Instability will continue in Iraq so long as its long-neglected water crisis is not addressed
The many ongoing challenges in Iraq—from political upheaval and COVID-19 to plummeting oil prices and the resurgence of the Islamic State—often overshadow the precarious state of the country’s water resources, even though water shortages are exacerbating many of those very issues. Studies have shown that equitable access to water is vital to supporting post-conflict recovery, sustainable development and lasting peace in Iraq, because water underpins public health, food production, agricultural livelihoods and power generation. But fresh water in Iraq is becoming scarcer, fueling more social tensions.
Iraq’s population of 40 million is expected to double by 2050, while the impacts of climate change—decreased and erratic precipitation, higher temperatures, prolonged and more severe droughts—will further aggravate its water woes. Iraqi and international experts are warning that instability will continue in Iraq so long as its long-neglected water crisis is not addressed.
When anti-government protests erupted last October, Iraqis’ demands for political and economic reforms and an end to corruption and foreign influence were accompanied by calls for better basic services, like water and electricity. During the protests, Humat Dijlah, a local NGO working to protect Iraq’s natural heritage, set up a tent in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to link the right to fresh water with the broader struggle for human rights. Salman Khairalla, the organization’s executive director, says he and his colleagues wanted to encourage people to reflect on what Iraq’s future could look like with good water management, less pollution and more green space.
Yet the demonstrators’ efforts to create a better future for Iraqis were met with violent repression. More than 600 people were killed by security forces from October through January, according to Amnesty International. Others were arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared. “All human rights activists are at risk, including those fighting to protect environment and water,” Khairalla says in an interview.
Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which originate in southeastern Turkey, for nearly all of its water. But their once-abundant flows have diminished by 30 percent since the 1980s, largely due to upstream dams and irrigation projects in Turkey and Syria and, more recently, the damming of key tributaries of the Tigris in Iran. The Iraqi government expects a further decline of up to 50 percent by 2030. The lack of a legally binding water-sharing agreement among any of the riparian states leaves Iraq, furthest downstream and politically weak, with little leverage in its favor.
To make matters worse, decades of wars and Saddam Hussein-era international sanctions, as well as neglect and mismanagement by successive Iraqi governments, have left water infrastructure in disrepair. As Peter Harling wrote last year in Synaps, “An estimated two-thirds of the potable water pumped through Iraq’s grid leaks out before ever reaching its end users.” Iraq also wastes water on farming, devoting 85 percent of its water resources to the agriculture sector, which on average consumes only 70 percent of freshwater resources worldwide. This disparity is largely due to inefficient and outdated practices that are widespread in Iraq.
As the Tigris and Euphrates flow south, their water levels fall as more water is withdrawn. The quality of the water also deteriorates, because waste and pollutants are dumped directly into the rivers, and there aren’t enough wastewater treatment plants. The situation is gravest in Iraq’s southern province of Basra, where the two waterways converge to form the Shatt al-Arab river, before emptying into the Persian Gulf. The port city of Basra, the provincial capital, was once known as the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of fabled canals. Now, reduced water flow, seawater intrusion and pollution have made Basra’s water unfit for human consumption or even for the irrigation of certain crops.
During the summer of 2018, 118,000 people were hospitalized in Basra province with symptoms that included rashes, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. “While experts disagree on the exact cause of the illness, they all agree that it was related to poor water quality,” according to a report from Human Rights Watch. The poor conditions helped fuel large-scale, violent protests in Basra that year.“Iraq’s prosperity has been linked to its water resources for millennia. It would be wise for the Iraqi government to acknowledge the water challenges as a priority.”Water scarcity and instability in Iraq are closely linked, says Tobias von Lossow, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. “By existentially threatening the well-being of individuals,” he explains, “insufficient water supplies hamper Iraq’s socioeconomic development.” Water shortages negatively affect hydropower dams and food production, while disrupting the livelihoods of farmers. According to a recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, roughly 15,000 Iraqis have been displaced due to water shortages in the three southernmost provinces of Iraq since January 2019.
Across rural parts of the country, communal tensions are mounting due to water scarcity. “Competition over water has always been a source of instability in several agricultural communities,” says Samir Raouf, a former Iraqi deputy minister of science and technology who now works as an independent consultant. In 2015 and 2018, both drought years, tribal disputes erupted over agricultural water allocations across provinces in central and southern Iraq, some of which escalated to deadly armed conflict.
Recent signs of the Islamic State rearming and regrouping further heighten the security risks of water scarcity. The extremist group previously had success exploiting high unemployment and destitute conditions across rural Iraq to bolster its recruitment efforts.
Addressing this crisis and broadening Iraqis’ access to fresh water will require cooperation with Turkey, but any such efforts will remain stymied so long as Ankara maintains its stance of “absolute sovereignty” over its rivers—a position that does not recognize the resource rights of downstream countries. In Syria, which is bisected by the Euphrates, the civil war has prevented development projects that worsen Iraq’s water troubles. But Syria’s eventual postwar recovery will depend on reviving its agricultural sector, which will require significant withdrawals from the Euphrates.
For Khairalla, addressing internal water mismanagement is of greatest urgency to make Iraq less vulnerable to the actions of upstream states. “If Turkey or Iran cut the water, we have a better chance at being able to manage that situation if we have control over our water management,” he says.
Experts also say that Iraqi authorities should prioritize improvements in the population’s access to safe water, as well as reducing pollution and dealing with saltwater intrusion from the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq. Such measures must be linked to other necessary reforms, like investment in wastewater treatment and the repair of the country’s dilapidated water infrastructure.
Reforming Iraq’s agricultural sector, its main water consumer, is among the most crucial and challenging tasks, says von Lossow. This would involve switching to modern irrigation techniques and technology, reducing or removing subsidies for irrigation, and incentivizing farmers to plant crops that require less water or tolerate higher salinity levels.
To stem communal disputes over water resources in agricultural communities, Raouf says a fair water allocation system must be established that is inclusive and supported by local communities. All of these reforms and investments must be made soon, before Iraq’s water crisis reaches a point of no return.
“Iraq’s prosperity has been linked to its water resources for millennia,” Raouf says. “It would be wise for the Iraqi government to acknowledge the water challenges as a priority.”
This was first published by World Politics Review.