Water of the Middle East and North Africa

What Does the Future Hold for Water in Iraq?

marshes of Iraq - Water in Iraq
A child guides a water buffalo and other livestock along a stream shooting off the Euphrates river in the marshes of Chibayish in Iraq's southern Dhi Qar province on October 31, 2022. Source: Asaad NIAZI / AFP

The Ministry of Water Resources has shown that it understands the water challenges facing Iraq and has adopted a strategy to help alleviate water scarcity in the future. Despite this, several crises threaten to push the country towards further deterioration, including failing infrastructure, outdated agricultural and irrigation systems, budget shortfalls, political instability, upstream development and the lack of transboundary water cooperation. These crises are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, which have already started to affect water access in the region.

In short, Iraq cannot wait to manage its water resources better. The urgency to act on water became glaringly apparent during Basra’s 2018 health crisis, caused by decreasing water availability and poor water management, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, with access to adequate hygiene a key measure to curb the virus’ spread. Various policy changes can improve water resources management in the interim, including incentivizing efficiency and restructuring storage policies and allocation mechanisms. It is incumbent upon the government to do what it can, as soon as it can, to protect the country’s most precious natural resource.

Risk factors and obstacles

The required coordination between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG in Erbil is a major obstacle to strategic water resources management in Iraq. The ability of the central government to continue to manage water resources jointly with the KRG is vital, as the active and precise management of the largest reservoirs located in the north is the only way to provide the desired level of development for the entire country. Failure to maintain coordination in the future will most certainly be the cause of great social and economic tension as well as a catastrophic loss of opportunity for both sides.

Iraq’s vulnerability to upstream development in Turkey, Iran and Syria also continues to be a risk factor. If the upstream countries do not meet their expected efficiency gains in agriculture over the next 20 years, a further reduction of the projected water quantity and quality delivered to Iraq will be the likely result – with the concomitant economic and social harm that this brings. Gaining a better understanding of the water management plans and progress of the other riparian countries, and developing a comprehensive negotiation strategy on water, must therefore be a top priority for the government.

At the same time, Iraq must make gains in its own agricultural efficiency, rehabilitate and extend its irrigation drainage and collection network, and repair various elements of its water infrastructure. The fight against ISIS caused widespread damage to water and agricultural infrastructure, and significant investments will be needed to fund the reconstruction and restore water service provision and irrigation systems to their previous state.

Political instability and public discontent in Iraq continue to create a volatile situation in which local water crises can spark new protests against the government and water disputes between different groups that may escalate in the absence of effective conflict resolution mechanisms.

Long-term strategy

Like many countries around the world and particularly in the MENA region, Iraq’s projected future freshwater availability looks bleak, with an estimated water deficit of 20 BCM/yr by 2030.[1] In its Strategy for Water and Land Resources 2015-2035, the government states its commitment to finding additional groundwater resources in order to increase the total available water supply as well as reforming the agriculture sector to reduce consumption.

However, Iraq will not be able to achieve water security by itself. Developing new agreements with Turkey, Syria and Iran on the quantity and quality of the water in the Euphrates and Tigris entering Iraq is a top priority. Additionally, since the water requirements within Iraq will soon exceed the available water, a plan for the future requires making better use of the country’s projected water supply, including improving reservoir operations and increasing the efficiency of water consumption.

The expansion of water treatment facilities and the water network serving Iraq’s municipal and industrial water users is a high priority as well. At a minimum, treatment of drinking water should achieve the drinking water standards set forth in Regulation No. 417 of 1974, the Iraqi Standard Specifications on Drinking Water, which were updated in 2000.

Changing the management of agricultural drainage will be of paramount importance to control salinity along Iraq’s rivers. Between now and 2035, irrigation projects should be progressively connected to drainage channels that segregate polluted agricultural runoff from the freshwater supply. This is projected to vastly improve the water quality in Iraq.[2]

[1] Alwash, A, Istephanian, H, Tollast, R and Al-Shibaany, Z Y (eds), 2018. Towards Sustainable Water Resources Management in Iraq. Iraq Energy Institute.
[2] Ministry of Water Resources of Iraq, 2014. Strategy for Water and Land Resources of Iraq 2015-2035.