Drought in the Land between Two Rivers

The water crisis in Iraq is so severe that the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers — the country’s namesakes — could cease to flow by 2040. 

This essay is the second in a two-part series examining environmental challenges in Iraq beyond ISIS. Read the first installment here. Last week’s piece explored the effects of mismanagement, conflict, and corruption on the country’s troubled agricultural industry. This week, we discuss Iraq’s impending water crisis, its international dimensions, and how it has impacted agricultural, electricity, and health sectors across the country, with no sign of improvement.

The Tigris River snakes through Baghdad. (October 2013)

In the land between two rivers, sufficient access to clean water has become another casualty of cyclical conflict. Since 2003, the Iraqi government and its international partners have struggled to maintain, expand, and modernize the country’s hydrological infrastructure – a slow process whose inefficiencies have been marked by rising rates of waterborne disease and reliance on informal water supply systems in both rural and major urban areas.

These developments represent longer-term trends that extend beyond the immediate humanitarian context of post-ISIS northern and central Iraq – impacting, most critically as discussed last week, the agricultural industry. Baghdad’s ability to reverse these trends has hitherto been handicapped by geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and the exigencies of a multi-year counterinsurgency. Yet, in a region characterized by water shortage, Iraq’s crisis is particularly severe. According to a 2010 UN estimate, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – from which Iraqis derive much of their surface water and their country’s name – will cease to flow by 2040.

The recent trajectory of decline for Iraq’s mismanaged water resources illuminates significant spoilers for development within the country’s political system. It is particularly critical to understand this narrative within today’s post-war context, as Baghdad looks to rebuild shattered infrastructure in areas across the country liberated from ISIS. While all eyes have focused on the devastating battle for Mosul and the Ninewa Plains, Iraq’s water scarcity highlights country-wide obstacles for stabilization, reconstruction, and economic growth that are often overlooked or de-emphasized by province-specific analyses. The fight to extirpate ISIS militants from cities in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Anbar Provinces has deepened this national development challenge.

Although Iraqi policymakers must rightly focus much of their immediate attention on security and humanitarian priorities across their country’s post-ISIS regions, they must not ignore longer-term, more fundamental development necessities. To recover from the current emergency context, Iraqi policymakers could tie short-term post-war recovery to sustained infrastructure development and modernization, seeking domestic and international investment in capital projects and maintenance work. The country’s troubled hydrological sector – which impacts other crucial areas like electricity – remains a source of local insecurity and instability as the government’s inefficiencies provide opportunity for corruption and incentivize informal service providers to fill its vacuum.

The Slow, Quiet Water Crisis

A prolonged period of drought – combined with the impact of decades-long conflict on aging hydrological infrastructure and dam projects in neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria – has left Iraq without the means to provide sufficient water and sanitation services to its population. In 2007, the Ministry of Water Resources reported that only 32 percent of the Iraqi population has stable access to clean drinking water, while only 19 percent has access to sufficient sewage facilities – with rural populations facing greatest difficulty. While this figure has improved since 2010, many people continue to rely on informal wells, government and NGO water trucks, and unreliable tap systems while water volume requirements grow, stressing government capacity. Water levels in Iraq’s rivers have dropped precipitously over the past few years, currently providing less than one-third of their previous capacity. As river-flow decreases, some communities have increasingly relied on groundwater, pushing the country’s aquifers to the brink of exhaustion; according to some UN projections, these wells could go dry before 2030. By 2025, the Iraqi government and UN estimate Iraq will suffer a 33 million cubic meter water deficit, leaving it with insufficient resources for its population.

Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates systems for 98 percent of its drinking, irrigation, and sanitation water. Dropping levels in these riverine environments, however, have caused ripple effects across Iraq’s other sectors. For example, in Nasiriyah, Iraq’s fourth-largest city, a rapid decrease of flow in the Euphrates River resulted in a 50 percent reduction in hydroelectric output in 2010, prompting city officials to demand assistance and supplies from Baghdad. In nearby villages, residents were forced to evacuate after salinity levels killed farm animals and crops, destroying local economies in the process. That year, southern Iraq’s agricultural fields could only produce 40 percent of food demand, with half the land rendered unusable by high salt content. By the end of 2012, water levels in the lower Euphrates marshes and river plains had dropped below 20 percent of their pre-1980 capacity.

The country’s troubled hydrological sector – which impacts other crucial areas like electricity – remains a source of local insecurity and instability.

Where drinking and agricultural water is available, it is often of poor quality, helping spread waterborne illnesses like Typhoid, Dysentery, Hepatitis B, and Cholera. In major urban centers, including Baghdad and Basra, Iraq’s Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) – which measures the degree of organic material pollution in water – reached 36.2 mg/L, more than three times the national limit of 10 mg/L outlined by both Iraqi government and World Health Organization standards. Alarmingly, these figures represent a significant increase in drinking water pollution after 2005, when the BOD measured 1.04-12.12. By 2012, Iraqi hospitals were reporting sharp increases in the number of patients suffering from waterborne diseases. For example, the total number of diarrhea cases (an effective indicator of water pollution) reached 1,058,217, with 350 fatalities. In Baghdad’s Sadr City, for example, the only source of clean water is bottled – an impossible expense for many of the poorer residents there.

Increased organic pollution has been worsened by rising salinity in the country’s major waterways. Between 1980 and 2009, the Total Dissolved Salts (TDS) in the Euphrates River grew from 457 to 1,200 parts per million too salty for agriculture or drinking – as water flow decreased, allowing upriver seepage from the Persian Gulf. This trend has continued as river-flow decreases, allowing high-salinity Persian Gulf water to penetrate as far as 150 kilometers inland, destroying agriculture and shepherding industries in Muthanna, Basra, and Wasit Provinces. As a result, residents in these areas today must manage food insecurity and decreasing sources of income from agriculture.

