The eastern cusp of the Fertile Crescent is turning barren. Statistically one of the water-richest states in the Middle East, Iraq is nonetheless losing arable land as rainfall lessens, the level of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers drops and saline water creeps northward into the Shatt al-‘Arab, the great estuary at the head of the Persian Gulf. Communities that once depended on the rivers for their livelihoods are being forced to pull up stakes. Though not in immediate danger of nationwide water stress, the point at which demand for fresh water exceeds renewable supply, Iraq is facing severe crises in agriculture and public health that impinge upon the political realm.

Since antiquity, the Euphrates and the Tigris have watered Mesopotamia, the historic “land of two rivers,” giving rise to some of the world’s first irrigation systems and, hence, civilizations. Water has always been central to the country’s prosperity and politics. Abbasid caliphs cut canals linking the two rivers to irrigate the alluvial plain in between, helping their empire to grow to its florescence; the despoliation of the irrigation network was a major factor in the empire’s fall. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman decision to dig more channels to the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala’ contributed greatly to the conversion of newly settled tribes in the mid-Euphrates region to Shi‘ism. The modern Iraqi state was built first on the unification of the river valleys’ agricultural lands — and then on oil revenue.

Uneven Flow

By aggregate numbers, Iraq looks lavishly supplied with water compared to most countries in the region. In 2000, the total available fresh water was estimated at 4,340 cubic meters (141 cubic feet) per capita per year, putting Iraq in the category of “water-rich” nations by international standards. A full 90 percent of this water was used in agriculture. It is projected that the impact of climate change and population growth will reduce the amount of available water to 2,220 cubic meters per capita per year in 2025, but Iraq will still be relatively well-off. But for many reasons, not all of them completely understood, aggregate statistics do not tell the full story.

For one thing, the flow of the two rivers varies considerably from year to year. In the past, the fluctuating flow presented a problem of flooding. Civil engineers in the 1950s took anti- flooding measures to better manage irrigation and protect low-lying urban areas, including Baghdad. In recent decades, however, the flow varies between enough and too little. Part of the problem is simply drought. In every year since 2007, Iraq has gotten about half of its typical rainfall.

Iraqi farmers are most likely to point to another factor — the fact that Iraq does not fully control the headwaters of either of its major rivers. Both the Euphrates and the Tigris originate in the mountains of southeastern Turkey. Ninety percent of the Euphrates’ flow comes from Turkey, with the remainder coming from Syria. The Tigris is 52 percent fed by sources on Turkish soil. Most of the tributaries that bring the other 48 percent originate in Iran, though they join the Tigris on Iraqi territory. Iraqis accuse Iran and especially Turkey of blocking the headwaters so that only a thin stream gets through. Indeed, Turkey has been building major dams on the Euphrates and Tigris since the 1970s, when its Southern Anatolia Project (GAP) was inaugurated. It is unclear if GAP will be completed, but if it is, the dams and reservoirs are expected to consume about 52 percent of the Euphrates’ waters.

Turkey and Syria have signed a protocol on the Euphrates, and Syria and Iraq have a 1996 agreement whereby Syria is to allow 58 percent of the river’s flow to pass into Iraq. But there is no binding agreement between Iraq and Turkey, which does not consider the rivers to be “international rivers” over which Syria and Iraq have “sovereign rights” under customary international law. Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Iraqi officials are increasingly vocal in their protests that Turkey is not releasing enough water from upstream. The water quality of the Euphrates entering Iraq is compromised by return flows from the irrigation projects in Turkey and Syria; similarly, the waters in southern Iraq are degraded by runoff from land irrigated in northern Iraq as well as urban pollutants. By one measure, fields of water-fed cereal crops are producing only 20 percent of attainable yields due to lack of quality water. The 2009 wheat and rice crops were the worst in a decade. This problem is expected to get worse as more lands come under irrigation in the upstream countries.

While the rivers are visibly low along their courses, the most dramatic evidence of the uneven flow is seen in the marshlands of the south, said to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the marshes’ original area of 6,563 square miles has shrunk to about 1,150 square miles since the massive waterworks were built upstream. Some of this draining of the marshes, of course, was intentional: The regime of Saddam Hussein diverted river waters to punish political opponents among the “marsh Arabs” who have long lived there and others who took refuge there. In 2005, the UN Environmental Program said the marshlands had recovered somewhat after being in danger of disappearing, but the unusually low levels of rainfall since 2007 have drained them all over again.

The post-Saddam devolution of significant autonomy to the three majority-Kurdish provinces may add to the water woes of central and southern Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has restarted construction on a dam in Bekhme Gorge on the Greater Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris. At a projected 754 feet, this dam would be one of the tallest in the world. Construction of the dam began under the Baathist regime in 1979, but was halted during both the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988 and the 1991 Gulf war, and was not resumed until 2009. Now the new central government in Baghdad is complaining to the KRG about the dam on the Greater Zab, wary that downstream farms and cities will see even less of the flow of the Tigris.

In April 2008, Turkey, Syria and Iraq opened the doors of a water research institute at the site of the Ataturk Dam in southeastern Turkey, but the problems between the riparian countries are political, not technocratic.

Sanctions, Saddam and “Security”

It is impossible, however, to judge the extent to which Turkish and Iranian dams are drying out Iraq, because Iraqi water infrastructure is in a dilapidated state after three major wars and 13 years of comprehensive UN sanctions. In addition, the budget priorities of both Saddam Hussein’s regime and the successor governments have been skewed toward weapons and other “security needs,” robbing the country’s irrigation and sanitation networks of necessary investments.

