Author: Juliane Schillinger is a PhD candidate at the University of Twente, Netherlands, specializing on local water management and climate adaptation in settings of armed conflict.
Reviewer: Virginia L. Tice is a senior consultant on water resource management and environmental and social safeguards. She has worked in Iraq since 2009.
Sustainable water resources management in Iraq has no shortage of challenges. Some of Iraq’s water hardships, like seasonal floods and droughts, occur naturally. However, many of the most disruptive and destructive problems are man-made: water infrastructure debilitated by decades of war and neglect; inefficient and outdated agricultural practices; rapid population growth and urbanization; competing water management approaches within transboundary river systems; and the looming crisis of climate change. The Iraqi government has plans to address the situation, but it remains to be seen whether major reform will transpire.
Geography and climate
Iraq’s climate varies with its geography to form three main regions: the mountainous regions in the north and north-east with a Mediterranean climate, a transitional steppe region with a semi-arid climate, and the arid desert region in the south and west, which encompasses around 70% of the country. Rainfall is seasonal, mostly falling from December to April, and varies from 400-1,000 millimetres per year (mm/yr) in the mountainous north-east to 200-400 mm/yr in the semi-arid steppe to 50-200 mm/yr in the arid regions (Map 1). Winters are short and cool, with a day temperature of about 17°C, dropping to 4°C at night. Summers are dry and hot, with maximum temperatures surpassing 43°C in arid areas during July and August, dropping to 25°C at night.
Climate change is already affecting Iraq, particularly with regard to rainfall patterns. Since the 1950s, an increase in rainfall of 2.4 mm/month per century has been measured in the north-east, while rainfall in the arid west has decreased by 5.93 mm/month per century. These trends are predicted to continue, along with an increase in mean annual temperature by 2°C and a higher occurrence of heatwaves and intense rainfall events across the country by 2050. Under a high emissions scenario, annual mean temperature might increase by more than 5°C by the end of the century.
The population in Iraq as of 2019 was just over 39 million, with around half of the population under the age of 20. Iraq is a fast-growing country: the population has increased several times over since 1950 and, with a current growth rate of about 2.5%, is projected to reach 50 million by 2030. It might surpass 100 million by the end of the century (Table 1).
Table 1. Population growth in Iraq.
|Total pop (mio)||5.72||9.92||17.42||23.50||29.74||40.22||50.19||70.94||93.5||107.71|
|Pop change (%)||2.6||3.4||2.3||3.1||2.0||2.5||2.1||1.5||0.9||0.4|
Urban areas in particular are expected to grow significantly between 2015 and 2035, which will increase the municipal water needed for household and non-household uses.
Most of the country (around 70% of the population) lives in urban areas, as people have left rural villages in search of employment and essential services like health care and education. The annual rate of urbanization from 2020 to 2025 is estimated at approximately 3%, which is a significant migration of people. City sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants, as well as other governmental services like power generation, have struggled to keep up with the influx of people into major urban areas.
In the northern Kurdistan Region of Iraq, refugees fleeing the war in Syria have put an additional strain on governmental services. The number of Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR has been constant at approximately 250,000 people since 2015, almost all of whom are located in the governorates of Erbil (ca. 50%), Duhok (ca. 33%) and Sulaymaniyah (ca. 13%). Between 90,000 and 100,000 of these registered refugees live in camps, with the remaining 150,000 live in urban areas of the region. The number of unregistered refugees is difficult to estimate. According to the World Bank, the stabilization cost – the additional spending that would be needed to restore the welfare of residents of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – for 2015 was estimated at $1.4 billion above and beyond the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) budget.
Iraq’s economy is dominated by the oil sector, which provides around 90% of government revenue and accounts for approximately 40% of Iraq’s gross domestic product (GDP) but provides relatively few employment opportunities. The country’s main employer is the government, which employs over 40% of the population. Unemployment has increased over the past decade, from a relatively constant rate of around 9% to 14.1% in 2020, with a further jump in unemployment expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment rates are significantly higher among women and young people.
Iraq’s GDP per capita in 2019 was estimated at $5,154, making Iraq an upper-middle-income country according to the World Bank’s classification scheme.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Iraq’s economy took a significant hit, and GDP per capita decreased by 17.5% to $4,247 in 2020.
In 2019, industry, including construction and oil, accounted for 53% of GDP, the service sector, including the government, accounted for 44.5%, and agriculture accounted for the remaining 3.5% (Figure 1).
Significant fluctuations in the global oil price over the past years have been a problem for Iraq’s economic strength and national budget. In combination with higher humanitarian and security-related expenditures and, lately, the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has caused repeated fiscal deficits, reaching 14.5% of GDP in 2016 and 12.8% of GDP in 2020.
 Iraqi Ministry of Health and Environment, 2016. Iraq’s Initial National Communication to the UNFCCC.
 The World Bank, n.d. Climate Change Knowledge Portal: Climatology Iraq.
 United States Agency for International Development, 2017. Climate Change Risk Profile: Iraq.
 World Health Organization; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2021. Health and Climate Change Country Profile 2021: Iraq.
 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2019. World Population Prospects 2019, Volume II: Demographic Profiles – Iraq.
 Central Intelligence Agency, 2022. The World Factbook: Iraq.
 Several protests have been held to complain about the lack of basic services. See e.g. Kami, A, 2011. ‘Iraqis demonstrate over lack of basic services’. Published by Reuters on 6 February 2011.
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2022. Situation Syria Regional Refugee Response – Iraq.
 The World Bank, 2015. ‘The Kurdistan Region of Iraq needs an estimated US$1.4 billion this year to stabilize the economy’. Published 12 February 2015.
 The World Bank, 2021. Iraq Overview.
 United Nations Development Programme, 2015. About Iraq.
 The World Bank, 2022. World Development Indicators.
 All dollar amounts in constant 2015 US dollars.
 The World Bank, 2022. World Development Indicators.
 The World Bank, 2020. Breaking Out of Fragility: A Country Economic Memorandum for Diversification and Growth in Iraq.
 Countryeconomy.com, n.d. Iraq government budget deficit.