|Walnut farmer Backtiar Hamakhan @Judit Neurink|
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Dead fish lay in dry river beds, and a drinking water crisis is afoot, because neighboring Iran is diverting the flow of a river. The disaster that hit the towns of Qaladze and Khanaqin this summer has shocked the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Much of the problem, however, is far less visible. In the cool, green mountains near the Kurdish town of Biara, a walnut-growing area for decades, farmers complain that the mountain wells are drying up. Among them are Backtiar Hamakhan, who uses a spade to remove stones and sand to allow what little water there is to reach his trees. Despite this, the supply is no longer enough to fill his water cistern, and he watches as it flows downhill to his neighbor’s land.
“It’s been getting less and less for four years now,” Hamakhan sighs. “And now one of our two wells has completely dried up.”
Those who farm these slopes overlooking the rugged border area with Iran still remember how only forty years ago they could grow tomatoes and tobacco here. Now, as three of the 10 wells feeding the village of Balkha have dried up and the others are producing less water, the walnut years may soon be over as well.
On the slope near Hamakhan’s land, some farmers have installed pipes to transport precious water from their remaining well directly to their orchards. The surrounding hillside is drying up, because the water no longer flows along the riverbed. This has already resulted in a dispute, with one of the farmers going to court because he no longer gets any water.
Anyone with money drills a well and buys a pump, but these pumps are the cause of much of the problem, explained Shahpoor Ghaffar Amin, an engineer who owns an orchard on the hill. He works for the municipality of Halabja, at the bottom of the mountain. There, drilling wells is now prohibited, he said.
“But farmers go ahead and drill anyway, without a permit,” Amin remarked. “And because they use too much water, the water table has dropped tremendously.” The mountain wells have dried up due to the low level of the underground aquifers and the drop in water pressure.
The problems farmers face in Balkha are the result of a combination of longer, hotter and drier summers as well as the building of dams in neighboring Iran. Although Balkha still has water, it’s not clear for how much longer. The aquifer contains “old” water, meaning it is not replenishable by rainfall, but only after a long, natural filtering process.