Hussam al-Aqouli remembers the exact spot along southern Iraq’s Lake Sawa where his two daughters once dipped their feet into clear waters. Now he stands there two years on and the barren earth cracks beneath him.
This year, for the first time in its centuries-long history, the lake dried up. A combination of mismanagement by local investors, government neglect and climate change has ground down its azure shores to chunks of salt.
Lake Sawa is only the latest casualty in this broad country-wide struggle with water shortages that experts say is induced by climate change, including record low rainfall and back-to-back drought. The stress on water resources is driving up competition for the precious resource among businessmen, farmers and herders, with the poorest Iraqis counting among the worst hit amid the disaster.
“This lake was known as the pearl of the south,” said al-Aqouli, 35, a native of the nearby city of Samawa, looking out onto the dry cavernous emptiness. “Now it is our tragedy.”
Between the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich heartland of Basra, Muthanna is among Iraq’s poorest provinces. The number of those living under the poverty line in the province is almost three times the national average.
Desert expanses dominate the landscape with a narrow ribbon of farmland along the Euphrates River in the north. Economic development was hindered by the country’s turbulent history, neglect by the Baath party regime since the 1980s, then later by wars and sanctions.
Locals call the area surrounding Lake Sawa “atshan” — or simply “thirsty” in Arabic, The Associated Press reported.
Al-Aqouli spent his childhood frequenting the lake with his family. He hoped he could do the same when he started a family, he said. Instead he spends his days on social media writing long blog posts and urging Iraqis to take action. Often, he feels hopeless.
The lake rises 5 meters above sea level and is about 4.5 kilometers long and 1.8 kilometers wide.
Experts said the lake has not dried up for good but its disappearance this year is a concerning consequence of the thousands of illegal wells dug by businessmen in nearby cement factories and manufacturing zones, a result of drought and decreasing waters along the nearby Euphrates.
By early June, some water began to reappear because farmers, done with the harvest season, stopped diverting underground water.
Mounds of salt line the road to the river in Muthanna province and are overseen by enterprising locals who extract it by diverting groundwater and digging wells. The salt is used as a raw material in various industries in the area.