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No water by 2040: The crisis engulfing Iraq and its historic river flow

BMJ 2023; 380 doi: (Published 06 March 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p468
  1. Zainab Hussain, journalist
  1. London

The Middle East’s ancient Tigris-Euphrates river system flow is under threat, bringing a plethora of health emergencies to Iraq, writes Zainab Hussain

In the summer of 2018, 90% of the population of Basra—the city forever linked with the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, and a key battleground in the Gulf and Iraq wars—had no access to safe fresh water. Between August and October 2018, 100 000 cases of water related diseases were recorded.1 In August 2021, Unicef reported that around three out of every five children in Iraq had no access to safely managed water services, and fewer than half of all schools have access to drinking water.2

“Diarrhoea, chicken pox, measles, typhoid fever, and cholera are currently spreading across Iraq because of the water crisis, and the government no longer provides vaccines to its citizens,” says Naseer Baqar, climate activist and field coordinator at Tigris River Protectors Association in Iraq.

Epidemiologists in Iraq’s Dhi Qar governorate said that villagers have started to depend on groundwater from wells. Such water is contaminated with bacteria and not suitable for consumption, says Baqar. “This has caused the spread of typhoid fever and cholera—people have been diagnosed with these conditions recently.”

The root cause is a crisis threatening the historic Tigris-Euphrates river system, a twin river that flows from Turkey to Iraq and through some parts of Syria. The system famously fed one of humanity’s earliest and most important ancient civilisations: Mesopotamia—the name directly translates to “between …

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