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Iraq is quickly becoming the land of no rivers

A boy jumps into the Tigris river for a swim in Baghdad’s Adhamiya District, northern Baghdad, Iraq, July 1, 2009. (Reuters)
A boy jumps into the Tigris river for a swim in Baghdad’s Adhamiya District, northern Baghdad, Iraq, July 1, 2009. (Reuters)
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15 Jun 2022 06:06:39 GMT9
15 Jun 2022 06:06:39 GMT9

While the various Iraqi parties continue to bicker over their respective share of the country’s next government months after the October parliamentary elections were held, Iraq is facing an existential threat of a different kind. Acute water shortages could cause the two main rivers that nourished one of the world’s greatest civilizations to dry up within just a few years.

The land of the two rivers, as Iraq has been known for centuries, might be closer than anyone had predicted to losing its two key water arteries: The Euphrates and the Tigris. In fact, a report by Iraq’s Water Resources Ministry that was published in December said that the two rivers, which originate in Turkey and run through Syria and are the source of up to 98 percent of Iraq’s surface water supply, could render the country “a land without rivers by 2040.”

Already, poor rainfall and climate change have exacerbated the country’s water challenge, with one Iraqi official warning that it only has enough drinking water left to last one more season. Many lakes and reservoirs have completely dried up, while the water level in both rivers has dropped significantly — by as much as 70 percent in the Euphrates, according to the UN. Many of Iraq’s famed marshes in Al-Ahwar in the south of the country are now parched and salty dust bowls.

The staggering decline in the water level in both rivers has decimated farms along their banks, destroyed the fishing industry and turned many riverside villages into ghost towns, with farmers abandoning them and turning to the cities to look for menial jobs.

But while climate change has compounded Iraq’s water challenge, the truth of the matter is that much of the problem can be blamed on its two neighbors, Turkey and Iran. According to Climate Diplomacy, which covers geopolitical conflicts, Turkey contributes 90 percent of the Euphrates’ flow, while Syria contributes 10 percent. As for the Tigris, Turkey, Iraq and Iran contribute 40 percent, 51 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Despite a number of water-sharing agreements between Turkey on the one hand and Iraq and Syria on the other — some dating back to the early 1920s — tensions over quotas began in the 1960s.

Ankara started implementing plans to build a series of dams over the two rivers in the 1970s, but the scheme picked up in the late 1980s with the unveiling of the Southeastern Anatolia Project, which aims to build 22 dams, thus significantly cutting both Syria and Iraq’s water share. Following America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the political chaos that gripped the country for years after, little was done to ensure Turkey’s commitment to previous deals. Meanwhile, Iran, also suffering from water issues, began diverting key tributaries that fed the Tigris.

With water levels dropping fast in both rivers, few Iraqi officials were paying attention to this looming threat and its cataclysmic consequences for millions of Iraqis. Last October, the Water Resources Ministry announced that a water agreement with Turkey had entered into force, noting that there was a real political desire on the Turkish side for positive discussions concerning the issue. But in reality, Turkey had ignored Iraqi pleas, forcing the first deputy speaker at the Iraqi parliament, Hakim Al-Zamili, to threaten to pass legislation that would ban any dealings with either Turkey or Iran unless they responded to Baghdad’s demands concerning its water share. “Iran and Turkey are killing us by cutting off water,” he said.

While climate change has compounded Iraq’s water challenge, much of the problem can be blamed on its two neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

Osama Al-Sharif

Water Minister Mahdi Al-Hamadani announced that he was in contact with counterparts in both countries and that Baghdad was still waiting for a Turkish emissary to visit the country for negotiations. And, two weeks ago, President Barham Salih warned of “an existential danger” to his country because of the water challenge. The UN had also called on the three countries to negotiate and commit to a fair water-sharing deal.

The endemic water shortage in Iraq has driven farmers to resort to the illegal drilling of wells. This leads to the exhaustion of underground water tables, resulting in destroyed farmlands as the soil becomes too salty. The outcome has been the shrinking of agricultural lands, which threatens the country’s food security.

Added to all of this is the fact that poor infrastructure has contributed to the pollution of the Tigris and Euphrates, which has exacerbated the acute shortages in the supply of clean drinking water, especially in the southern provinces.

But without the cooperation of both Turkey and Iran, Iraq’s water crisis will fester, resulting in grave socioeconomic, demographic and environmental challenges that could accelerate the country’s collapse, driven by a dysfunctional political system. Time is running out to stop this ancient land facing the specter of dying of thirst.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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