Iraq has weathered immense challenges in recent years — foremost among them the Islamic State (IS) insurgency which at one point occupied about one-third of the country and threatened security nationwide. Yet as the smoke clears, Iraqis find themselves nonetheless plagued by mass unemployment, minimal public utilities, and untenable economic conditions. Recent protests have again focused the spotlight on Iraq’s continued political mismanagement (MEES, 20 July).

Maintaining the country’s water supply has largely fallen by the wayside and the effects are being felt from agricultural lands in the northern Nineveh province to Basra province in the south.

Iraq’s minister of water resources Hassan Janabi earlier this month told the United Nations “the combined effect of climate change and the operational modes of large dams have led to a decline in the rate of inflows in the Euphrates River by 50% over the last 20 years. About 90% of historically-fertile Iraqi soil is facing desertification in varying degrees.” That neighboring Turkey—the source of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—experienced its driest year in four decades in 2017, has merely exacerbated the already dire situation.


Baghdad is well aware of the investment needed in the water sector. In the ‘reconstruction and development framework’ it presented to investors at the Kuwait reconstruction summit held earlier this year (MEES, 16 February), $2.5bn in projects were earmarked for investment in the water, sanitation and hygiene sectors — 70% of which is listed as ‘short term’ investment to be implemented within a year. Another $3.39bn in needs was listed for damage to the agriculture sector, which relies mostly on irrigation from Iraq’s major river systems.

Iraq received around $30bn in pledges, easily sufficient to cover its $22.9bn in short-term needs. But pledges are one thing, concrete financial assistance is something else, and the latter has yet to show up.

Meanwhile across the country conditions grow ever direr in the summer months. Reuters reported this week that farming in Nineveh province is negligible, despite once producing a quarter of Iraq’s wheat. Having been recaptured after three years of IS control, the region’s irrigation system is in dire need of an overhaul but government assistance remains absent.

In Iraq’s southern oil heartland, where ongoing protests have seen several fatalities in recent weeks, poor water quality is a crucial issue. The level of total dissolved solids (non-water particulates) in Basra’s water supply has risen from 3,000mg per liter in 2004 to 17,000mg, local media reports, this year making the water not only unpotable but dangerous for agriculture. The 210,000 b/d refinery in Basra shut down for two days earlier this month, according to Iraq Oil Report, due to high salt concentration in the water from the Shatt al-Arab river. The increased salinity largely stems from decreased water flows from both the Shatt al-Arab and the Euphrates, which allows brackish water from estuaries on the Gulf to seep upstream.

And with around 70% of Iraq’s water resources flowing from neighboring countries, Baghdad is essentially beholden to its upstream riparians.


The water crisis is set to grow worse for Iraq. Turkey began filling its reservoir in early July at the 10.4bn m³ capacity Ilisu dam project after several delays. Part of Turkey’s ambitious Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the dam will add 1.2GW to Turkey’s total 85.2GW installed capacity.

But it also spells trouble for the Arab neighbor 90km downstream. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi criticized the start-up amid Iraq’s ailing water crisis in June, suggesting it was a political ploy by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to win support from farmers ahead of the 24 June election. Ankara’s ambassador to Iraq, Fatih Yiliz, insists that inflows will continue into Iraq on the lines of a May agreement. But Mr Janabi nonetheless says the reservoir will cut water inflows into Iraq to 30 bn m³ –the lowest level since 1931.

Iran’s Daryan dam is arguably even more perilous for Iraq, as the recently completed project seeks to divert Tigris tributaries for use for irrigation in western Iran. According to activists, the project could cut 60% of waterflow from the Sirwan river into northern Iraq, endangering 3,200 hectares of agricultural land in Iraqi Kurdistan.


Even in the absence of operations at Ilisu dam, Iraq has already experienced dangerously low Tigris flows this year—best evidenced by alarming levels at the massive 11.3bn m³ capacity Mosul dam. Located 40km northwest of Iraq’s second city, water levels are reported to have fallen about 25 meters this year due to a poor rainy season. Mr Janabi says 2018 water levels are the lowest on record, with volumes down a whopping 3bn m³ this year.

And if any project is indicative of Iraq’s dilapidated water sector and its need for immediate investment, it is the Mosul dam. Opened in 1986, the keystone Saddam-era project was built on soluble gypsum beds, meaning the subsoil needs constant grouting to keep the dam from sinking and disintegrating—an event that could trigger a tidal wave affecting millions downstream.

Iraqi officials consistently downplay the threat, but the dam’s structural integrity was further undermined when IS forces briefly took the dam in 2014. Ross Filkins of the New Yorker reports the structure may have gone between four and eighteen months without crucial cement injection. The Iraqi government managed to reopen the dam’s gates in January 2016 to assuage pressure on the barrier wall, which restarted hydroelectric power generation from the two 160MW turbines—ironically providing Mosul (then controlled by IS) with electricity.

Italian firm Trevi began work at the dam in 2016 with heavy security personnel but the dam remains a constant threat to residents of the Tigris basin. Substantial repairs or a potential alternative to the dam, at this point, do not appear on Baghdad’s radar.