Key fact

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are the source of about 60 per cent of Iraq’s water resources

Source: MEED

When Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein wanted to rattle sabres during his decade-long standoff with the West, he would often invoke either Palestine or Israel. Even during the invasion of neighbouring Kuwait in 1990, Hussein refused to withdraw his forces “unless Israel withdrew from all Arab lands occupied in 1967”.

Eight years after the Iraqi dictator was deposed by a US-led coalition, the rhetoric around the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to play a part in the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens, albeit in a somewhat unusual way.

Per capita water availability, 2010
Country (Cubic metres a year)
Turkey 2,890
Iraq 2,400
Iran 1,876
Syria 791
Kuwait 791
Jordan 152
Saudi Arabia 95
Source: Iraq Ministry of Water Resources 

When Unesco voted in October 2011 to approve full membership for Palestine, the US promptly cut off funding to the organisation, which, until then had depended on Washington for 22 per cent of its expenses. On top of the estimated $80m a year the US contributed to Unesco was another $2m-3m of extra-budgetary expenses it paid for special projects, many of them in Iraq.

Water schemes in Iraq

One of the most important projects to be affected was a Unesco scheme to measure Iraq’s groundwater resources. Two thirds of the $1.5m cost of the study was being underwritten by the US State Department and the US Army Corps of Engineers, who have been closely associated with efforts to improve the quality of water in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Although the project is still going ahead with EU funding, it has been significantly delayed – by up to six months, according to a source working on the scheme.

We are seeing some management issues – water is not prioritised by the government

Casey Walther, Unesco water projects coordinator

The availability and quality of water in Iraq is a crucial issue. In 1995, the World Health Organisation reported that 96 per cent of urban areas and 48 per cent of the country’s rural population had access to safe water supplies. By 2005, after years of sanctions, which extended to foreign technology and equipment, the bombing of key utility infrastructure during the 1990s, and, of course, the 2003 conflict, these numbers had dropped to 73 per cent and 43 per cent respectively. By some estimates, up to 500,000 children died in Iraq during the 1990s and early 2000s due to the cumulative effect of targeted attacks on infrastructure and international sanctions.

Despite the passage of eight years since the overthrow of Hussein, the situation has not noticeably improved. A 2011 survey commissioned by the Planning Ministry found that just 72 per cent of Iraqis living in urban households had access to the public water network, while 47 per cent of rural households were connected.

The study also found many Iraqis are still drawing their drinking water directly from lakes and streams. Even in Baghdad, around 31 per cent of households covered by the study said they drew their water from the Tigris river, the banks of which the capital lies on.

Water is crucial to the Iraqi economy. About 96 per cent of supply is used in the country’s agricultural sector, which accounted for 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 20 per cent of employment in 2010. Droughts in 2008, 2009 and 2010 severely impacted the profitability of the farming sector, hurting overall employment and reducing food stocks, although domestically produced wheat and rice only account for about 10 per cent of total supply. 

The government doesn’t have any real agricultural policy in terms of water use

Casey Walther, Unesco water projects coordinator

Until January 2012, Casey Walther, a US national, was Unesco’s water projects coordinator in Iraq. Back in the US before moving on to a new posting in East Africa, he remains concerned by the lack of progress in developing the country’s water sector.

“The UN monitors the progress of Iraq towards its millennium development goals [MDGs],” he says. “When you look at the targets for drinking water and sanitation and we were looking at this at the end of 2011, Iraq is definitely not on track.”

Development goals

The MDGs are a series of targets agreed by the 193 UN member states in 2000, which include the alleviation of poverty and disease. Iraq’s main goal was to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. With three years to go until deadline, the situation for most Iraqis would appear to be getting worse, not better.

Iraq access to safe drinking water, 2009
Status (Percentage of population)
Reliable 41
No access 21
Daily problems 16
Less than weekly 15
Weekly 7
Source: Unesco

Walther attributes the lack of progress to three years of drought, a lack of government capacity to develop the sector and diminishing supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates, the source of about 60 per cent of Iraq’s water resources.

“In terms of events, there was an extreme drought that came into the picture in 2008 and stayed until 2010 and we have evidence that it will continue going forward. That obviously constrained access to water,” he says.

