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Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Baghdad Urged to Tackle Water Crisis

Saleem al-Hasani and Basim al-Shara

An Iraqi boy collects water in a camp for displaced persons at Gardasin, about 260 miles northwest of Baghdad. April 2010. (Photo courtesy UN High Commission for Refugees)

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqis are calling on their
incoming government to devote more energy to resolving the country's
chronic water problems, with some experts stating that water will be
more important than oil in the long-term development of the country.

Even as recent rains have brought some relief to
drought-stricken Iraq, the historic problem of water scarcity has
forced tens of thousands of rural Iraqis from their homes.

The government estimates that nearly two million people face severe
drinking water shortages and extremely limited electricity due to
hydropower shortage.

Meanwhile, diplomatic tensions are running high as promises
from upriver counties such as Turkey, Syria and Iran to allow more
water into Iraq appear not to have been met.

This week, Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zebari denounced a plan by Syria to
divert water from the Tigris River to irrigate some 200,000 acres of
land as detrimental to Iraq's future water supply.

Iraq's Minister of Electricity Kareem Waheed called Syria's
move a "shock" that would "embarrass" his ministry and undermine its
commitments to hydropower. Both ministers decried Syria's plan as a
breach of international conventions on down-river water rights.

"The next government will be challenged on the water issue and
there is no option but to deal with it. I understand that Iraq faces
more than one problem, but this one can't be ignored. No matter what
the government is focusing on, this problem will impose itself," said
Dr. Awn Thiab al-Ajeli, the head of Iraq's National Centre for Water
Resource Management within the Ministry of Water Resources.

"The first step that should be made is to reach a deal with
Turkey as well as Iran and Syria in order to have good, stable amounts
of water enter to Iraq each day. The current situation is that the
amount is good one day, and bad the next. To make this step, a deal
must be made between governments, not just between two water
ministries. It depends on the diplomatic relations between the two
states," Ajeli said.

Officials have said in the past that security concerns have overshadowed the development of a forward-thinking water policy.

With Iraq's recent and relative stability, experts are now
calling for a plan to tackle the water problems that have afflicted the
country - from rising salinity in the southern marshlands to the
imminent demise of traditional irrigation systems, known as karez, in
the north.

A UNESCO report found that 100,000 Iraqis have fled their native communities since 2005 due to water shortages.

Another United Nations report claims the water levels in the
Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Iraq's primary sources of water, have
fallen by more than two-thirds. The report cautioned that the vital
lifelines could completely dry up by 2040.

"At the current rates, Iraq's water supply will fall an
estimated 43 billion cubic metres by 2015, far short of the 77 cubic
metres that the country will need to avert a widespread humanitarian
disaster," the UN report states.

According to UN research, "Inefficient irrigation, lack of
government coordination and weak capacity to manage the resource has
compounded the current shortage of water.

"After years of neglect during the previous regime, Iraq's
water managers still lack sufficient technical capability and knowledge
to address its growing water crisis," the UN states. "Budget
constraints have handicapped the government's ability to implement a
long-term water management plan."

Social problems connected with water scarcity are common in
Iraq - fishermen in the southern complain of a declining catches; in
agricultural areas, water shortages have caused wheat production to
fall by half.

According to the UN, Iraq now imports 80 percent of its food and 90
percent of Iraq's land is either desert or "suffering from severe

"Water is more important than oil for Iraq because we have
agricultural lands which, without water, are useless. Agriculture is
the future and the new government needs to see that," Ajeji said.

The political impact of water relations with upriver countries is
not lost on the UN. "We believe that the problem has political
dimensions between Iraq and [its neighburs], which are trying to put
pressure on the Iraqi government to advance some economic and political
interests. The maneuvering has already begun in determining how much
water Iraq should really have," the UN report says.

Dr. Mohammed al-Zubaidi, political science professor at Baghdad
University, said water is already the defining factor in Iraq's foreign

"Listen, don't be naive. Upriver countries dominate down river
countries because they control water revenue. This gives them
advantages in other fields as well," Zubaidi said.

"Let's talk about Turkey and Syria. We have concerns that one
day they will ask in return for water, one barrel of water for one
barrel of oil," he said. "That day will come soon if Iraq maintains its
ignorant strategies of wasteful water management."

The Baghdad government claims it is doing its part in seeking
adequate water for Iraq and applying diplomatic pressure to upriver

"We have formed delegations to visit Turkey, Iran and Syria to
speak with them about sharing water because we face a serious problem
in this regard. We have sent letters demanding the need to give us more
water," said Jamal al-Battiq, head of parliament's agricultural

Neighboring nations have been reluctant to address Iraq's water
woes, but Mustafa Kibargolu, a professor at Bilkent University's
international relations department, cautioned that water could be the
source of conflict in years to come.

"[There hasn't been any] confrontation or high tension stemming
from the unsatisfied demands of parties over the use of water. [But]
this should not mislead observers into thinking this is unlikely,"
Kibargolu said.

"Unless some old water policies are purged and new ones
introduced. It is a real possibility that this region will become a
time bomb in terms of water rights."

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