Livelihoods at risk as level of Lake Razaza falls

Lake Razaza (also spelled Razzaza), the second largest freshwater lake in Iraq and once an important source of fish as well as a cherished public amenity, is now depleted with high salinity levels, officials said on 3 March.

“Due to the lack of water in Lake Razaza, salt levels have risen and that has led to the demise of different types of fish… on which hundreds of fishermen depended,” said Sabri al-Amiri, head of the Fishermen’s Association in Karbala Province. Karbala is 120km south of Baghdad and Razaza is 15km west of Karbala.

The lake, with a surface area of 1810sqkm, is 40 metres above sea level and can hold some 26 billion cubic metres of water. It is part of a wide valley that includes Tharthar, Habaniya, Razaza and Bahr Najaf (Najaf Sea). The lake is supplied by eight sources, including the River Euphrates; Lake Habaniya, east of Ramadi; Rashidiya, north of Karbala; groundwater springs in Ayn al-Tamr, 80km west of Karbala; rainwater and seasonal flows.
Al-Amiri said the government sees Lake Habaniya as a huge reservoir to be used mainly for irrigation purposes.

“But the government is unaware of Razaza’s productivity: Fishermen were supplying the market with hundreds of tonnes of fish every day,” he said.

“On behalf all the fishermen, we call upon the government to revive Lake Razaza by supplying it with [sufficient] water from Lake Habaniya,” he said.

''Due to the lack of water in Lake Razaza, salt levels have risen and that has led to the demise of different types of fish… on which hundreds of fishermen depended.''

Causes

Al-Amiri said the decrease in the lake’s water level began in 1993 when former President Saddam Hussein drained part of the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates by building dams, dikes and canals (apparently also to punish the “marsh Arabs” for supporting a Shia rebellion after the 1991 Gulf War). The lake was also turned into a military training area.

Increasing salinity levels have been attributed to evaporation, with the water entering the lake being insufficient to compensate for evaporation losses, and also to low water levels in the Euphrates.

“Now the only fish available in the lake is what the locals call `al-Shanik’,” al-Amiri said.

He said the lake is replenished by inflows from nearby Lake Habaniya on average only once every 15 days because the government diverts water for irrigation purposes. He said this was insufficient to revive biodiversity in Razaza and enable year-round fishing.

According to the head of Karbala’s provincial environment directorate, Wail Jabbar, a government decision is needed on what to do about the lake’s water level.

“This essential decision will determine the nature of future projects that could be implemented with regard to the lake, and the plants and type of fish that could survive in it,” he said.

sm/ar/cb