Iraq: Kurdish Dam-Building Spree Threatens Fragile Water Supplies

14 October 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

A proposal to build several  dams in Iraqi Kurdistan has sparked concerns that new dams in the region could lead to further water shortages in the rest of Iraq, as well as concerns that the proposed dams could cause significant damage to the wider environment. Iraqi Kurdistan has faced a number of water security issues of its own, largely due to dams in Iran. It is hoped that the new dams will safeguard against further water shortages. Out of 35 planned dams in the region, 14 are currently under construction and will be used for domestic water consumption, irrigation, fisheries and tourism. Environmental impact statements reportedly did not consider the impact of the new dams on downstream parts of Iraq.

Comment

Transnational water usage and climate change have made reducing water insecurity in Iraq a complex task. The country once had some of the most abundant supplies of water in the region, but that supply has fallen by around 40 per cent over the last several decades. Turkey has extensively dammed the Tigris and Euphrates and its hydropower aspirations are thought to be responsible for much of the fall in river flows to Iraq since 1975. Meanwhile, Iran has built over 600 dams in the last three decades, along with other large-scale water projects, which have diverted water away from the western provinces of Iraq.

Iranian control of water flow into Iraq is partly responsible for the recent drive to build dams in Iraqi Kurdistan. In August, officials warned that flows from the Sirwan and Little Zab rivers (tributaries of the Tigris, which flow from north-eastern Iran into Kurdistan) had fallen by 75 to 80 per cent, threatening the livelihoods of around two million people. The reduction in water was primarily due to 16 new dams that Iran had built along the Sirwan. Tehran has announced plans to build over 109 new dams by 2021, as well as a water tunnel that Kurdish officials fear will be able to divert even more water away from Iraqi Kurdistan, to Iranian cities.

The last three decades have seen a decline in water security in Iraq, especially in the southern governates. Agriculture uses 85 per cent of the water consumed in Iraq. As water has become more scarce, farmers have moved towards systems that favour short-term returns over sustainability, while other farmers have simply sought to find alternative employment. In 2019, over 20,000 Iraqis were internally displaced due to water shortages, especially in central and southern governates.

Currently, it appears that there is little hope that Iraq’s water shortages will be solved in the immediate future. In September, Baghdad formed a special delegation to negotiate a water sharing agreement with Turkey and Iran. There has historically been little willingness for the countries that share the Tigris and Euphrates to act outside of immediate self-interest in terms of water management, however, and Iraq’s negotiating position is not a strong one – it relies heavily on both Iran and Turkey as trade partners. Moreover, Turkey has ignored the few water management protocols in place between Ankara and Baghdad and refuses to abide by international treaties that govern the Tigris and Euphrates.

Iraq’s place downstream of thirsty neighbours and its poor negotiating position puts it in a precarious position in terms of water security. New dams in Kurdistan are likely to exacerbate the issue, further reducing water flows into the rest of the country.

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