Punting in the marshes south of the Iraqi city of Ammarah. Photo by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images.

Punting in the marshes south of the Iraqi city of Ammarah. Photo by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images.

Historically, Iraq lay claim to one of the most abundant water supplies in the Middle East. But the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has reduced by up to 40% since the 1970s, due in part to the actions of neighbouring countries, in particular Turkey, upstream.

Rising temperatures and reduced rainfall due to climate change are also negatively impacting Iraq’s water reserves. Evaporation from dams and reservoirs is estimated to lose the country up to 8 billion cubic metres of water every year.

A threat to peace and stability

Shortages have dried up previously fertile land, increasing poverty in agricultural areas. Shortages have also served to fuel conflict: communities faced with successive droughts and government inertia proved to be easy targets for ISIS recruiters, who lured farmers into joining them by offering money and food to feed their families. Economic hardship for those whose livelihoods relied upon river water has also driven rural to urban migration, putting significant strain on already over-populated towns and cities, exacerbating housing, job and electricity shortages, and widening the gap between haves and have-nots.

But scarcity isn’t the most crucial element of Iraq’s water crisis – contamination is. Decades of local government mismanagement, corrupt practices and a lack of regulation of dumping (it is estimated up to 70% of Iraq’s industrial waste is dumped directly into water) has left approximately three in every five citizens without a reliable source of potable water.

In 2018, 118,000 residents of Basra province were hospitalised with symptoms brought on by drinking contaminated water, which not only put a spotlight on the inadequacies of a crumbling healthcare system but sparked mass protests and a subsequent violent crackdown.

The water crisis is also undermining the stability of the country’s federal governance model, by occasionally sparking disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, as well as between governorates in the south.

The crisis is both a symptom and a cause of poor governance. Iraq is stuck in a cycle whereby government inaction causes shortages and contamination, which result in economic losses, reduced food supply, increased prices and widespread poor health. This in turn leads to increasing levels of poverty, higher demand on services and civil unrest, increasing the pressure on a weak, dysfunctional system of government.

What can be done?

The first priority should be modernising existing water-management infrastructure - a relic of a time when the problem was an excess rather than a shortage of water (the last time Iraq’s flood defences were required was 1968). Bureaucratic hurdles, widespread corruption and an endless cycle of other crises taking precedent prevent good initiatives from being implemented or scaled up.

Diversifying energy sources to improve provision is crucial. Baghdad has a sewage treatment plant that originally ran on its own electricity source, but this capacity was destroyed in 1991 and was never replaced. The city continues to suffer from dangerous levels of water pollution because the electricity supply from the grid is insufficient to power the plant. Solar energy has great potential in sun-drenched Iraq to bridge the gaping hole in energy provision, but successive governments have chosen to focus on fossil fuels rather than promoting investment to grow the renewables sector.

Heightened tension with upstream Turkey could turn water into another cause of regional conflict. But, if approached differently, collaboration between Iraq and its neighbour could foster regional harmony.

Turkey’s elevated geography and cooler climate mean its water reserves suffer 75% less evaporation than Iraq’s. Given that Turkey’s top energy priority is the diversification of its supply of imported hydrocarbons, a win-win deal could see Turkey exchange access to its water-management infrastructure for delivery of reduced cost energy supplies from Iraq.

German-French cooperation on coal and steel in the 1950s and the evolution of economic integration that followed might provide a model for how bilateral cooperation over one issue could result in cooperation with other regional players (in this case Iran and Syria) on a range of other issues. This kind of model would need to consider the future of energy, whereby oil and gas would be replaced by solar-power exports.

These solutions have been open to policymakers for years and yet they have taken little tangible action. While there are leaders and bureaucrats with the will to act, effective action is invariably blocked by a complex and opaque political system replete with vested interests in maintaining power and wealth via a weak state and limited services from central government.

Breaking the cycle

To break this cycle, Iraq needs a group of professional and able actors outside of government to work with willing elements of the state bureaucracy as a taskforce to pressure for action and accountability. Publishing the recommendations from a hitherto withheld report produced in the aftermath of Basra’s 2018 heath crisis would be a great start.

In time, this taskforce could champion the prioritisation of water on the national agenda, the implementation of infrastructure upgrades, and hold more productive conversations with neighbour states.

With such a high degree of state fragmentation and dysfunction in Iraq, looking to the central government to provide leadership will not yield results. Engagement with a coalition of non-state actors can begin to address the water crisis and also open a dialogue around new models of governance for other critical issues. This might even be a starting point for rewriting the tattered social contract in Iraq.

This piece is based on insights and discussion at a roundtable event, Conflict and the Water Crisis in Iraq, held at Chatham House on March 9 as part of the Iraq Initiative.