Iraq in mess, so its water policy

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 26 Jun 2021

Iraq’s water crisis is bad, but its leadership seems unaware of the true scale of a looming crisis

Iraq in mess, so its water policy
The dried-up shore of an irrigation canal near the village of Sayyed Dakhil, 300km south of Baghdad (photo: AP)

Drought is on the verge of becoming Iraq’s next crisis, and the immediate question is whether the country’s leadership can tackle the severe water shortages it is facing and avoid an impending catastrophe. 

Iraq is experiencing one of its worst summer seasons in decades, and a harsh drought and the impacts of global climate change are intensifying the situation every day, with grim scenes of nearly depleted reservoirs becoming more and more common.  

As the water scarcity worsens, however, Iraq’s government is fumbling in taking urgent action on water management, leaving over two-thirds of Iraq’s arable land area afflicted by drought and communities directly and measurably affected. 

Millions of Iraqis rely on rivers for irrigation, drinking water, power generation and transportation, and with too little water serving too many competing demands, Iraq’s water crisis is coming to a head. 

What happens in the next few years could determine the future of the country’s food production, which could consequently lead to population outflows and severe sociopolitical instability. 

Reports say that farmland is diminishing across Iraq because of the reduced flow of water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that for centuries have irrigated the Fertile Crescent, the home of ancient Mesopotamia. 

In the two river basins, many farmers have not managed to grow crops for years, and some have abandoned their desiccated fields across Iraq, shooting up the country’s agricultural imports bill and further straining its hard-hit economy. 

Water levels in Iraq’s major dams that feed the irrigation system have receded sharply, and shocking images and videos posted on social media show Iraq’s major reservoirs being now too shallow to operate. 

The Mesopotamian marshland where the country’s Marsh Arabs have resided for over 5,000 years and raised livestock and which are of regional environmental significance have been drying up due largely to reduced river flows. 

On Friday, Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture told farmers in the Tigris River basin that they could not plant rice for the coming season because of shortages of water. A similar ban on summer crops is in effect in many other parts in Iraq, which are also grappling with a crippling water shortage. 

Originating in Turkey, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow into Syria and then Iraq, where they flow downstream and later converge in the Shatt Al-Arab before emptying into the Arab Gulf. 

Though over 50 per cent of the water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers originates in Turkey, a significant amount of water also comes from Iran, which has been overinvesting in dam construction to tackle increasing domestic demand.    

Water flows to Iraq from Turkey have been decreasing for nearly three decades after Turkey started building a huge network of irrigation and electricity dams on the two rivers without coordination with the two downstream countries of Iraq and Syria.  

The multi-billion-dollar southeastern Anatolia Project, the largest regional development project in Turkey and also one of the major projects in the world, is the primary cause of Iraq’s worries. 

Turkey’s massive project, known by its Turkish name of the Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP, consists of 13 major projects in the lower Euphrates and Tigris River basins made up of hydropower plants and irrigation schemes. 

After its completion, the project is designed to irrigate some 1.7 million hectares of land in southeastern Turkey covering nine provinces in the Euphrates-Tigris River basins. The GAP also includes hydroelectric power plants and developments serving agricultural infrastructure, transportation and industry. 

Turkey temporarily stopped filling the huge Ilisu Dam, part of the GAP, last year after complaints from Iraq, only to resume it again and begin generating power by operating all the turbines at full capacity. 

While filling the dam has been blamed for the recent water shortage in the Tigris, three more planned dams in Turkey’s southeastern region along the Tigris River could make matters worse for drought-hit Iraq. 

Iraq’s water problem has recently been exacerbated after Iran started building dams to divert water flows to the Sirwan, Little Zab and Diyalah Rivers, tributaries of the Tigris River in Iran. 

Under plans announced by outgoing Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in 2019, Iran will build 109 small dams over the course of the next two years and redirect the extra water in dam reservoirs to drought-prone provinces across the country.  

Most of the dam projects, part of what Rouhani called the country’s “modern” irrigation network, are along the Western border with Iraq and aim to quadruple the volume of Iranian agricultural production. 

Iran is Iraq’s main trading partner, and its food exports to Iraq amount to billions of dollars annually. 

Water levels have declined sharply in the Darbandikhan, Adhaim and Diyalah Dams in Iraq that feed on water coming from Iran, and local officials have reported that villagers across the border have started facing a drinking water crisis.  

Iraqi farmers frequently express their frustration at Iran’s storing and diverting water away from their farmland, but their concerns have been falling on deaf ears in Tehran while the government in Baghdad remains unable to assert their right to the water. 

The international Water Stress Index considers Iraq to be a country at extremely high water risk. Iraq ranks at the bottom of 20 countries forecast to suffer from considerable water stress by 2040, indicating that businesses, farms and communities in particular may be even more vulnerable to scarcity than they are today. 

Agriculture provides a means of livelihood for more than a third of Iraq’s population, and 80 per cent of the country’s water goes to agriculture. Yet, water shortages have forced the country to rely on foreign imports for nearly half of its food needs.  

Turkey and Iran are Iraq’s main food suppliers, with Turkey selling $2.8 billion in agricultural goods to Iraq and Iranian exports coming in second at $2.2 billion annually. Boosting food production should help reduce Iraq’s imports and ease pressure on the economy, which has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic and the plunge in oil prices.  

While blaming neighbouring Turkey and Iran for building dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, many Iraqis also fault their own government for lacking a national water strategy to tackle the drought and climate crisis. 

It is remarkable that successive Iraqi governments since the US-led invasion in 2003 have failed to engage with Iran and Turkey to try to hammer out agreements to stop the two countries potentially threating its water lifeline. 

Both Iran and Turkey are using the dam constructions as potent levers to put geopolitical pressure on Iraq, and they have refused to negotiate agreements to share water with Iraq on a just and equitable basis. 

Government leaders in Baghdad have meanwhile resorted to empty rhetoric in voicing their concerns without taking concrete steps to defend Iraq’s rights and make the two countries respect their obligations.   

Turkey has refused to abide by a 1920 protocol with Iraq under which it agreed not to build water projects without Iraq’s and Syria’s consent and a 2014 memorandum of understanding that stresses the need to fix a water quota for Iraq and joint work to evaluate water resources. 

Iran has also been refusing to respect its obligations under international water-sharing treaties on cross-border rivers in order to allow a fair volume of water to pass into Iraq, and instead it has opted for quick fixes to its own water problems.  

Though Turkey and Iran are largely responsible for blocking more water coming downstream to Iraq, successive Iraqi governments have also failed to modernise how they manage water and irrigation at times of shortages. 

Inefficiency in managing water resources in Iraq, including in operating existing dams, old methods of flood irrigation, rundown pipe networks and the growing of water-intensive crops such as rice are all worsening the problem. 

As the water scarcity increases, Iraq needs a combined strategy to address Turkey’s and Iran’s aggressive reservoir management policies, their attempts at water diversion, and the geopolitical impact of the two nations’ water policies and rising influence in Iraq. 

Unfortunately, with a weak and inefficient political leadership that faces many challenges already from political conflicts, plunging oil prices, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, there is little Iraq can do to mitigate the water deficit, let alone averting a looming disaster.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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