Iraq’s ‘pearl of the south’ Lake Sawa runs dry amid water crisis

Lake SAWA, Iraq (AP) – Hussam al-Aqouli recalls the exact spot along Lake Sawa in southern Iraq where his two daughters once dipped their feet in clear water. Now he stands there two years later and the bare earth is cracking 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 the azure coasts into chunks of salt.

Lake Sawa is just the latest victim in this wide-ranging nationwide struggle with water shortages that experts say is being caused by climate change, including record-low rainfall and consecutive droughts. Pressure on water resources is fueling competition for the precious resource among businessmen, farmers and herders, with the poorest Iraqis among the hardest hit by the disaster.

“This lake was known as the pearl of the south,” said al-Aqouli, 35, a resident of the nearby town of Samawa, gazing out at the dry cavernous void. “Now it’s our tragedy.”

Muthanna, between the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich heart of Basra, is one of the poorest provinces in Iraq. The number of people living below the poverty line in the province is nearly three times the national average.

Desert plains dominate the landscape with a narrow ribbon of farmland along the Euphrates River in the north. Economic development has been hampered by the country’s turbulent history, neglect by the Baath Party regime since the 1980s and later by wars and sanctions.

The locals call the area around Lake Sawa “atshan” – or simply “thirsty” in Arabic.

Formed over limestone rock and dotted with gypsum formations, the lake has no inlet or outlet and the source of its waters had stunned experts for centuries, fueling fantastical folklore and religious tales that locals recite as historical fact.

Al-Aqouli spent his childhood visiting the lake with his family. He hoped he could do the same if he started a family, he said. Instead, he spends his days on social media writing lengthy blog posts and urging Iraqis to take action. He often feels hopeless.

The lake rises 5 meters (16 ft) above sea level and is about 4.5 kilometers (3 miles) long and 1.8 kilometers (1 mile) wide.

Lake Sawa appears in some ancient Islamic texts. It is said that the lake was miraculously formed on the day the prophet Muhammad was born in 570 AD. Thousands of religious tourists visit the site every year to immerse themselves in the holy water, which they believe is blessed by God.

The lake’s rich mineral deposits are also considered by some to be a cure for skin diseases common in historically neglected Muthanna.

According to locals, the drying up of the waters of Lake Sawa heralds the return of the Imam al-Mahdi, a revered figure in Shia Islam and a descendant of the Prophet.

“It means the end of days is near,” al-Aqouli said jokingly.

For environmentalists, doomsday predictions may not be far off.

Studies have shown that the lake is fed by underground water sources through a system of fissures and fissures. It can also collect rainwater from surrounding valleys and heavy rainfall in recent years has caused flash flooding.

“Water degradation started more than 10 years ago, but this summer was the first time we lost the entire wetland,” said Laith Ali al-Obeidi, an environmental activist in southern Iraq.

Experts said the lake hasn’t dried up for good, but its disappearance this year is a worrying result of thousands of illegal wells dug by businessmen in nearby cement factories and production zones, due to drought and dwindling water along the nearby Euphrates.

In early June, some water began to appear again as farmers, having finished the harvest season, stopped diverting underground water.

Salt heaps lie along the road to the river in Muthanna Province and are controlled 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.

Mortadha Ali, 45, is involved in the salt trade in Muthanna. He blames years of government neglect in the province for the disappearance of Lake Sawa. “They need to provide jobs for people so that they are not forced to dig wells to earn a living,” he said.

Enforcing the closure of illegal wells and additional protective measures would have reversed the decline of Lake Sawa, said Aoun Diab, an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. But these would have directly affected the economic interests of provincial officials.

This has disrupted a delicate and interdependent ecosystem maintained by the rare desert oasis.

Fish species, unfit for human consumption, were food for several vulnerable migratory birds that resided along the banks. Now that the fish are gone, the birds will also have to divert their seasonal passage or perish, al-Obeidi said.

And the future is poised to bring more hardships, with alarming predictions of more water stress. The Ministry of Water Resources has said that water levels will have fallen by 60% in 2022 compared to last year.

Lake Sawa is “a case study for climate change in Iraq,” al-Obeidi said. “This is the future.”

But the lake is also a ghost of its once illustrious past.

The only body of water near the town of Samawah, the area has been home to thousands of tourists every year. Their trash — water bottles, soda cans, and abandoned slippers — remains along the dried-up shores as an ode to what the impoverished area has lost.

Vacation rigs built decades ago are half finished. Most were looted after the Gulf War in the 1990s and then after the US-led 2003 invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

In 2014, Lake Sawa was declared a Ramsar Site, an international designation for important wetlands, and gained recognition as a rare area in need of protection. A large billboard to mark the occasion overlooks the site. Local authorities hoped this would boost tourism and government resources to resume development of the area. Plans were made to pave roads and footpaths around the lake, as well as power lines and water projects.

These ultimately did not go through.

The hot air was heavy as al-Aqouli took one last look at the lake before he left.

“Believe me, it was beautiful,” he said.

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