Iraq's water crisis has been fueled by dramatic decline in water inflows from neighboring countries.

A Look at Iraq’s Water Crisis and Geopolitics of Irrigation

Post-2003 government policies have focused on the restoration of the Marshes and integrated water management policies.

Dr. Hassan Janabi is the Minister of Water Resources of the Republic of Iraq. He has previously served as Iraq’s Ambassador to Japan and the Rome-based UN agencies such as Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). He had also served as an advisor to the Iraqi government overseeing donor countries’ water and public works projects in Iraq after 2003. During his decades-long career in the management and planning of major projects in the areas of natural resources, the environment, and public works, he developed a deep understanding of river basin hydrology, trans-boundary river management, ecosystems, watershed management, hydraulic modeling and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications. Dr. Janabi holds a BS degree from the College of Engineering at the University of Baghdad. He obtained postgraduate qualifications from the University of Warsaw in Poland and the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

Dr. Janabi spoke to Foreign Policy Concepts about Iraq’s crisis of water and some of the measures that have been taken by the Iraqi government to alleviate the challenges the country is facing in this area.

The flow of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin has significantly shrunk, what are the geopolitical and other effects of this challenge?

As you may know, 70% of the water flowing into Iraq originates outside Iraq’s national borders and Iraq is the most downstream country in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. As such, it is on the receiving end as far as problems affecting water resources in the region are concerned.

The decline in water inflows to our country has been dramatic. Statistically, the average annual flow in the last 10 years has been equivalent to 45% of the long-term average in the Tigris-Euphrates rivers basin. This does not include the two major rivers in the southern part of Iraq that originate in the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely: the Karkha and Karun Rivers. Historically, these two rivers discharged their waters into the Shatt Al-Arab, directly or indirectly, but have ceased to flow into Iraq because of the construction of large dams, control and diversion structures in neighboring Iran.

Dam construction activities never stopped in neighboring Turkey since the mid-1970s either. They have completed many dams in the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris. Iraq, as the most downstream country, has been severely affected by these upstream activities as well as the construction of dams on the Iranian side of the Lower Zab and Diyala rivers. The main effect is a sharp decline in water inflows to our country.

Water is a vital resource in this region due to its scarcity and the growing needs for water for economic development, not to mention the consequences of global warming and climate change on the water resources in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Declining water resources, therefore, represent a real challenge for Iraq, particularly in the absence of any long-term agreement on water sharing with neighboring countries.

Given the lack of water-sharing agreements between the riparian states of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, what are Iraq’s plans to deal with its dwindling share of water from its two main rivers?

Iraq is pursuing peaceful means to secure its rightful share of the transboundary waters based on the principles of international law, and equitable and reasonable utilization of shared water resources.

While we recognize the needs of our riparian neighbors to develop their water resources in a sustainable way, we demand that our water needs be respected and our rights to a fair share of the shared water resources recognized. Our position is that development work on shared or transboundary water resources must be carried out in agreement with all riparian countries to avoid harmful economic and environmental damages. This is in accordance with the “no-harm rule” which is an important principle in international transboundary water law.

Iraq's water crisis
rehabilitated Iraqi marshlands

My ministry, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs in Turkey have an important memorandum of understanding (MOU) in the field of water. We are committed to implementing the MOU in the hope that both sides would be brought closer together and derive mutual benefits from joint water projects and exchange of knowledge and experiences. Soon we will be “testing” the new level of bilateral cooperation in how Turkey will go about filling its newly completed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris river.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given his assurances to the Iraqi Prime Minister Dr. Haidar Abadi during his October 2017 visit to Ankara that no harm would be inflicted on Iraq when Turkey starts filling the dam in March 2018. This is a significant commitment and we think that the best way to translate it into reality is to reschedule the filling of the dam to commence in June 2018, thus allowing Iraq to store enough water to get through the upcoming summer season, which is usually a period of maximum demand in our country.

We also have similar hopes for cooperation on transboundary water resources with our eastern neighbor, Iran. Currently, bilateral relations between Iraq and Iran are exceptionally well which pave the way for beneficial transboundary cooperation to sustain the Hawizeh Marsh, which is a World Heritage List Site.

Securing long-term water cooperation with riparian countries of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin would be a great step forward for the successful implementation of Iraq’s 20-year-long Water and Land Strategy, which is planned for completion by 2035.

Iraq has seen massive internal migration from rural to urban areas since the 1950s. What are the implications of this trend for Iraq’s hydro-economy?

