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Water of the Middle East and North Africa

The Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq: ‘The Land Between Two Rivers’ Under Threat

Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in Iraq
Photo 1: An aerial picture shows Sinbad island and the Khaled bridge on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, formed at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in Iraq's southern city of Basra, on May 7, 2022. Source: Hussein FALEH / AFP

Author:

Jakob Ollivier de Leth is a water enthusiast from the Netherlands. Whilst studying History and Environmental Management, he developed a keen eye for political developments in systems of water governance. He works at Dutch water utility Vitens and his interests include capacity development, culture and travelling the Middle East.

Introduction

Iraq lies in the ancient region of Mesopotamia, which means ‘the land between two rivers’, a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates. From their sources in the mountains of eastern Turkey, the rivers flow through portions of Turkey, Syria and Iraq before converging at the Iraqi city of al-Qurnah to form the waterway known as the Shatt al-Arab and eventually discharging in the Persian Gulf. Western Iran also lies in the Tigris and Euphrates basin, as several tributaries of the Tigris originate in the Iranian Zagros Mountains.

The Tigris and Euphrates river system faces many challenges, such as decreasing water quality and quantity. Low water productivity, climate change and dam building are threatening the river system and leading to permanent damage to nature, urban migration and sometimes violent conflict in Iraq.[1] This report aims to outline the main causes of these issues and provide inspiration for possible solutions in Iraq.

The Tigris and Euphrates River Basin

The Tigris and Euphrates have their springs within 80 kilometres (km) of each other in eastern Turkey.[2] The Euphrates flows through Syria before it enters Iraq at al-Qaim and has a total length of about 2,800 km. After leaving Turkey, the Tigris briefly follows Syria’s north-eastern border before it enters Iraqi Kurdistan at Faysh Khabur. The Tigris has a total length of about 1,900 km. The Tigris and Euphrates river basin has a total catchment area of 917,103 square kilometres (km2).[3]

Iraq_Tigris Euphrates River Basin
Map 1: Catchment area of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. Source: Fanack Water

The river basin is located in several climatic zones, ranging from Mediterranean to a hot, dry desert-like climate. In the upper parts of the basin, rain and snowfall ensure high levels of precipitation (up to 1,500 millimetres per year), whereas the lower parts receive very low precipitation (up to 60 millimetres per year).[4]

The river system lies in one of the longest continuously inhabited areas of the world. The ancient cities of Babylon, Uruk and Nimrud are several thousand years old, and the area is home to countless important locations in the holy scriptures of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Over the course of millennia, the river system has changed dramatically. Through sedimental research, archeologists have found evidence that the watercourses have changed, proving historic periods of drought, flooding and (de)salination, which have impacted millions of people.[5]

The river system is populated by diverse peoples, including Turks, Kurds and Arabs. The Euphrates alone supports the livelihoods of approximately 60 million people through irrigation, among other things. The river system is also home to wildlife, with the Iraqi marshes in the south-east forming a spectacular wetland area of close to 35,000 km2.[6]

Water Challenges in Iraq

Iraq faces multiple challenges regarding both its irrigation methods and irrigation systems. Although irrigation has been applied around the Tigris and Euphrates for over 6,000 years, irrigation systems are poorly managed. Iraqi farmers often use outdated methods such as surface irrigation, as a result of which irrigation accounts for about 80% of the country’s water consumption. Although efforts are being made to introduce more effective methods such as drip irrigation, progress is slow.[7]

Decades of war and rampant corruption have weakened Iraq’s infrastructure. Farmers continue to use outdated and damaged irrigation infrastructure. The lack of maintenance and management of systems cause decreased agricultural yields, meaning even more water is consumed to produce the necessary yields. Furthermore, salinization and waterlogging have led to about 1.5 million hectares being abandoned, the equivalent of around 40% of Iraqi land suitable for cultivation.[8]

Governments and activists, such as the Save the Tigris campaign, Humat Dijlah (‘Tigris protectors’) and Humat al-Forat (‘Euphrates protectors’),[9] agree that to prevent further water scarcity in the future, action should be taken immediately to decrease Iraq’s water consumption. As most of Iraq’s water is used for irrigation, the agricultural sector is at the heart of this issue.[10]

Several international actors, such as People in Need and Cordaid, are collaborating with local farmers to accelerate a sustainable transition and improve the effectiveness of their operations. For example, the Agribusiness Acceleration Project aims to rebuild agribusiness through capacity building of youth and women, while offering them business courses on fundamentals such as business law, market insights and branding, and climate change and socio-environmental concerns. According to the World Bank, Iraq received over $2 billion in foreign aid in 2020.[11]

Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq
Photo 2: This aerial view shows boys jumping off of and swimming by an old wreckage in the Shatt al-Arab waterway, formed at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in Iraq's southern city of Basra, on May 30, 2022. Source: Hussein FALEH / AFP

Causes and Consequences of Iraq’s Water Challenges

Iraq faces a 20% drop in available freshwater resources by 2050.[12] In the case of water supply by the Tigris and Euphrates, two main causes of this decline are climate change and dam building. This chapter discusses the causes and consequences of lower water quantity and quality.

