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Water Quality in Iraq

Water quality in Iraq
Photo 1: Baghdad, Iraq ( Source : Virginia Tice)

Surface water quality

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

Salinity

The salinity of Iraq’s rivers worsens as the water travels downstream. 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.

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 WHO 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 fully characterize the sources and extent of contamination or project changes that may occur in the future.

Groundwater quality

The groundwater quality varies across the country. The most accessible, highest producing and highest quality aquifers are found in the north-east. In this zone, there is 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.

water quality in Iraq Groundwater quality
Map 3. Depth of the groundwater in Iraq’s hydrogeological zones.[3]

Sanitation and wastewater treatment network

Water treatment services do not currently reach all Iraqis. Approximately 86% of the urban population and approximately 62% of the rural population have access to an improved water source via the country’s water distribution network.[4] Iraq’s water treatment infrastructure consists of water treatment plants (WTPs), compact units (CUs) and solar plants that are used to treat both surface and groundwater sources. The daily production of drinking water is currently approximately 12.5 million cubic metres (MCM) per day. Baghdad governorate can treat more than 3.5MCM of water per day whereas most other governorates can treat no more than 1MCM of water per day, and many can treat no more than 0.5MCM per day.[5]

Water treatment plant in Iraq
Map 2. Locations of water treatment plants in Iraq.[6]
Water quality in Iraq Wastwater treatment plants
Map 3. Locations of wastewater treatment plants in Iraq.[8]

Approximately 30% of Iraq’s population has access to a sanitary sewer system and, of the 18 governorates, only ten have wastewater treatment facilities.[7] Access to sewer systems tends to be concentrated in urban areas where wastewater treatment facilities are available. This means that most rural areas do not have access and therefore resort to alternate means of discharging sewage (e.g., underground septic systems or discharging untreated waste into channels or rivers). The spatial distribution of wastewater treatment plants is illustrated in Map 3.

Baghdad’s sewer network serves approximately 78% of the governorate, but for the remaining governorates that have treatment facilities, the extent of the sewer network covers less than 30% of the area, and in some cases, less than 10%.[9] The public health implications of these conditions are dire, exposing the population to pathogens and other contaminants that enter the water supply as untreated wastewater drains to freshwater sources. Between 2007 and 2012, at least three outbreaks of cholera were reported, and for each of the years between 2007 and 2010, more than 44,000 cases of typhoid, bacillary dysentery and hepatitis B were reported.[10] In 2012, at least four people died due to cholera outbreaks in northern Iraq.[11]

Environmental and health risks

Three decades of war followed by more than a decade of sanctions and the associated crumbling of basic infrastructure has been disastrous for Iraq’s environment. A reduction in stream flows, pollutants in freshwater systems, polluted and declining groundwater tables, degraded ecosystems, habitat loss and a reduction in biodiversity has caused damage across the country. It is estimated that the cost of environmental degradation is between 4.9% and 8.0% of the annual gross national production.[12]

It is widely acknowledged that there is an urgent need for the adoption of sound environmental management measures in Iraq, 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 met only mixed success.

[1] Dr. Evan W. Christen and Dr. Kasim Ahmed Saliem (eds.), 2012. Managing Salinity in Iraq’s Agriculture: Current State, Causes and Impacts. Iraq Salinity Assessment: Report 1.
[2] Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq, 2014. Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[3] Hatem K. al-Jiburi and Naseer H. al-Basrawi, 2013. ‘Hydrogeological Map of Iraq, Scale 1: 1000 000’, 2nd ed. Iraq Bulletin of Geology and Mining, Papers of the Scientific Geological Conference, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 17-26.
[4] 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. Available at reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_Report_2732.pdf, accessed 6 June 2016.
[5] Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq, 2014. Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[6] Ibid.
[7] 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. Available at reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_Report_2732.pdf, accessed 6 June 2016.
[8] Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq, 2014. Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.
[9] Ibid.
[10] United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 2014. Integrated Drought Risk Management National Framework for Iraq: An Analysis Report.
[11] World Health Organization, 2012. Cholera in Iraq.
[12] Ministry of Environment of Iraq, 2013. National Environmental Strategy and Action Plan for Iraq 2013-2017.