True. This has been the case for decades now, unfortunately. Deteriorating living conditions in rural areas, coupled with mismanagement of natural resources and bad politics of previous regimes, have led to great impoverishment and eventual displacement of rural population to the cities and suburban areas, causing deeper social and political dislocations.

In the 1950s and prior to that, nearly 70% of Iraq’s population lived in reasonably productive and economically self-sufficient rural areas in the country. Currently, the case is the opposite percentage wise. Nearly 70% of Iraq’s population lives in urban areas and cities. The normally food-producing rural people have largely turned into jobless or less productive food consumers, eking out a miserable existence on the margins of cities. Under the previous regime, they became the victims of adventurous and destructive wars. Saddam Hussein used them as cannon fodder in the conflicts that he unleashed on others. The dictator also embarked on evil Marsh-draining programs in the south, driving even more indigenous rural inhabitants out of their ancient, Sumerian-like villages, and trapping them into a life of insecurity, poverty, and hunger.

Migration from the countryside to cities has had a profound negative impact on Iraq’s water resources. The conversion of agricultural land around big cities into residential areas has compounded the effects of declining water resources on agricultural productivity. There are also fewer incentives to invest in agriculture and agricultural inputs, including water resources.

While these effects have been intensifying, post-2003 government policies have focused on the restoration of the Marshes and integrated water management policies. However, the destruction caused by successive wars, terrorist attacks, and the construction of extensive networks of dams in neighboring countries has made it hard to have resilient and self-sustained hydro-economy in Iraq.

Iraq's water crisis
Iraqi marshlands

In light of current mounting water scarcity, what are your distribution and water preservation plans for different parts of the country?

The country is currently facing severe water scarcity, intensified by excessive control measures in the upper reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates basin and the apprehension caused by Turkey’s announcement of its intention to fill the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris.

We have two high-demand irrigation seasons during the year: the winter and summer cropping seasons. This winter season (October-December) we tried hard to adjust our irrigation plans to take into consideration the new conditions resulting from low precipitation, in addition to the Turkish announcement of the Ilisu Dam filling plan. However, our water system, although very well developed and reasonably flexible, obviously cannot respond to unknown management measures in neighboring countries.

This winter season, the problem of water scarcity has been vividly on display in the southern provinces due to over-extraction of water by various upstream users within the country. The Ministry of Water Resources, in cooperation with other government institutions, developed a drought management plan for the coming summer season to address the drinking water and irrigation needs. Prime Minister Dr. Abadi himself is taking a keen personal interest in designing and ultimately approving government responses to the potential hardships facing various water users in the currently prevailing hydrological conditions. Anyway, we would like to be optimistic about establishing a fair distribution system for scarce water resources domestically as well as about cooperation with riparian states to minimize harmful consequences of their measures on Iraq.

You were part of Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s delegation during his recent visits to Turkey and Iran. What was the nature of your discussions with Turkish and Iranian officials for the worsening water scarcity in the Tigris-Euphrates basin?

The visit to Turkey came as a culmination of gradual improvement in bilateral relations as a result of changing political and security dynamics in the region, most notably Iraq’s victorious campaign against the terrorist organization, Daesh. The Kurdish referendum was yet another impetus to move bilateral relations beyond “business as usual”. However, the Iraqi Prime Minister made it very clear to President Erdogan that water was the lifeline for Iraq, thus raising the issue of water higher up on the priority list in Iraqi-Turkish relations. The Turkish President, as well as his Prime Minister and the Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs, stated very clearly the Turkish commitment not to cause any harm to Iraq.

As for the visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, it was timely in light of the well-developed bilateral relations. Water issues were extensively discussed with our Iranian counterparts. Both sides stressed their mutual interest in developing dialogue and exchange of visits and expertise on combating drought, dust storms and other capacity development programs. We look forward to further working together with our Iranian counterparts on addressing these common challenges.

How could UNESCO’s decision to designate Iraq’s southern marshlands a world heritage site help your efforts to restore the marshes, which were decimated by Saddam Hussein’s regime?

Certainly, we hope that it will help our efforts in this regard. But the reality is a little different. However, the riparian countries are parties to several binding international conventions, the implementation of which would secure fair and just access to water, protect biodiversity, coordinate regional programs to combat desertification and facilitate adaptation to climate change. We call on them to ensure that their water management and utilization measures do not infringe international conventions that govern transboundary water resources and drainage basins. The UNESCO World Heritage List represents a valuable opportunity for riparian countries to preserve the Iraqi marshlands not only for Iraqis but also for the humanity.