Decrease in water quantity

Climate change and associated droughts have had a severe impact on Iraq in recent years. According to the Cyprus Institute, Iraq and surrounding areas have already witnessed a temperature rise of 0.4°C in the past four decades, outpacing global temperature increases. The country has also faced severe droughts and heatwaves over the past years.[13] The 2020-2021 rainfall season was the second driest in four decades, causing a reduction of water flow of 29% in the Tigris and 73% in the Euphrates. The water flow is expected to decrease even further, by 25% and 50% respectively by 2025.

This alarming projection led to 13 (inter)national aid groups warning that the “unfolding water crisis will soon become an unprecedented catastrophe” threatening the livelihoods of over 7 million people in Iraq.[14] The water situation has already led to violent internal conflict, such as disputes between the Huraish and Marian tribes over water-related issues, which resulted in the death of at least 25 people in 2018.[15]

Upstream dam building by Turkey

Turkey has established control over its domestic parts of the Tigris and Euphrates through decades of extensive dam building, primarily the Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi (South-eastern Anatolian Project, or GAP). GAP was announced in the 1980s as a programme to enhance the irrigation and hydroelectric capabilities of Turkey’s poor south-eastern regions. The project envisaged the construction of a total of 22 dams and 19 powerplants across nine provinces. Since then, it has shifted towards an integrated regional development project, incorporating several education, women’s empowerment and other social projects as well. GAP remains highly controversial, both inside and outside of Turkey, especially as some claim the project aims to erase the cultural, social and political presence of Kurds in the region and other downstream riparians.[16]

Through dam building, Turkey has also established control over its downstream neighbours. For example, the Karakaya and Atatürk dams on the Euphrates can store a usable volume of water almost equal to the annual flow of the Euphrates that reaches Syria. Dams on the Tigris, including the infamous Ilisu Dam, which flooded parts of the ancient Kurdish city Hasankeyf,[17] raise the usable capacity in its reservoirs to 70% of the mean annual flow to Iraq. As Syria’s and especially Iraq’s water supplies dwindle, Turkey’s grip on these countries increases.[18]

Upstream dam building by Iran

Much to Iraq’s anger, Iran has severely reduced the flow of its transboundary rivers, such as the Diyala/Sirwan (Arabic/Kurdish), Arvand and Greater and Lesser Zab, through dam building. In 2021, Hassan Rouhani, then the Iranian president, called for even more “modern” irrigation projects on the border with Iraq, after plans to build 109 dams were introduced in 2019. For Iran, such actions seem necessary as almost 7 billion cubic metres of water cross the border with Iraq yearly.[19] As Iran has its own water-related issues and is expected to face a water shortage by 2036, the country has opted to refrain from diplomacy and to focus solely on its own interests.[20]

Diplomatic efforts in the basin

Before the 1960s, water use was not a source of tension between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. However, due to growing populations and technological advancements, these countries initiated unilateral water development projects, such as the Keban Dam in Turkey and the Taqba Dam in Syria. Turkey and Syria started using their dams simultaneously during a drought in 1975, which almost led to armed conflict.[21] Since then, Turkey has emerged as the basin’s strongest power, using the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates to put pressure on its riparian neighbours.[22]

Efforts were made, especially during the 1990s and 2000s, to relieve the issue. Re-establishing the 1980 Joint Technical Committee was suggested and, most notably, Turkey signed memorandums of understanding with Syria and Iraq on water management in 2009.[23] Since then, increased cooperation has stalled, as underlined by Turkey’s continued filling of dams.[24] This was at least partly caused by years of civil war and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, as Turkey did not sign the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention, its legal obligations pertaining to the use and conservation of the Tigris and Euphrates remain limited.[25]

The situation between Iraq and Iran appears even more intractable, as Iran seems unwilling to engage in dialogue with Iraq. This has led to tensions between the two countries. Moreover, Iraq is planning to file a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over water disputes with Iran, as Mahdi Rashid al-Hamdani, Iraq’s minister of water resources, announced in 2022. According to al-Hamdani, Iran is retaining more water than necessary, hurting Iraqi economic, social and environmental interests.[26]

The Basra water crisis

The Basra water crisis is exemplary of the dire state of Iraqi water resources. In 2018 and 2019, around 100,000 people were hospitalized due to a lack of potable drinking water and a subsequent cholera outbreak. Massive riots erupted in Basra, a governorate in south-eastern Iraq bordering Kuwait. A global commotion followed about the abysmal state of water resources in one of Iraq’s most populated, oil-rich and affluent regions. In 2019, Human Rights Watch published Basra Is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis, a report painting a damning picture of the management of local water resources over the past four decades.

