On 25 July, the Iraqi Minister of Transport, Kazem Finjan al-Hamami announced that Iran has agreed to co-operate on the construction of a new dam on the Shatt al-Arab River. The move has come as Iraq has sought measures to calm the ongoing protests in southern Iraq over corruption, and a lack of services and infrastructure. Water in particular has been a source of discontent, especially in Basra, due to a decline in both the quality and quantity of local water sources. The planned dam, that is to be established in Abu Flous Port in Basra, will hopefully ease pressure on the scarce water supplies and help in reducing high levels of salinity in both Basra and Iran’s Khuzestan Province in Iran.
The Middle East is among the most water insecure regions in the world and concerns have grown in recent years about the sustainability of water resources in several countries in the region. For Iran and Iraq in particular, water scarcity has helped spur serious political unrest this year. On the Shatt al-Arab, the river that forms part of the border between the two countries, the water is not only at an alarmingly low level, but has also seen such an increase in salinity that it has become unsuitable for consumption or agriculture. The problems are not confined to the Shatt al-Arab either, as the two rivers that feed the river, the Tigris and Euphrates, have both experienced significantly reduced flows over the last few decades.
The loss of fresh river water in most of the riparian countries of the Tigris-Euphrates system is largely a result of three distinct issues: a lack of regional co-operation over transboundary water resources, poor domestic management of those resources, and climate change. Water management in Iraq has been haphazard at best in recent decades, due to conflict, corruption and environmental degradation. A decade ago, Iraq’s water infrastructure was ranked among the worst in the world. That problem intensified following the conflict with Islamic State, whose “scorched earth” policy severely damaged hydraulic infrastructure. According to a 2017 estimate, US$50 billion
($67 billion) is now needed to rehabilitate Iraqi water installations. Outdated methods of water management have also contributed to the crisis, as in the past, it was more important to prevent flooding in the once abundantly fertile country, rather than to conserve water. This has led to a loss of around 7.6 billion litres of water through evaporation, due to inefficient flood control systems.
Both the Tigris and the Euphrates originate in Turkey, which has extensively dammed both rivers, as part of the South-eastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP). Dams built as part of the GAP project have reduced flows to its downstream neighbours to an unsustainable level. This applies especially to Iraq, which has experienced dramatically reduced water levels, as a result of Turkey diverting water to fill dams.
Iran also bears some of the blame for dwindling water supplies. Iranian dam building on the Karun and Karkha rivers (among several others), to alleviate its own water shortages, has diverted water away from Basra, depriving it of critical water supplies. Reduced flows from both Iran and Turkey have also lessened the quality of water in the Shatt al-Arab, where the progression of sea water upstream has steadily increased, causing water purification systems to shut down, depleting cultivatable land and killing fish and livestock.
Many of the transboundary issues that have caused the water crisis in Iraq and the Middle East have come about because of an unwillingness to act outside of immediate self-interest in water management. An agreement between Baghdad and Tehran to co-operate to reduce salinity and share some resources on the Shatt al-Arab, is certainly cause for celebration for Basra. The Turkish move to briefly stop filling the Ilisu Dam, to allow Iraq to replenish its own water resources might also be reason for a degree of optimism about the future of Middle Eastern hydro politics. The optimism, however, should be tempered with caution. It is worth remembering that regional competition, political inertia, corruption and conflict all remain as salient risks to any co-operation between the riparian states of the Tigris-Euphrates.