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Iraq’s ‘Pearl of the South’ Lake Sawa dries up amid water crisis

Hussam al-Aqouli remembers the exact spot along Lake Sawa in southern Iraq where his two daughters dipped their feet in the clear waters. Now he stands there two years later and the barren land is cracking beneath him.

This year, for the first time in its centuries-old history, the lake has dried up. A combination of mismanagement by local investors, government neglect and climate change has reduced its azure coasts to pieces of salt.

Lake Sawa is just the latest casualty in this vast nationwide fight against water shortages that experts say are induced by climate change, including record rainfall and consecutive droughts. Pressure on water resources is intensifying competition for the precious resource between businessmen, farmers and herders, with the poorest Iraqis among those most affected by the disaster.

“This lake was known as the pearl of the south,” said al-Aqouli, 35, from the nearby town of Samawa, looking out over the dry cavernous void. “Now this is our tragedy.”

Between the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich heartland of Basra, Muthanna is one of Iraq’s poorest provinces. The number of people living below the poverty line in the province is almost three times higher than the national average.

Desert expanses dominate the landscape with a narrow strip of farmland along the Euphrates in the north. Economic development has been hampered by the country’s turbulent history, neglected by Baath Party rule since the 1980s, and later by wars and sanctions.

Locals call the area surrounding Lake Sawa “atshan” – or simply “thirsty” in Arabic.

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

Al-Aqouli spent his childhood frequenting the lake with his family. He hoped to be able to 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 (16 feet) above sea level and is approximately 4.5 kilometers (3 miles) long and 1.8 kilometers (1 mile) wide.

Lake Sawa appears in some ancient Islamic texts. The lake is said to have miraculously formed on the day Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 AD. Thousands of religious tourists have visited the site each year to immerse themselves in its sacred waters, which they believe to be blessed by God.

The rich mineral deposits of the lake are also believed by some to be a cure for the skin diseases prevalent in historically neglected Muthanna.

Locals say the drying up of Lake Sawa’s waters portends the return of Imam al-Mahdi, a revered figure in Shia Islam and a descendant of the Prophet.

“It means the end times are 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 receive rainwater from the surrounding valleys, and heavy rains in recent years have caused flash floods.

“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 from southern ‘Iraq.

Experts say the lake hasn’t dried up for good, but its disappearance this year is a worrying consequence of thousands of illegal wells dug by businessmen in nearby cement plants and manufacturing areas, due drought and diminishing waters along the nearby Euphrates.

In early June, water began to reappear because farmers, having finished with the harvest season, stopped diverting groundwater.

Mounds of salt line the road to the river in Muthanna province and are watched over by enterprising locals who extract it by diverting groundwater and digging wells. Salt is used as a raw material in various industries in the region.

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 should provide jobs for people, so they don’t have to dig wells to make 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 at the Ministry of Water Resources. But these would have directly affected the economic interests of provincial officials.

This disrupted a delicate and interdependent ecosystem supported by the rare desert oases.

Species of fish, unfit for human consumption, served as food for various vulnerable migratory birds that stayed along its banks. Once the fish are gone, the birds will also have to divert their seasonal passage or perish, al-Obeidi said.

And the future is about to bring more difficulties, with alarming predictions of increased water stress. The Ministry of Water Resources said water levels were down 60% from last year in 2022.

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

But the lake is also a ghost of its glorious past.

The only body of water near the town of Samawah, the region had thousands of tourists a year. Their trash – discarded water bottles, soda cans and flip flops – lingers along the parched shores as an ode to what the impoverished region has lost.

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

In 2014, Lake Sawa was named a Ramsar site, an international designation for important wetlands, becoming a rare area in need of protection. A large billboard marking the occasion overlooks the site. Local authorities hoped this would boost tourism and government resources to resume development in the area. Plans have been drawn up to pave the roads and walkways around the lake, as well as power lines and water projects.

In the end, these didn’t transpire.

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

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

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion