Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Water Management in Iraq

Dohuk Dam - Water Management in Iraq
An aerial view shows the remains of the submerged Gary Qasruka village, which was abandoned in 1985 and had partly resurfaced recently following a large drop in water level of the Dohuk Dam due to drought, in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk in the autonomous Kurdish region on August 28, 2022. Source: Ismael ADNAN / AFP

Key governmental and non-governmental organizations

On the national level, strategies for water resources management in Iraq are determined by the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), as mandated by the Ministry of Water Resources Law of 2008. The MoWR’s key responsibilities include the efficient allocation of available water resources and the development of additional water resources, the safeguarding of water quality and the protection of Iraq’s interests in water negotiations and transboundary management processes with neighbouring countries. Dams, reservoirs and hydraulic structures across Iraq are operated by the National Centre for Water Resources Management within the MoWR.[1]

The provision of municipal services, including water supply and sewerage, falls under the mandate of the Ministry of Construction, Housing, Municipalities and Public Works (MCHMPW) and is overseen by the General Commission of Water and Sewerage within the MCHMPW. However, with the introduction of Governorate Law 21 in 2008, responsibility for water and sewerage services was decentralized to local authorities, creating General Directorates of Water and Sewerage at the governorate level. In theory, these General Directorates manage the day-to-day operation of service provision, set tariffs and collect revenues in collaboration with local water directorates and other local authorities, and in coordination with and supervised by the MCHMPW.[2] In practice, however, the implementation of Iraq’s decentralization programme has not significantly moved forward since the introduction of Governorate Law 21, due to various administrative, financial and political impediments.[3]

Other governmental authorities, such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment and Health, may be involved in water management processes where they concern the respective authority’s mandate. However, there is a general lack of clarity regarding the specific roles of each ministry and the coordination between them.[4]

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources sets sectoral policies and strategies and develops additional water resources. Water and sewerage infrastructure in the region is the responsibility of the KRG’s Ministry of Municipalities and Tourism.[5]

Since the early 2010s, an active civil society movement has emerged across Iraq with the goal of drawing attention to environmental and water problems in the country, particularly related to the development of dams in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. The Save the Tigris initiative links environmental organizations in Iraq and across the Mesopotamian region to promote democratic decision-making and international cooperation regarding water resources and oppose the further development of dam infrastructure by the different governments, including the Iraqi government and KRG.[6]

Laws and regulations

There is no overarching national water law. However, a number of other key laws include relevant provisions regarding water and its use:[7]

• Water Protection Bylaw of 2001: defines water as a public resource, prohibits the discharge of waste into water bodies and obligates all entities to treat their wastewater.

• Water Quality Conservation Law of Rivers and Public Waters (Law No. 25/1967): regulates the discharge of water into public water bodies, including prohibiting the discharge of untreated wastewater and the illegal dumping of solid and liquid waste.

• Law of Water Conservation Practices No. 2 of 2001: regulates water use and water resources development; prohibits the discharge of untreated wastewater and encourages wastewater reuse.

• Irrigation Law No. 83 of 2017: puts the MoWR in charge of setting and monitoring water quotas and clarifies responsibilities for the operation and maintenance of water infrastructure, with the MoWR responsible for public infrastructure and landowners responsible for infrastructure on their land, supervised by the MoWR.

Included in these laws are a limited number of water quality standards. The terms of the regulation of effluents are described in Law No. 25 of 1967 and Regulation No. 2 of 2001, which define contaminant limits for effluent discharges to the main water supply, main sewers, tributaries into the main water supply and the marshes. However, the regulations do not impose particularly restrictive limits, even for discharges into the main freshwater bodies. Furthermore, limits for discharge into the sewer system are such that industries can presently discharge without any pre-treatment. This is a major problem because uncontrolled industrial discharges, especially those containing toxic substances, expose downstream users to poor quality water.

Water sector policy is set based on long-term strategies, including the Strategy for Water and Land Resources 2015-2035 and the overall National Development Plan of 2010-2044.

Water regulation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is largely based on Irrigation Law No. 6 of 1962, which primarily focuses on public irrigation systems and the use of water resources for irrigation purposes. While there have been a few more recent documents, including Law No. 59 of 1987 on the use of land adjacent to water bodies and Instructions No. 1 of 2015 on groundwater extraction and the drilling of wells, water legislation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is significantly outdated and unequipped to deal with the current water management conditions.[8]

Financing of the water sector

Water tariffs in Iraq are very low and do not meet the threshold for cost recovery. Combined with a high level of non-revenue water and a low bill-collection rate, this means that water service provision and the water sector at large depend on government funding.[9] However, government budgets are highly volatile due to their dependency on oil prices, and significant funds have been diverted from positions related to civil infrastructure to fund the fight against ISIS since 2014. Between 2014 and 2018, the MoWR’s budget decreased from $1.7 billion to $15 million per year. This has left the water sector institutions without the funds to operate sufficiently and maintain existing water infrastructure, let alone construct new infrastructure as planned in the Strategy for Water and Land Resources, which includes spending an estimated $180 billion by 2035.[10]

[1] Mofid, N M, Younis, A-I and Sadik, N, 2017. ‘Status of water sector regulation in Iraq’. In Mumssen, Y and Triche, T (eds) Status of Water Sector Regulation in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC, pp. 79-90.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Fleet, M, 2019. ‘Decentralization and its discontents in Iraq’. Middle East Institute.
[4] Oxfam, 2017. The Case for Improved Water Resource Management in Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq, Oxfam International.
[5] Tinti, A, 2017. Water Resources Management in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Institute of Regional and International Studies.
[6] Save the Tigris, n.d. About – Who we are.
[7] Mofid, N M, Younis, A-I and Sadik, N, 2017. ‘Status of water sector regulation in Iraq’. In Mumssen, Y and Triche, T (eds) Status of Water Sector Regulation in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC, pp. 79-90.
[8] Omar, A L, n.d. ‘Water legislation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’. Al Tamimi & Co.
[9] Mofid, N M, Younis, A-I and Sadik, N, 2017. ‘Status of water sector regulation in Iraq’. In Mumssen, Y and Triche, T (eds) Status of Water Sector Regulation in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC, pp. 79-90.
[10] Lossow, T von, 2018. More than Infrastructures: Water Challenges in Iraq. Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations; The World Bank, 2021. Iraq Economic Monitor: The Slippery Road to Economic Recovery.