Haider Muhammad used to grow wheat and barley on his land in southern Iraq, as his father used to do before him, but today he earns his living as a construction worker, after drought forced him to abandon his land and migrate to the city in another province.
The forty-year-old man, who has lived since 2017 in Karbala, which includes important religious shrines and is a center for religious tourism, says that “the transition was difficult, as we are not used to the city.”
Agriculture and animal husbandry ended
In the shantytown where Mohammed built his home, gray mass buildings line the narrow streets. At the entrance to the neighborhood, which the municipality provides for free with water and electricity, a few cows graze on the land strewn with rubbish, and tangles of electric wires pass over them.
Muhammad, who was displaced from the village of Al-Khunijer in Al-Diwaniyah governorate, recounts that “there is no work in our region, which depends on agriculture and animal husbandry. Agriculture and animals have ended. We have seen that we have no livelihood except in Karbala.”
He added, “We want to eat bread. Every person wants to work hard for his family. I have four children in school. They need money for transportation and clothes.”
Mohamed is now a day laborer whenever he finds an opportunity on construction sites. In order to earn $15 a day, he also works as a taxi driver.
“If you don’t work, don’t eat,” adds the man, with a trimmed mustache and an elegant black abaya.
In his village, the crops of recent years were between 40 and 50 tons. However, “water scarcity has affected agricultural lands and livestock,” he says.
The United Nations ranks Iraq among the five countries most affected by climate change, while Iraq denounces the dams being built by neighboring Turkey and Iran, which have caused a significant decrease in the level of rivers entering its lands.
With the decline of rains, drought has worsened strongly in the last four years, prompting the authorities to significantly reduce the areas of cultivated land in proportion to the quantities of available water.
Marginalization and exclusion
As of mid-March, there were “12,212 families (73,272 people) displaced by drought in ten Iraqi governorates” in central and southern Iraq, according to a recently published report by the International Organization for Migration.
Among the governorates most affected are the governorates of Dhi Qar, Maysan and Diwaniyah, according to the organization, noting that 76% of the displaced families go to urban areas.
In April, a UN report warned of the risk of “social unrest” that could arise from climatic factors.
The report warned that “in the absence of adequate public services and economic opportunities… climate-induced urbanization and urbanization may reinforce pre-existing structures of marginalization and exclusion.”
But how can this exodus from the countryside be stopped? In Iraq, which has a population of 42 million, one in five Iraqis live in an area affected by water shortages, according to the same report.
This poses a major challenge in a country that relies heavily on oil and is finding it difficult to diversify its economy. Agriculture accounts for 20% of jobs and is the second largest contributor to GDP at 5%, after oil.
For the governor of Diwaniyah, Maitham al-Shahd, this displacement may exacerbate the problem of “unemployment because there are no job opportunities sufficient for the large numbers that migrated to the city.”
He warned that “the migration of residents from the countryside to the city causes overcrowding in the population, and therefore services may not meet the needs of these numbers,” noting that the infrastructure in cities is dilapidated due to years of wars, corruption and mismanagement.
Thousands of agricultural dunams deserted
Because of the drought, “thousands of agricultural dunams” in Diwaniyah have become deserted, according to the governor, some of them five years ago. 120 villages in the governorate live without water for drinking and daily use, compared to 75 in 2022. Among them are the villages of Al Khanijer and Al Bu Ziyad, where the main irrigation canal is completely dry.
In Al Bu Ziyad, there are still 170 families in the village, according to its mayor, Majed Raham, 12 years ago. Within two years, a hundred families had left the village for Karbala or another small town about an hour away.
At the entrance of Al Bu Ziyad, mud houses left by their residents, and others made of bricks under construction, were left as they are. Some of them belong to the Mukhtar family, who left five of his cousins from the village.
“This has not happened here before. Our ancestors were born here and we have lived here for a lifetime… People have lived here for a hundred years. Similar migration has not happened before,” al-Mukhtar says heartily.
People in the village live on water distributed from tanks belonging to the municipality, which is not sufficient for their needs.
They also receive subsidies from the state, while some family members travel long distances every day to work in a nearby city, according to al-Mukhtar.
“There is no water. People want to migrate, but those who do not have the ability cannot go and rent a house in another place,” he added.