Iraq will only be able to meet 15% of its water needs by 2035, UN official warns

Ninety per cent of country's rivers are polluted, with seven million people currently grappling with limited access to clean water

A boy walks on the dried-up bed of a section of Iraq's southern marshes of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province. AFP
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Iraq will only be able to meet 15 per cent of its water demands by 2035 if current trends continue, a top UN official said on Thursday, warning that water scarcity has become the country's most critical environmental issue.

The dire situation is made worse by the fact that 90 per cent of Iraq's rivers are contaminated, leaving seven million people struggling to gain access to clean water.

“This is a significant multiplier of threats to Iraq's stability,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, special representative of the UN Secretary General for Iraq, told the Security Council.

She stressed the need to view water as a collaborative concern among Iraq's neighbours, rather than as a resource to be competed for.

“If water is a competition, everyone loses,” she said, stressing that bold domestic actions and close regional co-operation offer the only winning solution.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said water represents “the most critical climate emergency for Iraq”.

“By 2035, it is estimated that Iraq will have the capacity to meet only 15 per cent of its water demands,” she added, as she urged the Iraqi government to intensify diplomacy with its neighbours on topics including water sharing, border security, trade and climate issues.

She also emphasised the significance of upholding the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and good neighbourliness for regional stability.

The UN has classified Iraq as one of the countries most affected by climate change, including drought.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Norwegian Red Cross jointly released a report on Thursday highlighting the urgent need for greater assistance in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The report emphasised how climate change and armed conflict have together triggered a dire humanitarian situation across the region.

According to the report, dozens of UN, World Bank and other multilateral funds have approved only 19 single-country projects in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as of January 2022.

It also revealed that the total amount disbursed to date was a mere $20.6 million, less than 0.5 per cent of the global expenditure on climate projects.

Anne Bergh, head of the Norwegian Red Cross, stressed the need for policymakers to directly address the region's climate challenges, expressing concern that current climate finance distributions largely exclude the most fragile and unstable areas.

“It’s clear from a humanitarian perspective that this must change,” Ms Bergh said.

Iraq’s deputy UN ambassador Sarhad Fattah underscored Baghdad’s keenness to engage in water diplomacy to secure the “legitimate right of Iraqis to their water share”.

In March, Iraq became the first country in the Middle East to join the UN Water Convention, which aims to ensure the sustainable use of water resources that flow across international borders.

Updated: May 18, 2023, 5:56 PM