If the Houthis believe their military offensive in Marib is in danger, they will likely look to the only real ally they have, Iran.
Known as the land between the two rivers, Iraq has enjoyed plentiful water access since the dawn of civilization. However, most of Iraq’s water supply either originates from or passes through neighboring countries. The water policies in these countries have reduced Iraq’s water supply, affected agriculture, and increased water pollution in most areas of the country. In addition, Iraq’s rising population, government mismanagement of water, and climate change are also affecting Iraqis’ access to water. The current trends do not bode well for Iraq’s water security, and the resulting competition over water may be planting the seeds of crisis within Iraq that will only be exacerbated in the future.
Iraq’s main sources of water are the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, providing 98% of the country’s surface water. Both rivers originate in Turkey, while the Euphrates passes through Syria, and some tributaries flow through Iran. Iraq was considered a water-rich country until the 1970s, when Turkey began building dams on the two rivers, significantly decreasing Iraq’s water supply. The Turkish government initiated the Southeastern Anatolia Project by building 22 dams and 19 hydraulic power plants for developing southeastern provinces and has been unwilling to negotiate an agreement with Iraq and Syria regarding water allocation. While decreasing Iraq’s water supply overall, Turkey also has the ability to cut the water flow downstream on short notice. For example, in the 1990s, Turkey increased the water level in the Ataturk dam without notifying Syria and Iraq. While Turkey’s annual supply of water should be more than sufficient to cover its own water needs, Turkey’s use of Tigris and Euphrates water to develop hydropower and agriculture in its southeast risks significantly reducing the amount of water that flows to Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s water policy has also reduced Iraq’s water supply. Tributaries originating in Iran contribute 40% of the Shatt al-Arab’s water in Iraq, and dam building has had a devastating impact on the water flowing to Iraq’s eastern governorates. With 600 dams built in Iran and more planned, the waters of rivers such as the Karun and Karkheh have been diverted to stay within Iranian territory and no longer flow into Iraq. The diversions have not only decreased the water flow to Iraq but have also increased salinity. In Basra alone, 118,000 people were hospitalized because of health issues related to water quality in the summer of 2018. Looking ahead, both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are expected to completely dry inside Iraq by 2040 because of its neighbors’ water policies. And with the weak state of the Iraqi government, it has little leverage to negotiate with Iran and Turkey over its water supply.
Despite the gravity of the situation, the Iraqi government’s response to the water crisis has been modest because of its inherent weakness and the limited options available. Numerous domestic problems have taken the government’s attention away from formulating a viable strategy to address water shortages. The focus of the Iraqi government, for the most part over the past two decades, has been fighting terrorism, dealing with strong militias allied with Iran, and tackling corruption, and it has neglected other priorities. For example, Iraq has lagged behind in the agricultural sector, and the government has not done enough to modernize irrigation methods. Finally, the Iraqi government threatened to internationalize the water crisis by submitting a formal complaint to the United Nations if Iran continues to limit the water flow, however the government did not follow through and failed to formulate any viable alternative options for dealing with Iran.
Effects of Climate Change
Iraq has been one of the hardest hit countries by climate change with the annual mean temperature increasing by 1-2 degrees Celsius between 1970 and 2004, leading to intensified droughts. According to the Iraqi government, average annual rainfall has become less predictable since the 1970s and has decreased by 10% in the last 20 years over the previous three decades. Scholars estimate that by 2050 precipitation will decrease by 25% in Iraq, which will intensify desertification and water scarcity. The rising temperature has also caused an increase in evaporation, reducing the levels of available water even further. Iraq relies, in many instances, on flood management in agricultural areas and has built several dams to protect large cities from flooding, which makes water more susceptible to evaporation.
This decrease in water supply has been compounded by a steep rise in the population in the past few decades, in turn increasing demand for water. Between 1970 and 2007, Iraq’s population tripled, reaching 30 million. By the end of 2020, Iraq’s population surpassed 40 million, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Planning. The ministry reported in July that annual population growth was at 2.6%; though the rate of growth has declined in the past 10 years, the ministry noted it is still high compared to many other countries. At the same time, the Iraqi government has subsidized the price of water for Iraqi customers, leading to overconsumption and waste by Iraqi citizens: Iraqis consume 392 liters per capita daily, while the international average is 200 liters per capita. Without reform in water pricing, overconsumption and undersupply will almost certainly continue, and the gap between supply and demand will widen.
Displacement and Water-Based Conflict
The deteriorating quality and declining availability of water in Iraq is already having adverse effects on the Iraqi people. The United Nations International Organization for Migration reported in 2019 that 21,314 Iraqis had been internally displaced in Iraq’s southern and central governorates due to lack of potable water. Moreover, Iraqi President Barham Salih warned that Iraq might face a deficit of 10.8 billion cubic meters of water annually by 2035 and that 54% of Iraq’s arable land is under threat because of increased salination. Indeed, Iraq’s agricultural sector will face a severe blow in the future because of decreased water levels. Although agriculture contributes less than 5% of gross domestic product, it employs nearly one-third of Iraqis who live in rural areas and depend on agriculture.
Given this pressure, tension between tribes over water is already on the rise. The lack of water in southern governorates, such as Maysan and Dhi Qar, and recurrence of droughts, is already the main driver of local conflict. The United Nations reported in 2013 that nearly daily incidents of confrontations, including clashes or verbal arguments, were recorded in 38 locations in Baghdad alone. And there have been water-related conflicts among Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen in Kirkuk.
There has been contention on the provisional level as well. For instance, officials from Maysan and Muthanna governorates expressed their discontent at governorates to their north saying they were taking more than their share of water. In addition, Iraqis have tried to leverage their control over the water supply domestically. The Kurdistan Regional Government, which lies in the north and controls much of the water flow to other parts of Iraq, threatened to reduce the water supply over political disagreements with the central government in Baghdad in 2016. The KRG also cut the flow of water to Arab governorates after Iran reduced the water supply to the Little Zab River in 2018.
Addressing the Water Crisis
Political divisions and corruption within successive Iraqi governments as well as social divisions in Iraq have contributed to the neglect of important issues such as water. Unfortunately, the weak state of the current Iraqi government limits its maneuverability to address water insecurity. To reverse, or at least ameliorate, the current negative trends, the Iraqi government will need not only to come to an agreement with its much stronger neighbors over water rights but also to commit to a long process of major domestic political, economic, and social reforms, including water use and pricing. With parliamentary elections planned for October, Iraq’s new government – facing many other pressing issues – will have its work cut out for it in addressing the water crisis. But time will not be on its side.
is a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia nonstate armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and is the author of “The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah,” Palgrave 2020.
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