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Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Water Challenges in Iraq

Iraqi marshes - Water Challenges in Iraq
An aerial view shows the dried-up bed of Iraq's receding southern marshes of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province on September 28, 2022. Source: Asaad NIAZI / AFP

Inefficient water use

In addition to limited water treatment capacity, significant losses of treated water occur across distribution networks due to leaking and aging pipes and unpermitted water extraction. Some governorates experience as much as a 40% loss in treated drinking water along the length of the water distribution network, as illustrated in Figure 1.[1]

Figure 1. Water losses along the distribution network by governorate.[2]

Evaporation also causes significant water losses. Tharthar Lake alone is presently responsible for more than 50% of the evaporative losses from Iraq’s reservoirs. In the future, the lake will likely only be used for flood control purposes in order to better conserve water resources.[3]

Financial deficit in the water sector

Low water tariffs, a high level of non-revenue water and significant constraints on the government budget allocated to the Ministry of Water Resources have led to a severe fiscal deficit in the water sector, particularly in municipal water directorates. This has caused existing water infrastructure to fall into a state of disrepair, increasing water losses and non-revenue water across Iraq. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the deficit of municipal water directorates, as the Iraqi government decreed the suspension of water bills in March 2020 in reaction to the ongoing health crisis.[4]

Climate change

Climate change is already affecting Iraq, with an increase in temperature, higher occurrence of heat waves, intense rainfall events and dust storms as well as changes to rainfall patterns in different parts of the country. Predictions for 2050 estimate an increase in mean annual temperature of 2°C and a decrease in mean annual rainfall of 9%, with a decrease of 17% for the winter months (December, January, February).[5]

These changes will have a significant impact on water resources, including an expected 22% decrease in river runoff across the country by 2050 and saltwater intrusion into groundwater aquifers. The increase in high-intensity rainfall events is expected to lead to a higher occurrence of flooding, including flash floods.[6]

Agricultural productivity is expected to decrease due to a lack of rainfall and irrigation water, desertification and soil salinization, contributing to food insecurity and the loss of agricultural livelihoods and encouraging migration towards urban areas. Electricity production from hydropower plants is expected to decrease due to lower water levels in the reservoirs, with studies estimating a 5-10% decrease of the Mosul Dam’s hydropower generation by 2050. Various impacts on public health are expected as well, including impacts directly related to the increase in temperature and impacts related to the deterioration of access to water, food and electricity.[7]

Climate adaptation is therefore vital for Iraq. The country joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2009, signed the 2015 Paris Agreement and ratified it in December 2021, and has set policies that include adaptation goals. However, further development and practical implementation of such policies have been obstructed by political instability.[8]

Internal disputes over water

Water disputes in Iraq are related to various water uses, water pollution and the allocation of water between governorates. Similar to internationally shared river basins, governorates located upstream along the major rivers are in an advantageous position compared to governorates located further downstream. The increase of water storage resulting from the development of additional dams in northern Iraq has exacerbated water insecurity in the southern governorates, increasing the risk of tensions between the two parts of the country. The potential for conflict may be further heightened by the fact that different ethnic groups inhabit each part of the country.[9]

The oil industry is a particular point of contention. Oil production requires significant amounts of water, while the discharge of wastewater from the industry is a major source of pollution that can negatively affect downstream users and the environment.[10]

Dialogue platforms and effective conflict resolution mechanisms are key to reduce the risk of internal water conflicts. Most interprovincial disputes are currently resolved through legal processes or through mediation by the federal government. However, grievances remain, particularly on the local level, and existing resolution mechanisms may be weakened by political instability. In addition, an updated national water management strategy, which considers the heterogeneous needs of different parts of the country, is required to support future mediation processes.[11]

Dam development in the Euphrates-Tigris basin

Large-scale dam development in the Euphrates-Tigris basin started in the 1960s. Major dams along the Euphrates include the Atatürk Dam in Turkey, opened in 1992 (total reservoir capacity 48.7 BCM); the Tabqa Dam in Syria, opened in 1973 (total capacity 11.7 BCM); and the Haditha Dam in Iraq, opened in 1987 (total capacity 8.3 BCM). In the Tigris basin, the most important dams along the Tigris itself are the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, opened in 2018 (total capacity 10.4 BCM); and the Mosul Dam in Iraq, opened in 1986 (total capacity 11.1 BCM). The Dukan Dam, opened in 1959 (total capacity 7 BCM) is on the Lesser Zab in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

As a downstream country, Iraq is significantly affected by dam construction and operation in upstream countries. It is estimated that since 1980, the river flow of the Euphrates and Tigris into Iraq has decreased by 30-40%, in large part due to infrastructure developments upstream.[12]

The intensive development of both large and small dams throughout the basin has led to disputes between and within the riparian countries Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As the countries continue to build more dams unilaterally within their own territories to ensure access to water in a changing climate, and in the absence of robust international agreements and transboundary water management, these disputes will likely intensify.[13]

Legacy of armed conflicts and political instability

Decades of war, sanctions and political instability have had profound impacts on water management in Iraq, turning its water system from one of the best in the Middle East into one of the worst. Direct conflict damage, insufficient repairs and a lack of maintenance have led to the deterioration of most of Iraq’s water infrastructure, exacerbating problems related to leakage from water or wastewater pipes and the inefficient distribution of irrigation water.

Water service provision has suffered from a lack of access to the necessary equipment, spare parts and water treatment chemicals in addition to issues related to deteriorated infrastructure. Water utilities have also struggled with brain drain, as skilled workers left their poorly paid public sector jobs for more lucrative employment elsewhere. With the national economy in decline and government funds diverted towards security purposes, government authorities and utilities in the water sector were severely underfunded throughout the second half of the 2010s.[14]

[1] Ministry of Planning/Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT), Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, Ministry of Environment, Baghdad Municipality, Ministry of Planning/Statistics Office of the Kurdistan Region, Ministry of Municipalities of the Kurdistan Region, Ministry of Environment of the Kurdistan Region, in cooperation with UNICEF, 2011. Environmental Survey in Iraq 2010: Water-Sanitation-Municipal Services.
[2] Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq, 2014. Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[3] Ibid.
[4] The World Bank, 2021. Iraq Economic Monitor: The Slippery Road to Economic Recovery.
[5] United States Agency for International Development, 2017. Climate Change Risk Profile: Iraq; Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2021. Climate Fact Sheet: Iraq.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Kool, D, Birkman, L and Torossian, B, 2020. Interprovincial Water Challenges in Iraq: Initial Analysis of an Urgent and Under-researched Crisis. Water, Peace and Security Partnership.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Lossow, T von et al., 2022. Action Needed: Three Priorities for Iraq’s Water Sector. Water, Peace and Security Partnership.
[13] Al-Aloosy, M, 2021. ‘Iraq’s water crisis: An existential but unheeded threat’. Published by The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington on 27 August 2021; Lossow, T von et al., 2022. Action Needed: Three Priorities for Iraq’s Water Sector. Water, Peace and Security Partnership.
[14] Sadoff, C W, Borgomeo, E and Waal, D de, 2017. Turbulent Waters: Pursuing Water Security in Fragile Contexts. The World Bank; Zeitoun, M, Elaydi, H, Dross, J-P, Talhami, M, Pinho-Oliveira, E de and Cordoba, J, 2017. ‘Urban warfare ecology: A study of water supply in Basrah’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41(6): 904-925.