“You can also talk about hydropolitics. The majority of Iraq’s water comes from outside its borders and there are upstream developments affecting the amount of water the country gets. There are existing dams and dams under development in Turkey, and Iran has diverted 15 tributaries to the Tigris since 2006 alone.”

Two new Iranian dams at Duhma and Bakhtiari could potentially cut off supply to two of Iraq’s main dams at Haditha and Mosul. “I visited them in summer of last year, and they were already down to about 50 per cent of capacity,” he says.

“There is also Baghdad’s ability to manage its own resources. Internally, the capacity of the government, the infrastructure, these skills all come into play when it comes to Iraq’s lack of ability to protect the most vulnerable members of society.”

Mismanagement in Iraq

Mukdad Ali al-Jabbari, a professor of earth sciences at Baghdad University and an authority on the Tigris and Euphrates systems, agrees that of the many challenges the Iraqi water sector faces, management at a state level is the biggest.

“We know what to do, but we are seeing some management issues – water is not prioritised by the government,” he says. “If you have a problem, with money and good management you can solve it. Without it, you cannot.”

Walther points to the lack of decent data on the water sector as a key failure on the part of the government. “Iraq really doesn’t know how much water it has or how much it needs,” he says. “All the numbers you see are estimates and often outdated. Baghdad needs to understand and answer the issue if it wants to meet its needs. They need to update their knowledge and understanding of the sector.

“Put bluntly, if Baghdad doesn’t work out how much water it produces and how much it consumes every year, it cannot plan properly for the future.”

Accurate data is particularly essential for Iraq because of its lack of water security.

“Iraqi officials cannot negotiate with neighbouring Turkey or Syria, which control the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris,” he says.  “Negotiators from Baghdad arriving at summits have found it almost impossible to get what they want out of talks because they cannot accurately state what they actually need.”

Al-Jabbari is also concerned by the lack of progress in building new wastewater and desalination capacity in Iraq. Although there have been plenty of studies in the past and plans have been laid out for the development of the sector, little progress has been made on actual project implementation. “Are we implementing these initiatives?” he asks. “I think not. We still have our water problems.”

When the reconstruction was still in the hands of US officials in 2005, estimates for the total cost to repair existing water infrastructure and build new plants and distribution networks was about $2.6bn. This was later cut to $1.8bn.

According to regional projects tracker MEED Projects, the total value of water projects completed since the 2003 invasion is closer to $1.3bn. Even after this kind of spending, the sector is in “dire” shape, according to Walther.

The situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. According to MEED Projects, $7.5bn of new water-related projects will be developed between now and the end of 2020. But most are related to new dam projects, which could prove pointless if supply from the Euphrates and Tigris continues to fall.

In 2010, the Water Resources Ministry forecast that discharge from the Euphrates will more than halve by 2025, to 8.45 billion cubic metres from about 19 billion cubic metres currently. Supply from the Tigris is predicted to drop even more, from 49.2 billion cubic metres in 2009 to 9.16 billion cubic metres in 2025.

Iraq’s development plan for 2010-14, meanwhile, is largely focused on improving agricultural output rather than planning for a future where there is less water available for farming. “The government doesn’t have any real agricultural policy in terms of water use, other than becoming a self-sufficient food producer, which is pretty much impossible now,” says Walther.

Both Walther and Al-Jabbari also highlight the increasing salinity of water in Iraq, which is making the development of the agricultural sector harder, damaging existing water treatment capacity and making the construction of new desalination capacity more important.

“I have seen saline deposits on the surface in parts of the country that looked like snow. That is really bad,” says Walther. “They don’t have the desalination capacity or the water treatment capacity; the situation is dire.”

Future conflict over water supply

With US troops withdrawn from Iraq in December 2011, Walther worries that the security situation could deteriorate because of constrained water supplies.

“There are more and more incidents of conflicts and tensions over the use, control and distribution of water resources,” he says.

“I am concerned that when you look at the hydrological make-up of the country, the water comes from the northwest and travels down to the southeast, which is pretty much the country’s ethnic fault lines.

“This is really an existential issue. People focus on the political strife now the US has gone, but Iraq is one of the worst countries in the world, hydrologically speaking.”

The story of Iraq in the 2000s was largely one of external intervention. In 2012, dwindling water supplies could mean that it is one of internal strife.