Overexploitation and climate change are killing Lake Sawa in Iraq

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LAKE SAWA (Iraq) (AFP) – A “No Fishing” sign on the edge of Iraq’s Western Desert is one of the few clues that this was once Lake Sawa, a biodiversity-rich wetland and recreational landmark.

Human activity and climate change have combined to turn the site into an arid wasteland with heaps of salt.

The abandoned hotels and tourist facilities here date back to the 1990s, when the salt lake, surrounded by sandy shores, was at its peak and popular with honeymooners and families coming for swimming and picnicking.

But today the lake near the town of Samawa, south of the capital Baghdad, has completely dried up.

Bottles litter its ancient banks and plastic bags hang from sun-scorched shrubbery, while two pontoons have been reduced to rust.

“This year, for the first time, the lake has disappeared,” said environmental activist Husam Subhi. “In previous years, the surface area of ​​water had decreased during the dry seasons.”

Today, on the sandy soil sprinkled with salt, there remains only a pond where tiny fish swim, in a spring that connects the lake to a water table.

The five square kilometer (two square mile) lake has been drying up since 2014, says Youssef Jabbar, head of the environment department of Muthana province.

The causes were “climate change and rising temperatures”, he explained.

Abandoned hotels that once welcomed tourists by the lake Asaad NIAZIAFP

“Muthana is a desert province, it suffers from drought and lack of rainfall.”

1,000 illegal wells

A government statement released last week also reported “more than 1,000 illegally dug wells” for agriculture in the area.

Additionally, nearby cement and salt factories have “drained significant amounts of water from the groundwater table that feeds the lake,” Jabbar said.

It would take nothing less than a miracle to bring Lake Sawa back to life.

The use of groundwater should be curbed and, after three years of drought, the area would now need several seasons of abundant rainfall, in a country hit by desertification and considered one of the five most vulnerable to climate change.

The dry bed of Lake Sawa
The dry bed of Lake Sawa Asaad NIAZIAFP

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, a global treaty, has recognized Sawa as “unique…because it is an enclosed body of water in a sabkha (salt plateau) area with no entrances or exits.

“The lake is formed on limestone rock and is isolated by gypsum barriers surrounding the lake; its water chemistry is unique,” the convention’s website states.

A stopover for migrating birds, the lake was once home to “several globally vulnerable species” such as the eastern imperial eagle, houbara bustard and marbled duck.

“Lake died before me”

Sawa is not the only body of water in Iraq facing the perils of drought.

Iraqi social media is often filled with photos of grotesquely cracked soils, such as in the southern UNESCO-listed Howeiza swamps or Lake Razzaza in the central province of Karbala.

Iraqi environmental activist Latif Dibes works in his family garden, which serves as a public park
Iraqi environmental activist Latif Dibes works in his family garden, which serves as a public park Asaad NIAZIAFP

In Sawa, a sharp drop in rainfall – now just 30% of what was normal for the region – has lowered the water table, itself being drained by wells, said Aoun Dhiab, senior adviser to Iraq’s water resources ministry. .

And rising temperatures have increased evaporation.

Dhiab said authorities have banned the digging of new wells and are working to shut down illegally dug wells across the country.

Latif Dibes, who divides his time between his hometown of Samawa and his adopted country of Sweden, has worked for a decade in environmental awareness.

The former driving instructor cleans the banks of the Euphrates and has transformed the vast, lush garden of his house into a public park.

He remembers school trips and vacations from his childhood, when the family went swimming in Sawa.

Plastic bottles and bags litter what was once the shores of Lake Sawa
Plastic bottles and bags litter what was once the shores of Lake Sawa Asaad NIAZIAFP

“If the authorities had been interested, the lake would not have disappeared at this rate. It’s incredible,” he said.

“I am 60 years old and I grew up with the lake. I thought I would disappear before it, but unfortunately it died before me.”