In the past few years, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates have dropped to less than a third of their historical capacity.  Hadi Mizban / AP Photo
In the past few years, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates have dropped to less than a third of their historical capacity. Hadi Mizban / AP Photo

In Iraq, fresh water may soon be a thing of the past

If Iraq does not start tackling its issue with water supply soon, the country will run out of fresh supply in less than a decade, according to analysts.

Unfortunately, the problem in Iraq is complex with geography, international relations, deplorable internal water management policies, unsustainable growth and development and devastating droughts all playing a role in the decline of supply.

As water becomes scarce, it will be necessary to break through the decades long impasse that has led to Iraq’s current problems.

Past attempts to reach agreements with the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Syria and Iran have been repeatedly stymied and have ultimately failed. To make matters worse, decades of water resource mismanagement within Iraq have been ignored.

For a solution to be reached, it will require an integrated approach, a degree of compromise on the equitable sharing of water and an unwavering political will to implement the comprehensive changes that are needed.

A considerable amount of finger-pointing over Iraq’s water issues has been directed at Turkey and its ambitious Southeast Anatolia Project.

Known as GAP in Turkish, the project is a massive river basin development scheme involving the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectricity plants on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Ilisu Dam in particular has been a lightning rod for controversy, even though it is the Cizre Dam that poses a larger threat to Iraq in terms of actual water quantity losses.

The Ilisu Dam is being built for hydropower purposes only and will eventually release all the water that it stores for further use downstream. The Cizre Dam, however, is being built to serve a larger and more threatening scheme.

Once fully operational, the Cizre Dam will capture the water released by the Ilisu Dam and divert it to an irrigation project, resulting in significant quantities of water being permanently lost for further use downstream.

Even if the Ilisu and Cizre Dams weren’t fully developed, Iraq has cause to be concerned about the lack of water flowing into its territory.

In the past few years, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates have dropped to less than a third of their historical capacity.

Such declines will exacerbate the water issues Iraq is already grappling with. But even so, the nation must first take ownership over what it has the power to control. Iraq’s water management problems begin at the highest governmental levels and trickle all the way down to those who wash the streets outside their houses every morning.

Many people do not know the value of water in Iraq. Weak policies, subsidies, no tariffs and a lack of public awareness campaigns have bred a culture of ignorance on the value of water.

Iraq’s largest consumer of water, the agricultural sector, is also in dire need of reform.

Of the water flowing into Iraq, 80 per cent goes toward agriculture and more than two-thirds of that quantity is permanently lost.

Modernising Iraq’s agricultural sector will be a costly endeavour, but such tremendous losses can no longer be accommodated.

Shifting from traditional to modern agriculture would allow much of Iraq’s 77,000 square kilometres of arable land to be cultivated using significantly less water and would, therefore, ease water scarcity issues.

The state of Iraq’s existing infrastructure is also part of the problem.

After the 2003 US-led invasion, extensive damage and looting of important components for the operation and maintenance of dams, pumps and irrigation networks left the existing infrastructure in a shambles.

More than a decade later, repairs are still ongoing to replace the stolen parts.

Iraq has started taking some steps towards tackling its internal water problems, but it must ensure that the progress it has made is not lost. It must embrace legal and institutional reforms of its water sector, particularly through investment and modernisation of the agricultural sector.

A comprehensive and integrated water resources management plan must be coupled with negotiations with neighbouring countries that lead to solid, lasting water sharing agreements. To do so will require trust between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

It will also require all four countries to accept that a final agreement will require a degree of compromise on everyone’s part. No solution can ever be reached where every party has all their demands met.

But Iraq has neither the time nor the resources to be complacent.

From the Mesopotamian plains of Turkey and Syria, the Zagros Mountains of western Iran and the Shatt Al-Arab of Iraq, there exists an unprecedented opportunity for these countries to unite over the water they share and demonstrate that rather than fuelling conflict, water can, and should be, a path towards cooperation and peace.

Kira Walker is a journalist based in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region

On Twitter: @_kirawalker

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