Operation Iraq: Deserts and Sandstorms

While US-Troops have been importing tons of sand into Iraq since 2003, the Middle-Eastern country struggles with problems connected with water shortage: desertification and sand storms. Studies show that those problems are not naturally induced, but politically in nature. 

Helicopters, weapons, tents and even printer cartridges. Since the arrival of US-troops in Iraq in 2003, millions of pieces of equipment have been shipped to or flown into the Middle-Eastern country. Most of it will be exported again until the troops have completely withdrawn at the end of December 2011.

However, one of the imported materials is likely to stay: Sand.

There are no official numbers of how much tons of sand the US-army imported to Iraq from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the past eight years. According to a New York Times report, tons of sand were needed to build up so called “blast walls” as part of a defense-system around military bases and cities.

In a country in which sand is no scarce commodity, one does not expect to find it on the list of things which have to be shipped in – especially since the problems connected to sand and desertification have increased in central Iraq in the past decades.

“Eden is drying out!” The headline of the BBC in autumn 2009 captures in a nutshell one the most threatening developments in Iraq: The region, formerly known as the prosperous Mesopotamia with its two rivers Euphrates and Tigris, has been afflicted by several droughts. In 2007 and 2008 for example, it hardly rained in Iraq. The country turned into a “dustbowl”, wrote a BBC-correspondent in 2009.

According to analysts, there are several theories about the origin of the crisis: One argument is that “the Iraqi state has not, historically, taken care of prudent water control and preservation projects”, writes Eric Davis. The Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University claims in his blog, that the situation worsened especially between 1980 and 2003, under Saddam Husayn’s rule when wars and political instability curtailed most state-run projects: “Dams and barrages were built in many areas (…) not for agriculture but to drain them for military training purposes.”

Another argument, often made by Iraqi analysts and published on several Iraqi website like the “Iraqi Business News”, asserts that the crisis is caused by dams of Iraq’s neighboring countries Turkey, Syria and Iran.

A research paper published in the Environmental Research Journal comes to a different conclusion: In the case of Iraq, the paper states, pollution is one of the biggest problem – besides desertification caused by vegetation cover or overgrazing of range, lack of erosion control on dry farmed land and improper management on irrigated land.”

Furthermore, the study adds a new type of threat: Land with a considerable amount of war residues like mines, synthetic chemical pesticides, toxic elements and or radioactive contamination.

The most obvious impact of the water crisis has been on the Iraqi agriculture: According to the US Department of Agriculture, Iraq’s wheat production in 2008 and 2009 was down 44 percent from previous years. Rivers have also been affected. In 2009, the levels of the Tigris and the Euphrates were between 50 and 70 percent lower than a decade before.

Iraq’s water shortage does not only put pressure on people working in the agricultural sector. Another consequence of Iraq’s reduced agricultural output is that the country had to import more food crops from abroad, recent studies by the UN show. According to middle-east expert Eric Davis, this “places greater strain on Iraqi hard currency reserves because food prices worldwide are on the rise”.

Furthermore, an UNESCO study claims that, in the period between 2005 and 2009, 70 percent of the Iraqi water system had been abandoned, causing the displacement of 100.000 people in northern Iraq. Moreover, sandstorms have become more frequent in recent years, sometimes bringing urban centers to a stand-still.

There are political reactions to this problems: In summer 2011, the Iraqi agriculture ministry announced to start a 4-million Dollar (2,9 Mio. Euro) project to create green oases in various parts of the country as a way to combat a increasing desertification due to water shortages.

Moreover, in October 2011, an Iranian environment official said according to AFP that Tehran and Baghdad will jointly invest 1.4 trillion Iraqi Dinar (800 million Euro) in a project to reduce the number of sand dunes in a bid to cut the number of sandstorms. However, it is still uncertain what kind of impact those projects will have on Iraq’s water crisis.

So why did the US-army import all that sand? The NYTimes quotes American commanders who claim that Iraqi sand is deemed inadequate for the blast walls: “Based on the specs that we have for blast walls, it takes a particular grain and quality of sand. You can either do one of two things: You can make the concrete, or you can just bring the sand up into Iraq.”

The Iraqi Deserts

The US Library of Congress classifies two of Iraq’s four main geographical regions as deserts: the desert in the west and southwest, and the rolling upland between the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Dust storms, sand storms and floods are the three main natural hazards listed on Iraq’s country profile on the CIA World Factbook.

Although Iraq’s main source of revenue comes from oil, agriculture is still important: In 2009, 25 percent of the population was employed in agriculture which generates ten percent of GDP. In other parts of the country, like the Diyala Province, 70 percent of the province is dependent on agriculture.