In 2014, the percentage of internally displaced persons (IDPs) citing drought as the “primary cause for their displacement from province of origin” was 97 percent in Muthanna, 80 percent in Qadissiya and Dhi Qar, 60 percent in Salah ad-Din, and nearly 20 percent in Kirkuk, Wasit, Diyala, and Ninewa – remarkable figures given the upheaval caused by ISIS advances that year. Many of these individuals have abandoned their growing fields to find employment in major cities, straining urban water, sanitation, and hydroelectric networks.

Dams within the Context of Conflict

Although widespread corruption and governmental inefficiencies have handicapped Baghdad’s efforts to address shrinking water supplies, actions taken by Iraq’s regional neighbors have had the greatest impact on water levels. Decreased flow through Iraq’s main rivers has largely been resultant from hydroelectric engineering projects in Turkey, where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate. This construction, part of Ankara’s strategy for rapidly increasing its electricity capacity, has coincided with particularly intense regional drought. The Turkish Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) envisages 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants across the Tigris-Euphrates basin, approximately 73 percent of which have been finished.

According to Iraqi government projections, the GAP has reduced river-flow into Iraq by 80 percent to-date. Other Turkish infrastructure projects, including the Ataturk Dam, have reduced flows into Iraq by one-third and other projects, such as dams in Ilisu and Cizre, could reduce current flows by another 50 percent. Similar Iranian projects have provoked anger from Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish officials, most recently regarding a new dam in Sardasht blocking the Little Zab River, a key tributary for the Tigris.

These figures may rise in the absence of any transboundary agreement regarding water volume between Ankara and Baghdad. In the current geopolitical climate such coordination seems unlikely. The Iraqi parliament demanded a greater share of water from Turkey in 2009 (as well as from Iran and Syria), agreeing to block any treaty that does not include a clause granting Iraq a fairer share of hydrological resources. Since then, however, Ankara has shown little willingness to engage its Iraqi counterparts on this issue. Turkish officials repeatedly ignore a 1946 treaty that obliged them to inform downstream Iraq and Syria of any substantial hydrological disruptions as a result of infrastructure projects; they reply to Iraqi protests by implying that “the stronger party is not yet willing to talk.”

By the end of 2012, water levels in the lower Euphrates marshes and river plains had dropped below 20 percent of their pre-1980 capacity.

Turkish policy highlights the strategic importance dams have in the Iraqi hydrological context, both outside the country’s borders as well as within them. When ISIS swept across northern and central Iraq in 2014, they quickly seized or besieged critical hydroelectric dams and other water infrastructure in Mosul, Haditha, Baquba, and Fallujah. Aside from providing a visible symbol of control over critical infrastructure – thus enhancing their image as a functioning state – the dams gave militants control over critical electricity-producing sites and the ability to either stop downriver flow completely or, by opening run-off gates, flood major urban centers in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Baghdad. In a country already struggling with water supply and loss of agricultural land following years of drought and cheap food imports, militant control of dams and their reservoirs jeopardized livelihoods along the country’s waterways.

For example, after capturing the Fallujah Dam in April 2014, local ISIS officials flooded government-held farmland outside Baghdad, displacing nearly 40,000 people. Their actions prevented water from reaching the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and rendered a once-fertile 500 square kilometer area unusable for agriculture. Further north, ISIS briefly seized the infamous and unstable Mosul Dam in August 2014, prompting fears that it could release a flood that would submerge the entire Tigris River plain from Mosul to Baghdad and kill millions. In Diyala Province, ISIS control over the provincial capital Baqubah’s water infrastructure – already strained by dam-construction in neighboring Iran – has handicapped local militia and security forces’ ability to prevent renewed insurgency.

A Drier Future

The Iraqi government has failed to address both external and internal sources of water insecurity. Years of insecurity and internecine conflict have left Baghdad with little leverage over its regional neighbors, and few resources to restore ailing water systems in the post-ISIS context. Divergent ministerial and regional water interests have prevented the creation of a comprehensive strategy for addressing the country’s water shortage. Overwhelmed by the immense task of reconstructing and providing emergency aid to areas liberated from ISIS, Iraqi policymakers have failed to address longer term problems facing the country over the next decade. The Ministry of Water Resources is today struggling to balance competing needs of water for irrigation, drinking, industry, and hydroelectricity, while portions of the country’s hydrological infrastructure remain damaged by fighting or militant activity.

Without sustained engagement from Baghdad and its international partners, Iraq’s water scarcity and food insecurity is likely to increase significantly by 2030 – potentially stressing divisions between regions, communities, and neighborhoods. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and UN agencies have implemented water restoration projects in Ramadi and Tikrit, but funding remains insufficient to expand these initiatives across all areas with significant need, including in Mosul and elsewhere in Anbar Province. As a result of this overstretch, deteriorating (or, in many cases, non-existent) water-delivery systems inside cities have received almost no attention.

Iraq’s water crisis ultimately underscores the systemic problems facing Baghdad policymakers beyond the ISIS nightmare. While post-conflict exigencies demand immediate attention, Iraq may struggle to achieve stability without addressing sources of economic upheaval, local conflict, and resource scarcity. The country’s troubled water system runs through each of these challenges, prompting fears that the Fertile Crescent – which has sustained the region for thousands of years – may soon disappear.