The FAO notes that Iraq does not have an effective countrywide water monitoring network. There is no one cataloguing the leaky pipes, silted-up canal bottoms, crumbling ditch walls, broken pumps and other failing infrastructure that anecdotally are known to litter the countryside. It stands to reason that the amount of water thus “lost” to spillage or evaporation is significant — perhaps more so than the amounts that do not flow into Iraq because of Turkish and Iranian dams. But with no reliable way to identify the causes of reduced water flows, lower water quality and increased pollution, there is no way to plan counter-measures. Rehabilitation of the water infrastructure, in the FAO’s judgment, is urgent.

The effects of war and sanctions on Iraqi waterworks were devastating. An October 2003 study from the World Bank and the UN found that, prior to 1991, 95 percent of urban Iraqis and 75 percent of rural Iraqis had access to potable water thanks to a water and sanitation sector “utilizing then-current technology.” US-led bombing during the 1991 Gulf war targeted four of the five dams in the country, inflicting extensive damage, as well as a number of desalination and water treatment plants. Worse, the sanctions eviscerated the purchasing power of the Iraqi state, which was barred from selling almost all goods on the world market, and so could not repair the damage. The World Bank-UN study recorded that the average annual water budget declined to $8 million from $100 million in 1990. Only the 1996 “Oil for Food” program, which restocked Iraqi government coffers by allowing limited oil sales, averted a freefall in spending on water infrastructure. These revised sanctions, however, continued to prevent Iraq from importing many items it needed for reconstruction, because those items were “dual-use” — they had possible military applications.

As is extensively documented by the UN and independent human rights groups, a great number of the Iraqi “excess deaths” during the sanctions decade can be attributed to the smashed water infrastructure. Children under five, the elderly and the poor were particularly vulnerable to diseases carried by the newly unsafe water coming from the tap. According to UNICEF, mortality among children under five jumped by 160 percent from 1990–2000; a quarter of this increase was due to diarrhea caused by dysentery and other waterborne illnesses. Though many children suffered as well from malnutrition under sanctions, dirty water was the real killer.

The US-led invasion of 2003 caused more damage. In the words of the World Bank-UN report, “in general the plant performance efficiencies of the water facilities had deteriorated by 50 percent” from pre-invasion levels by the time it was safe for UN agencies to investigate. ‘Abd al-Latif Rashid, a water engineer and a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the twin Kurdish parties that exercise de facto self-rule in the north, was appointed water minister shortly after the end of “major combat.” His ministry, however, has not received adequate funding to fix the tremendous problems in the country’s water networks. In 2004, facing a tenacious insurgency, the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority rerouted to “security” nearly $2 billion in US aid that had been allocated to the Iraqi water and sanitation sector — “cutting this program in half,” said the Government Accountability Office. In October 2009, the special inspector for Iraq reconstruction reported that the US has spent some $2.74 billion on water projects since the invasion. The World Bank, however, believes that $14.4 billion is necessary to rebuild the infrastructure. Meanwhile, Rashid has been compelled to travel to Turkey three times since 2007 to ask for increased flow in the Euphrates and the Tigris.

The numbers in his purview remain grim. Water treatment plants still operate at 17 percent capacity, according to the UN, meaning that only 17 percent of Iraq’s wastewater is purified before being dumped back into rivers and lakes. Sixty percent of children still lack reliable access to potable water. Less than 10 percent of households outside Baghdad are hooked up to a proper sewer system. The crisis in sanitation and public health has been exacerbated by the drought beginning in 2007.

Drying Out

From ancient Sumerian times to the British mandate, the strength of the state in Mesopotamia was closely tied to the health of the water resources in the “land of two rivers.” The Ottomans solidified their grip on Basra in part by breaking the power of the Muntafiq and Khaza’il tribes over trade on the Shatt al-‘Arab and portions of the Euphrates. These tribes collected duties on riverborne commercial traffic in much the same way that the kinship groups known as the “Anbar Awakenings” do on the roadways of the western desert in post-Saddam Iraq.

The discovery of oil gave the Iraqi state a new and more lucrative resource base, but water remains the lifeblood of the country. The drying-out of Iraq is effecting far-reaching transformations in its political economy. It is likely accelerating the trend of in-migration of rural Shi‘a to southern towns and the sprawling eastern suburbs of Baghdad. The lush landscape of the south, where 59 varieties of date once grew on the palms lining the approaches to Basra, is increasingly salinated. The desert is encroaching. In 2009, the Iraqi government had to reduce the area of cereal cultivation by half.

Once an agricultural exporter, Iraq must now rely on imports to feed its population. The FAO’s office in Baghdad calculates that Iraq imported 2.5 million tons of wheat in 2007, 3.5 million in 2008 and 4 million tons in 2009, when the state treasury also bought some 1.25 million tons of rice. Though it is water-rich by regional standards, and embarrassed with water riches by the standards of big oil exporters, Iraq now joins Saudi Arabia and its smaller Gulf neighbors in being forced to spend its oil revenue on “virtual water” from abroad. The outlook for this tenuous resource economy is greatly complicated by the continued political instability of the country after the invasion.
Research by Bayann Hamid, Jasmine Lief and Natasha Murtaza. Text by Chris Toensing.

How to cite this article:

Christopher Toensing "Iraq’s Water Woes," Middle East Report 254 (Spring 2010).
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