“The marshes are drying,” Mohammed Raed, 19, said as he left them behind, walking his family’s emaciated buffalo toward a neighboring province, where there was still the hope of feeding them.
Mr. Sahlani, the science teacher, said people now eyed their upstream neighbors with suspicion, accusing them of taking more water from the irrigation canals than they’re due and then shutting the sluice gates, leaving too little for residents downstream to grow crops.
Without realizing it, he was describing — on a much smaller scale — Iraq’s standoff with Turkey and Iran, which control much of the Euphrates and the Tigris.
“I understand the problem,” said Ghazwan Abdul Amir, the Iraqi water ministry’s director in Naseriyah, adding that the government was hoping to bring more water to residents in the area.
But water is scarce and money is tight, he said: “Maybe next year.”
Fixing Iraq’s outdated farming techniques, which waste as much as 70 percent of the water used for irrigation, according to a study done for Iraq’s water ministry, is paramount. But persuading farmers to change has been slow going. There were just 120 drip irrigation systems allotted to farmers in Mr. Sahlani’s province last year to save water — and the farmers had to pay for them.
Past the urban sprawl of northern Naseriyah, with its small auto repair shops and vegetable stands, the land empties out. Storm clouds gather in the late afternoon but then disperse without shedding a drop. Tufts of grasses, yellow and brown by late June, offer signs that crops grew here not so long ago.
The wind starts early each morning, blowing ceaselessly until dusk. It strips the topsoil, drying the land until all that is left is an earthen dust that piles on the quickly mounting dunes.
A short drive off the highway, deeper into the desert, lies Al Najim, a village being blown off the map. Thirty years ago, it had 5,000 people. Today there are just 80 left. The temperature hovered at 122 degrees.
Qahatan Almihana, an agricultural engineer, pointed at the town’s landmarks: buildings half-covered in sand, doors buried too deep to open. Sand piled halfway up the walls, poured in the windows and weighed down the roofs.
“That was the school,” he said. The teachers stopped coming in early 2022.
Sheikh Muhammad Ajil Falghus, the head of the Najim tribe, was born in the village. “The land was good, the soil was good,” he explained. Until the early 2000s, he said, “we grew wheat and barley, corn and clover.”
Now, all that grows are small groups of tamarisk trees planted as a bulwark against the sands.
“We are living now on the verge of life,” the sheikh said. “There is no agriculture, no planting possible anymore. This is the end of the line, the end of life. We wait for a solution from God, or from the good people.”