Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Water Quality in Iraq

Tigris river - Water Quality in Iraq
An aerial view taken on October 14, 2022, shows a view of the Kut Water Project, on the bank of the Tigris river in the southern Iraqi city. Source: Ali NAJAFI / AFP

Surface water

Iraq is currently contending with two types of water quality issues. One is salinity, the other is the concentration of pollutants in the water caused by municipal, industrial and agricultural activities that introduce return flows into freshwater sources. Development of agriculture throughout the Euphrates and Tigris watershed, both inside and outside Iraq, is leading to a progressive increase in the salinity of the waters of the Euphrates, Tigris and other rivers in Iraq. Economic development and population growth are also contributing to rising loads of various contaminants. Deterioration in water quality is exacerbated by droughts and is a major contributing factor to desertification of agricultural land.


The salinity of Iraq’s rivers worsens as the water travels south (Map 1). Salinity along the Euphrates is higher than along the Tigris and its tributaries because of local geological features, land management and agricultural irrigation and drainage practices within the Euphrates watershed. The Shatt al-Arab suffers from the highest salinity due to the confluence of rivers and drainage channels with high salinities, reduced water flow volumes and tidal influence from the Gulf, which impacts areas downstream of Basra.[1] Total dissolved solids increase by nearly a factor of four along the Euphrates between Husayba and Nasiriyah, and by nearly a factor of six along the Tigris between Mosul Dam and Qurna, based on average monthly water quality data available from the Ministry of Environment for the period 2004 to 2011.

Groundwater salinity in Iraq - Water Quality in Iraq
Map 1. Groundwater salinity in Iraq. [10]

Other pollutants

Waterborne diseases are widespread due to polluted drinking water supplies. Reports from the Ministry of Environment for 2009 indicate that bacteriological contamination in the water supply varies between governorates, ranging from 2.5% to 30%, with an average of 16%, exceeding both Iraq’s National Drinking Water Standards and the World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Drinking Water.[2] Datasets regarding other pollutants, including organic and inorganic substances, pathogens and bacteria, are limited in Iraq, which makes it difficult to characterize fully the sources and extent of contamination or project changes that may occur in the future.

In addition to dissolved and suspended pollutants, waterways in Iraq suffer from high levels of pollution from solid waste, including both household and industrial rubbish as well as rubble from damaged buildings in areas affected by recent conflicts.[3]


Groundwater quality varies across the country. The most accessible, highest producing and highest quality aquifers are in the north-east. This zone has high rainfall and the concentration of total dissolved solids in the groundwater is generally very low. Groundwater salinity increases in the central, topographically lower areas. In arid and semi-arid areas like Iraq, the chemical composition of groundwater in the shallow subsurface zone depends on the quality of the recharge water and the depth of the water table. Sodium and chloride contents generally increase with depth, and in deep-seated zones, sodium, calcium and chloride brines are prevalent. These vertical chemical changes in groundwater composition are accompanied by a general depth-related increase in salinity (Map 2). Along the Gulf coast, high groundwater abstraction has led to seawater intrusion into the aquifer, further increasing the salinity of groundwater resources.[4]

groundwater in Iraq - Water Quality in Iraq
Map 2. Depth of the groundwater in Iraq’s hydrogeological zones. Source: Fanack Water

Environmental and health risks

Decades of war and sanctions and the associated crumbling of basic infrastructure have been disastrous for Iraq’s environment. A reduction in stream flows, pollutants in freshwater systems, polluted and dropping groundwater tables, degraded ecosystems, habitat loss and a reduction in biodiversity has caused damage across the country, including severe impacts on the Mesopotamian Marshes.[5] It is estimated that the cost of environmental degradation is between 4.9% and 8.0% of the annual gross national production.[6]

It is widely acknowledged that there is an urgent need for the adoption of sound environmental management measures, particularly related to water. As a result, over the past decade efforts have been made to address environmental issues, including the passage of major environmental legislation such as Law No. 27 of 2009 on the Protection and Improvement of the Environment, which updated and replaced a similar law from 1997. Enforcement of the law’s provisions, however, has had only mixed success. Part of the uneven enforcement of environmental laws has likely been due to the administrative upheavals in the Ministry of Environment. In 2015, the ministry was subsumed into the Ministry of Health, as part of then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s sweeping reform programme.[7] The procedure to separate the two ministries again was initiated in early 2022.[8]

Health risks related to the pollution of water resources have become more obvious in Iraq over the past decades. Basra governorate, which includes the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris into the Shatt al-Arab near the city of Basra, has been a hotspot of water quality problems. The combination of low river runoff, high salinity and increased levels of agricultural and industrial pollution as well as sewage in Basra have repeatedly caused health crises in the city. In the summer of 2018, more than 100,000 inhabitants were hospitalized with water quality-related illnesses, sparking large-scale protests against the mismanagement of the water resources in Basra.[9]

[1] Christen, E W and Salie, K A (eds), 2012. Managing Salinity in Iraq’s Agriculture: Current State, Causes and Impacts. Iraq Salinity Assessment: Report 1; Abdullah, A D et al., 2015. ‘Shatt al-Arab river system under escalating pressure: a preliminary exploration of the issues and options for mitigation’. International Journal of River Basin Management 13(2): 215-227.
[2] Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq, 2014. Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[3] WASH Cluster, 2020. Water Pollution Assessment of the Canals in Basrah City.
[4] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, 2013. Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia.
[5] Fazaa, N A, Dunn, J C and Whittingham, M J, 2021. ‘Pollution threatens water quality in the Central Marshes of Southern Iraq’. Baghdad Science Journal 18(4) (Suppl.):1501-1513.
[6] Ministry of Environment of Iraq, 2013. National Environmental Strategy and Action Plan for Iraq 2013-2017.
[7] Reuters, 2015. ‘Iraq’s Abadi cuts 11 ministerial positions in reform push’. Published 16 August 2015.
[8] Shafaq News, 2022. ‘Iraqi government to split the Ministry of Health and Environment’. Published 23 January 2022.
[9] Al-Rubaie, A, Mason, M and Mehdi, Z, 2021. Failing Flows: Water Management in Southern Iraq. London School of Economics Middle East Centre, LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series 52; Human Rights Watch, 2019. Basra is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis.
[10] Krásný, J., Alsam, S. and Jassim, S. Z. (2008) ‘Hydrogeology’, in Jassim, S. Z. and Goff, J. C. (eds) Geology of Iraq, Prague, Dolin, pp. 251–287.