Regional Cooperation Needed to Avert Water Crisis in Iraq

Unexpected heavy rainfall has brought new hope to parts of Iraq that have seen climate change, irrigation mismanagement, and lack of cooperation between neighbor states reduce water levels year-on-year. The welcome surprise may turn back to gloom, however, if underlying problems are not solved. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are vitally important for the well-being of the Iraqi people. They constitute 98% of Iraq’s surface water, and the country’s agriculture relies almost entirely on their continued flow. Clearly, then, proper management of these rivers is key to a healthy Iraqi society.

Historically, though, the two rivers have been the constant subject of political games. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein utilized upstream dam reservoirs to battle those he viewed as political opponents, destroying the Southern Marshes in the process. Nearly a decade later, the so-called Islamic State laid claim to a number of dams along the Euphrates, and used others in their military strategies. At Fallujah, Islamist militants released vast quantities of water to flood incoming Iraqi government troops, and at Ramadi they withheld the flow of the river to reduce the manpower of the Iraqi government further downstream.

Today, the marshlands are being regenerated, and the so-called Islamic State is largely defeated – political concerns surrounding the two rivers, however, have not dissipated. Part of the worry now has returned to considering the best means for managing the water resources, with internal conflict emerging over alleged mismanagement leading the country to a water crisis. The issue has emerged as a controversial one in Iraq, as the victor of Iraq’s last elections, Shia firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, made a point of demanding better solutions on this front.

Perhaps the more difficult long-term consideration is the lack of any concrete and upheld regional agreement over use of the two rivers though. Iraq contains neither river’s sources, with both being largely in Turkey. The Euphrates gathers 89% of its waters in Turkey, flowing from there into Syria where it gains the remaining 11%, and then finally into Iraq. The Tigris, on the other hand, flows directly from Turkey, which contributes 52% of its waters, into Iraq, which contributes the rest alongside tributaries flowing out of Iran. What this effectively means is that even if ideal water management policies are followed in Iraq, however unlikely that may seem, international misallocation can still put Iraq in a troubling spot.

The history of Iraq’s cooperation with its riparian neighbours has been patchy, at best. Though a treaty of “Friendship and Good Neighbourly Relations” was signed between Turkey and Iraq in 1946, the requirements under the treaty only covered consultation and measurement, and even these have not been followed. Since then, both countries have undergone much more development, particularly within the purview of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP in Turkish). Various dams and irrigation projects erected under GAP have been carried out without consultation concerning downstream concerns, something particularly apparent in negotiations for a tripartite treaty between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. In these negotiations in the 1980s, Turkey took what is known as the Harmon doctrine of ultimate sovereignty, named after US Attorney General Judson Harmon, as its stance, effectively arguing that it could do with its part of the rivers whatever it liked. This is exemplified in then PM Süleyman Demirel’s statement: “We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey’s, the oil resources are theirs. We don’t say we share their oil resources, and they can’t say they share our water resources”. No tripartite agreement was ever reached, and although Turkey agreed in 1987 to release a minimum of 500 m3/s of water throughout the year into Syria, it has not kept to this promise.

The result of this lack of cooperation is that large dam projects upstream – such as the massive Ataturk Dam completed in 1990 and the recent Ilisu Dam – have severely decreased the amount of water that reaches Iraq from these two rivers. In recent years, the downstream country has not only been hit by such primary effects as lack of water, which in 2018 forced the government to cease cultivation of rice, but also secondary effects such as heightened salinity, which led to more than 100,000 people being hospitalized in Basra.

Though recent unrest in the region may make cooperation over such a contentious issue seem unlikely, there are possible ways out. The Ilisu dam reserve is yet to be filled thanks in part to Turco-Iraqi negotiations which resulted in the former’s agreeing to hold off on using the dam. And cooperation has emerged in less likely scenarios – one needs only to look to the miraculous Indus Water Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan to see rival nations cooperate on their management of a river system.

Whatever the case, a regional, multinational solution is vital to the continued survival of Iraq. Climate scientists have estimated that the effects of global warming may hit the region twice as hard as they have elsewhere, exacerbating droughts and further tightening the already mismanaged water sources. According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, Iraq’s recent oil boom, seeing output double over the past decade, could be threatened if enough water cannot be supplied for growing oil production projects. If such coordination does not occur, in short, the difficult times may turn a threat into a tragedy.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Dec. 5, 2019.

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