Iraq Faces Escalating Water Crisis amid Heatwave Protests

12 August 2015 FDI Team

As temperatures soared above 50˚C in Iraq last week thousands took to the streets in protest of the lack of services and government corruption.

Background

Widespread power and water shortages in Iraq have triggered protests across Iraq, causing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to warn of growing revolutionary sentiments if the government fails to find quick solutions. Ongoing conflict and violence since the US-led invasion in 2003 has hampered efforts to re-develop and expand Iraq’s debilitated national electricity grid and water supply service. Today the grid continues to supply electricity sporadically for a few hours a day, hampering economic and social development. Unforgiving summer temperatures have over-burdened the supply networks and systemic corruption, which controls the supply of limited resources, has triggered social unrest.

Comment

Iraq’s water crisis is not new; the mismanagement of water resources has troubled the country for decades. Water scarcity is characterised by a combination of geopolitical challenges, drought, wasteful irrigation practices and population growth and development. Overdrawn aquifers and limited rainfall has created a dependence on the country’s two major rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates – which have both experienced significant reductions in flow.

Downstream from Turkey and Iran, Iraq is vulnerable to upstream development projects on the Transboundary Rivers. Iraq blames Turkey’s unilateral dam and hydro-electric developments and the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group for the country’s water crisis. Turkey’s South-east Anatolia Regional Development Project includes the development of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants in the region. Water flow into Iraq has already reportedly fallen by at least a third and a study by the United Nations predicts the volume of water flowing through the Euphrates will more than halve by 2025.

As Future Directions discussed last year, IS has succeeded in taking control of several dams within Iraq. The militant group is using dams as a strategic weapon, manufacturing drought conditions in 2014 by closing the gates of the Nuaimiyah Dam and closing gates of a dam in Ramadi earlier this year cutting off water supplies to pro-government areas. This has resulted in key agricultural areas downstream losing vital water supplies, elevating the risk of both food and water insecurity.

Beyond geopolitical and conflict-based water insecurity, years of domestic mismanagement continues to drain Iraq’s water supply. Approximately 80 per cent of Iraq’s available water is used in agriculture, a sector that continues to use traditional flood-irrigation management despite the significant reduction in water availability. Subsidies and a lack of water tariffs have also led to wasteful domestic consumption patterns.

Addressing internal mismanagement and wastage is critical. Agricultural water management urgently requires modernisation. Drought and searing heat waves, linked to climate change, will occur more frequently and adaptation of the agriculture sector is needed to ensure production can continue. The government needs to encourage farmers to switch to more hardy, less water intensive crops and support the uptake of modern irrigation technology.

Iraq is already struggling to meet the food and water needs of its people. The United Nations estimates that as of July 2015, more than eight million people in the country need humanitarian assistance. Iraq’s immediate priority should be on reaching an agreement with its upstream neighbours regarding water access and flows into the country. This has, to date, proved unfruitful but pressure must be maintained on Turkey if Iraq is to ensure continued river flow into its territory. Ongoing armed conflict and violence will continue to undermine any efforts to address the water crisis. The government’s pre-occupation with IS has reduced the management of Iraq’s natural resources to a secondary role to be resolved at a later date. Assuming the water crisis can wait will, however, only create greater challenges.

Sinéad Lehane
Research Manager
Global Food and Water Crisis Research Programme

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