Although a crisis had been brewing for decades, pollution by the oil industry and dwindling water supplies caused by dam building on the Tigris, Euphrates and its tributaries by Turkey and Iran are considered the main causes of the crisis.[27]

The effect of the oil industry on the water situation in Iraq

One of the reasons why Turkey can maintain its water advantage over Iraq is the trade imbalance between the two countries. The Observatory of Economic Complexity states that Turkey’s exports to Iraq are valued four times higher than Iraqi exports to Turkey. Turkish exports are highly diversified, ranging from minerals to food and clothing, whereas Iraqi exports are almost exclusively minerals and oil products.[28] Therefore, Iraq is dependent on Turkey for water as well as a wide variety of other products. As long as Iraq remains dependent on Turkey, there is no (economic) incentive for Turkey to alleviate the situation. Moreover, Iraq’s diplomatic efforts to improve the water situation will likely fail and the imbalance between the countries can be expected to grow.

Furthermore, Iraq’s reliance on the oil industry not only causes external issues but also major pollution of the country’s air, soil and water. A report by Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group, used satellite imagery to show how the oil industry pollutes both groundwater and surface water in several ways, such as injecting wastewater into land near wastewater infrastructure and into waterways such as the Shatt al-Arab near Basra. The consequences are disastrous, as birds can mistake oil waste for water. In addition, polluted water was what led to the Basra water crisis in 2019.[29]

Iraq- Shatt al-Arab waterway
Photo 3: An Iraqi youth stands by his bicycle on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the Nahr Bin Omar village, as flare stacks burn in the eponymous oil field and installation across the water, in Iraq's southern Basra governorate, on December 5, 2021. Source: Hussein FALEH / AFP

Outlook and Conclusion

This chapter provides an outlook for the issues surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq.

Water governance at national and local levels

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership argues that internal dynamics should receive more attention when it comes to water issues in Iraq. The organization argues that these dynamics are mostly ignored in media, political and scholarly reports about the situation. They suggest three ‘building blocks to stability’: 1) identifying and understanding interprovincial water challenges, 2) raising awareness and encouraging dialogue, and 3) supporting activities to prevent and/or mitigate conflict risk.[30]

WPS suggests utilizing early warning tools, big data and remote sensing to identify hot spots, risks and potential conflicts. Using quantitative data in decision-making could assist Iraq in prioritizing (water) issues. This ties directly into the second building block (raising awareness and encouraging dialogue), as current efforts are often hindered by conflicts of interest from different stakeholders rooted in socio-political, economic or cultural dynamics. Data-driven tools could provide the impartial information that is necessary to move beyond these conflicts. For example, these tools could inform discussions on water resources between the Kurdish Iraqis in the north and Arab Iraqis in the south, which are often clouded by cultural and social issues beyond the water situation.

The third building block (supporting activities to prevent and/or mitigate conflict risk) might be the hardest to achieve in the coming years. It implies supporting non-governmental organizations and civil society with data-driven tools. However, the Iraqi government has prosecuted active members of civil society several times in the past years and cracked down on protests, making this building block particularly challenging.[31]

Transboundary water governance

Diplomatic efforts should continue to emphasize the importance of multilateral treaties to ameliorate the water situation in the Tigris and Euphrates basin. Several forthcoming events provide promising contexts during which such efforts could materialize.

The first is COP 27, which will take place from 7-18 November 2022 in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. Egypt and Iraq are in similar situations, in the sense of being downstream from a country that withholds large amounts of water in hydropower dams.[32] Egypt will likely take the opportunity to stress the need for a diplomatic resolution with Ethiopia. If such a resolution is achieved, or even if steps are taken in this direction during the conference, this could set a much-needed precedent for the Tigris and Euphrates basin.

A year later, in 2023, the second large opportunity arises at COP 28, which will be held in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.[33] Twice in a row, the world’s largest climate conference will be held in an Arab country with a similar climate to Iraq. Vicki Hollub, the chief executive officer of Occidental Petroleum, a major American oil company, stated that “[COP28 taking place in Abu Dhabi] will give the oil industry a voice [in the solution to climate change]”.[34] Ideally, the oil industry will present big steps to reduce pollution, which in turn could decrease the negative impact of the oil industry on water quality in Iraq.

