areas. This visible transformation highlights the ecological consequences of prolonged water scarcity and changing climatic patterns.
Processing satellite images with the
Normalized Difference Moisture Index (NDMI), which shows vegetation and water content, effectively identifies a decline in humidity levels and an escalation in dryness within the marshes. The wet areas are visually represented by vibrant blue hues, while the dry regions are depicted through distinct yellow-red shades.
The Iraqi Marshes in June 2019 and August 2023 (right), showing general moisture. Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), NDMI images A Human-Caused Crisis
Human activities have played a detrimental role in the destruction of Iraq’s lakes.
Alongside the aforementioned factors contributing to their decline, the consequences of human actions have had severe implications. Examples include the reduced release of water from dams in Iran, which has cut off forty tributaries of the Euphrates, and the construction of dams by Turkey along the Iraqi border, which have also significantly diminished water resources.
Hamrin Lake, a 340-square-kilometer man-made reservoir in Diyala governorate, stands out as having suffered from these factors. The lake has experienced an 80 percent reduction in its water level, according to Thaer Obaid, a professor of air and environmental sciences at Al-Mustansiriya University. In interviews, Obaid has explained this decrease as a result of the scarcity of water from the Alwand River in Iran, and from the Darbandikhan Dam in Iraqi Kurdistan, which heavily relies on the Alwand River for sustenance. Furthermore, agricultural and industrial activities have contributed significantly to the decline of available water. For example, Razzaza Lake—a 1,500-square-kilometer reservoir constructed in the 1970s—has dried up due to the depletion of nearby groundwater caused by the drilling of approximately 1,000 artesian wells for agricultural purposes in Karbala governorate, as reported by the Ministry of Water Resources.
The situation has been exacerbated by the proliferation of artificial fishponds, which have doubled in number in recent years.
The situation has been exacerbated by the proliferation of artificial fishponds, which have doubled in number in recent years. According to a report from the Office of Financial Supervision for the year 2018,
the number of unauthorized lakes in Iraq surged from 680 to 1,970 between 2014 and 2017, and this figure has further doubled in recent years. In Karbala governorate, specifically, the operation of artificial fishponds witnessed a significant rise, with more than 160 lakes recorded in 2016, up from just 30 in 2014. These ponds varied in size, ranging from five hundred square meters all the way up to eighteen square kilometers. Further, satellite imagery and the NDWI have revealed a noticeable growth in the size and number of these artificial fishponds. In particular, the lakes associated with the Abbasid Shrine projects in Karbala, located near Razzaza Lake, have exhibited substantial growth. These ponds heavily rely on the water resources of Razzaza Lake to sustain their operations and support the artificial fish populations.
Fishponds in the southern part of Razzaza Lake in Karbala July 2017 (left) and January 2023. Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), NDWI images.
The establishment of unregistered agricultural lands has also had a detrimental effect on water levels. Razzaza Lake and the naturally occurring Najaf Sea—in the governorates of Karbala and Najaf, respectively—rely on tributaries of the Euphrates River for their water supply, and have been particularly impacted by this issue. The
Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which quantifies green vegetation in satellite images, shows a notable rise in the expansion of vegetative areas and agricultural projects within Karbala governorate, as well as along the road connecting Najaf and Karbala.
The increase in green Spots clearly indicates the expansion of agricultural areas near the road that connects Karbala and Najaf, between April 2017 (left) and April 2023 (right). Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), NDVI images.
The NDVI index provides additional evidence of a notable surge in unregistered agricultural areas within the city of Fallujah, in Anbar governorate. These agricultural lands receive their water supply directly from tributaries and channels that extend from the Euphrates and Lake Habbaniyah, a 140-square-kilometer man-made body between Ramadi and Fallujah.
The increase in green spots clearly indicates the expansion of agricultural areas from June 2017 (left) to March 2023 (right) south of Lake Habbaniyah in Anbar. Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), NDVI images.
Lake Habbaniyah is currently facing a significant reduction in its strategic reserves due to the conversion of a considerable portion of the lake into agricultural land. Satellite images using the NDWI index have confirmed the retreat of a substantial portion of the lake’s water, which has been replaced by agricultural areas directly fed by the Nadhim Alwarar channel, responsible for supplying water to the lake from the Euphrates.
Lake Habbaniyah in March 2017 and March 2023 (right). Source: Sentinel Hub Satellites (EO browser), NDWI images. Used with permission granted to the author as a researcher. The Need for Comprehensive Action
Artificial fishponds and unauthorized farmland pose significant challenges that necessitate strong collaboration between the state, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society. It is crucial for Iraq to implement stringent regulatory policies and procedures to address these concerns in a sustainable and equitable manner.
The government’s role in controlling and monitoring artificial fishponds and unauthorized agricultural lands is of the utmost importance. The Ministry of Agriculture holds the authority to grant official authorizations and approvals for such projects. These authorizations are established upon a comprehensive framework, encompassing various aspects handled jointly by the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Environment.
According to Ibrahim Al-Sudani, a scientific associate at the College of Energy and Environmental Sciences at the Al-Karkh University of Science, the government bears responsibility for establishing clear laws and regulations that define environmental and health standards governing the operation and maintenance of these resources. In conversations with me, Al-Sudani emphasized the significance of periodic inspections carried out by the government to ensure compliance with these laws and regulations. Moreover, Al-Sudani believes the government should be prepared to impose penalties on violators as a means to enforce adherence to the established standards.
Further, the government can effectively promote the significance of conserving artificial fishponds and preventing unauthorized farmland by implementing media campaigns and educational initiatives. These efforts aim to raise awareness among the public about the value of these resources. Additionally, encouraging community involvement in the preservation of these resources and urging them to report any violations can play a crucial role in maintaining their integrity.
NGOs also play a crucial role in monitoring artificial fishponds and unauthorized agricultural lands. Abu al-Hassan al-Musafry, the director of the Gilgamos Environmental Organization, told me that NGOs contribute expertise and knowledge in preserving natural resources and implementing environmental programs and projects. They also strive to enhance transparency, accountability, and community engagement concerning artificial fishponds and unauthorized farmlands.
Civil society plays a crucial role in maintaining equilibrium and fairness when addressing artificial fishponds and unauthorized farmlands.
Civil society plays a crucial role in maintaining equilibrium and fairness when addressing artificial fishponds and unauthorized farmlands. Environmental activist Samim Al-Fahd, a dedicated civil activist from Anbar governorate and a founding member of the Protectors of the Euphrates campaign, emphasized to me the significance of civil society’s involvement in these matters. According to Al-Fahd, civil society is instrumental in monitoring and exposing unlawful or detrimental activities in the environment. Further, civil society plays a pivotal role in raising environmental consciousness and fostering community engagement in decision-making processes related to artificial fishponds and unauthorized farmlands.
The Urgency of Reform
Water demand in Iraq is projected to surpass available supply in the
coming years, a fact that emphasizes the urgent need for significant reforms in the water sector. Precise assessments of the impending water deficit are challenging due to limited data availability. Nevertheless, a report from the Iraq Energy Institute suggests a potential shortfall of 10–20 billion cubic meters per year by 2030, which accounts for roughly a third of Iraq’s total water demand.
Water management decisions will not always be simple. fishponds and unauthorized farmlands have a significant impact on water resources in Iraq. Their presence leads to adverse effects on the overall balance of water resources within the country. Yet these ponds and farmlands play a vital role in economic development and offer employment opportunities. Only the type of comprehensive action described above will be able to solve the problem.
Header image: The Iraqi marshes in August 2023. Source: Sentinel Hub satellites (EO browser), true color images.