More than any other country in the Middle East, Iraq is facing a water crisis. The country relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for 98 percent of its surface water and the water levels of both have dropped significantly. The Ministry of Water Resources has forecast that both rivers will dry up by 2040 without action to change current trends. Iraq’s Sawa Lake dried out this year and Razzaza Lake is shrinking. Efforts to restore Iraq’s famous marshlands after Saddam Hussein destroyed them have been partially successful, but drought and upstream dams threaten them once again.
Many of Iraq’s waterways have reduced water levels, increased salinity and substantial pollution. The southern part of the country faces particularly serious and urgent problems. The lack of flow out of the rivers, combined with the rising sea level, is pushing saltwater from the Arabian Gulf into Iraq’s rivers. The World Bank noted last year that southern Iraq is already exceeding “critical water quality thresholds,” often too contaminated for people to use. Earlier this month, an Iraqi meteorological official said that dust storms are becoming increasingly common.
Multiple factors are driving Iraq’s water crisis. Iraq has experienced several years of drought. It is the fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change, according to the UN. Droughts have increased in duration and severity and temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius and higher in 2020. Climate change is likely to change the snowpack that feeds the Tigris and Euphrates, affecting water volume and decreasing predictability. The World Bank has forecast that a temperature increase of 1 C would “cause a 20 percent reduction of available freshwater” in Iraq by 2050.
Another enormous challenge for Iraq is its position as a downstream state. The headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates are in Turkey, whose pursuit of damming and hydroelectric projects — particularly the Southeastern Anatolia Project — have reduced flow to Syria and Iraq; the flow from Turkey to Iraq has been reduced by about two thirds. Iran has also blocked water from several smaller rivers that flow into Iraq; in December, Iraqi officials announced plans for a lawsuit against Tehran. As Iran and Turkey face climate change impacts and their own growing needs, Iraq will struggle to negotiate for water for itself.
Another major factor behind water constraints is the legacy of years of war, mismanagement and corruption. Previous sanctions and decades of war have damaged water infrastructure and delayed maintenance. Iraq needs billions of dollars for repairs. According to the World Bank, “the current state of infrastructure has led to salinity affecting approximately 60 percent of the cultivated land and a 30-60 percent reduction in yield.” Political paralysis and corruption have stymied government efforts to address infrastructure repairs and water management reforms. The current political deadlock has blocked a basic budget for the year. Other problems include insufficient regulation around pollution, mismanagement of existing resources and inefficient agricultural methods.
The water crisis has serious impacts on all facets of life for Iraqis, especially in the south. Dust storms and contaminated water have already had significant health consequences. Insufficient and poor-quality water is severely damaging the country’s agricultural sector, with negative implications for food security. Water shortages are driving internal migration, as farmers and herders abandon land and waterways that can no longer support crops and livestock. The International Organization for Migration reported that more than 20,000 Iraqis moved in 2019 due to a lack of clean water.
The water crisis has economic impacts beyond the agricultural sector. The oil sector has large water demands. The need to buy water from expensive sources, such as bottled water, adds to inflation. Water shortages undermine manufacturing, electricity, fisheries and all types of businesses. Without significant changes, Iraq’s real gross domestic product could drop by 4 percent due to water challenges, according to the World Bank.
The health, food, migration and economic impacts have additional consequences. Water shortages have already fueled multiple protests and contributed to political and social instability. The unique culture of the country’s marshlands may be lost. Increased salinity is damaging important archaeological sites. A lack of water in the cradle of civilization threatens global heritage.
Potential solutions exist but will require a functioning Iraqi government and substantial foreign financial, diplomatic and technical assistance. The Iraqi government has developed plans but faced major funding and implementation challenges. The World Bank’s recommendations include reforming demand management policies, improving efficiencies and bringing more local stakeholders into the process. Recommendations from other experts include legal reforms and enforcement of regulations, improved irrigation methods, upgraded infrastructure and more. Experts offer many useful ideas, but a capable government and sufficient funding are essential to their success.
Relations with upstream states, especially Turkey, are crucial. As climate change exacerbates regional water challenges, persuading upstream states to ensure sufficient flow to Iraq will be very difficult. Given Iraq’s limited leverage, outside states should assist in negotiations. Turkey and Iran should also consider risks such as a failed state in Iraq and mass migration across the border if there is insufficient water sharing.
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