Since 2021, the Baghdad Water Conference has been held annually in March.[35] Organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, the conference aims to overcome issues related to water quality and water supply. In 2022, a Turkish delegation attended the conference headed by Veysel Eroğlu, the presidential special representative for Iraq. Eroğlu was appointed by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2019 to facilitate dialogue towards improved water management in Iraq.[36] Although this conference has not yet produced major breakthroughs, an active dialogue between both countries is a positive development that should be facilitated by international organizations which review the implications of policies of all relevant stakeholders. Examples of such organizations include the World Bank, the World Water Council or a panel of international water envoys.

Conclusion

Iraq faces grand water challenges that are economically, socially and politically complex. Although the above outlook offers several steps towards relieving the most pressing issues, it is uncertain if, when and how such steps could be implemented. Therefore, policies should be supported that ensure sustainable development and institution building so that Iraq may remain in Mesopotamia: the land between two rivers.

[1] Water, Peace and Security, 2021. Interprovincial Water Challenges in Iraq: Initial Analysis of an Urgent and Under-researched Crisis. Working Paper.
[2] Britannica, 2016. Tigris-Euphrates river system.
[3] Al-Ansari, N, Aljawad, S, Adamo, N and Sissakian, V K, 2018. ‘Water quality within the Tigris and Euphrates catchments.’ Journal of Earth Sciences and Geotechnical Engineering 8(3): 95-121.
[4] Daggupati, P, Srinivasan, R, Ahmadi, M and Verma, D, 2017. ‘Spatial and temporal patterns of precipitation and stream flow variations in Tigris-Euphrates river basin.’ Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 189: 50.
[5] Britannica, 2016. Tigris-Euphrates river system.
[6] One Earth, 2019. Tigris-Euphrates Alluvial Salt Marsh.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Lifegate, 2020. ‘Rebuilding Iraq starting from the water. The story of Salman Khairalla;’ and ICSSI, 2019. ‘Building the network of water activists in Basra.
[10] 1001 Iraqi Thoughts, 2018. ‘The importance of fixing Iraq’s irrigation.
[11] World Bank, 2020. Net official development assistance and official aid revenue (current US$) – Iraq.
[12] World Bank, 2021. ‘Iraq: Rising Fiscal Risks, Water Scarcity, and Climate Change Threaten Gradual Recovery from Pandemic.’ Press release, published 24 November 2021.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Reliefweb, 2022. ‘Water crisis and drought threaten more than 12 million in Syria and Iraq’. Published 23 August 2021.
[15] Al-Monitor, 2018. ‘Tribal disputes flare in southern Iraq over water scarcity’. Published 14 February 2018.
[16] Hommes, L, Boelens, R and Maat, H, 2016. ‘Contested hydrosocial territories and disputed water governance: struggles and competing claims over the Ilisu Dam development in southeastern Turkey.’ Geoforum 71: 9-20.
[17] Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, 2020. ‘Urgent call to resolve mounting problems in Hasankeyf.’ Published 1 September 2020.
[18] Dubois King, M, 2020. Water and Conflict in the Middle East. New York, Oxford University Press, p. 40.
[19] MEI, 2021. ‘Water scarcity could lead to the next major conflict between Iran and Iraq.Published 18 March 2021.
[20] Al-Monitor, 2022. ‘Iran, Iraq exchange accusations over water flow.’ Published 25 January 2022.
[21] Kibaroglu, A and Scheumann, W, 2013. ‘Evolution of transboundary politics in the Euphrates-Tigris river system: New perspectives and political challenges.’ Global Governance 19(2): 279-305.
[22] Climate Diplomacy (n.d.). ‘Turkey, Syria and Iraq: Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Dubois King, M, 2020. Water and Conflict in the Middle East. New York, Oxford University Press, p. 70.
[25] UNECE, 2014. UN Watercourses Convention.
[26] Al-Monitor, 2022. ‘Iran, Iraq exchange accusations over water flow.’ Published 25 January 2022.
[27] Human Rights Watch, 2019. Basra is Thirsty. Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis.
[28] The Observatory of Economic Complexity, 2022. Iraq.
[29] Bellingcat, 2021. ‘What oil, satellite technology and Iraq can tell us about pollution.’ Published 15 April 2021.
[30] Water, Peace and Security, 2021. Interprovincial Water Challenges in Iraq: Initial Analysis of an Urgent and Under-researched Crisis. Working Paper.
[31] UNHCR, 2021. ‘Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.’ Published 1 November 2021.
[32] United Nations Climate Change, 2022. Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference – November 2022.
[33] IISD, 2022. 2023 UN Climate Chance Conference (UNFCCC COP 28).
[34] Alarabiya News, 2021. ‘COP 28 in Abu Dhabi will give oil industry a say on climate change: Occidental CEO.’ Published 17 December 2021.
[35] Baghdad Water Conference, 2022. Baghdad 2nd International Water Conference.
[36] Al-Monitor, 2019. ‘Turkey names “water czar” to ease disputes with Iraq.’ Published 22 January 2019.