Analysis |

Iraq's Water Crisis Is Getting Dire – and Its Neighbors Aren't Helping

Turkey is building 22 dams that will greatly reduce the water flow to Iraq, while Iran too is prioritizing its own people as the drought in the region bites down

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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The drought in Iraq.
The drought in Iraq.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iraq's water resources minister, Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani, was overflowing with optimism when he returned from a visit to Turkey in October. “The Turks promised to increase the water quota that will flow into the Euphrates River to Iraq” was his good news.

For a long time Iraq has been suffering a water deficit estimated at around 11 billion cubic meters a year, something only expected to worsen as the country’s population grows. Farmers are reporting that large swaths of farmland are drying up because of the severe drought and climate change. Temperatures have topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in the summer, fruit has shriveled, seeds aren't sprouting and even water for drinking and bathing is lacking.

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Research by the Iraqi government shows that the country is now about 40 percent desert, and the salinity of much of the land is too high for agriculture. Iraq receives most of its water from two rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, whose sources are in Turkey. The rest it buys from Iran.

Iraq and Turkey have signed a number of agreements on supplying water; the last was in 2009 but it was never implemented in full. Turkey says it's meeting the terms of the agreement and blames Iraq for mismanaging its water system.

At least the second half of this claim has something to stand on. For decades, irrigation and household plumbing were neglected in Iraq, and people stole water from the public pipes or dug wells in their yards. The occupation of parts of Iraq by the Islamic State also added to the water woes, and even after the group was defeated, most of the state budget went for other projects – and especially into the hands of contractors who exploited the aid to rebuild Iraq to line their pockets.

Iraqi refugees from Mosul collecting water at a refugee camp in northern Iraq, last week.Credit: Reuters

Moving to the cities

Al-Hamdani may have been received warmly in Turkey, and the two sides even agreed to establish a joint research institute to study water issues. But one number was missing from the meeting: How much water would Iraq receive from Turkey?

This question still doesn’t have an answer because Turkey continues to develop its Great Anatolia Project, the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants that will greatly reduce the amount of water flowing into the Tigris and Euphrates to Iraq and Syria.

Iraq's water shortage has already had a concrete effect on the country’s demographics. Thousands of Iraqis have abandoned their villages and land to move to the outskirts of the big cities, Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. But no employment opportunities await in these places, which are having a hard time providing the new residents with public services.

The result is that many people are trying to move to the Kurdish autonomous region or even leave the country and join the millions of climate migrants around the world.

The banks of the Sirwan River in Iraq.Credit: Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

While friendly negotiations are underway with Turkey, which provides Iraq with about 25 billion cubic meters of water a year via the Euphrates, the supply from Iran is a completely different story. In theory, the rivers and streams with sources in Iran could provide some 11 billion cubic meters a year. But a long series of dams have diverted the flow, and in July a planned halt to the opening of the dams in Iraq's favor meant that Iraq no longer received water from Iran.

This wasn't an evil decision designed to take revenge on Iraqis. Iran is simply suffering a heavy drought; this year Iran has received about half its usual rainfall. Over 8,000 Iranian villages and towns receive their water from tankers, and the distress has led to protests and violent clashes, especially in the Khuzestan Province in the southwest.

Iraq has also claimed that Iran isn't following international law on the division of water between countries fed by the same sources; it has even announced that it plans to sue Iran in international court. But don’t hold your breath; Iraq still doesn't have a new government and its dependence on its eastern neighbor will prevent it from dragging Iran into a lawsuit.

The electricity factor

Still, Tehran realizes that Iraqis, especially in the south, are nurturing anti-Iranian sentiments stemming from the water shortage.

Iraqis getting their drinking water.Credit: Hadi Mizban / AP

The water crisis doesn't recognize international borders, and Syria too – another Turkish water customer – is drying up. But unlike Iraq, Syria's water shortage also has political causes. In the Kurdish regions in the north, the people receive water from a pumping station run by electricity generated by plants controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces.

Turkey says the Kurds are cutting off power to the pumping station, while the Kurds accuse Turkey of halting the pumping to make life harder for the locals.

Either way, the result is the same, tens of thousands of people in northern Syria – the country's bread basket – don't have tap water, and as in Iraq, their fields and orchards have dried up. For example, some 400,000 people live in the city of Raqqa, where the flow has fallen from 600 cubic meters a second in rainy years to under 200.

The lakes behind the dams now look completely dried up, and according to the group Save the Children, water has been supplied on only 142 days since January, and even then supply has been about half the normal amount.

Water experts also say the drought isn't the only reason for Syria's water shortage. Faulty maintenance, increased use of water by power plants, water theft and a lack of strategic planning for the lakes have all stoked the water crisis.

A boy drinking water in Syria, where potable water is often hard to find.Credit: Reuters

Iraq and Syria are now striving for an agreement with Turkey to guarantee a fair division of the water. Understandings were reached in 1992 between Syria and Iraq – and between the two countries and Turkey – under which Turkey would send 500 cubic meters a second; Syria would receive 42 percent of it, Iraq 58 percent.

But no formal agreement was signed because of disagreements over “ownership” of the Euphrates River; there's also the question of whether to view the Tigris and Euphrates as a single water system or two.

Turkey argues that the Euphrates is a Turkish river, that it's not bound by international law, and that its channeling of water into Syria and Iraq is a goodwill gesture. It says that over the years it has let a lot more water flow than the agreed-on amounts.

It's unlikely that Turkey will change tack despite the water crisis. At most, it will agree to temporarily increase the flow without tying its hands in the future. All Syrian and Lebanese farmers can do for now is pray for rain.

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