It won't be oil that decides Iraq's future

An increasingly scarce resource is exacerbating the country's already fragile state

A boy holds an oar while another prepares to jumps off the prow of a grounded boat on the dried up soil of what was Lake Hamrine in Iraq's Diyala province in May. AFP
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Iraq is in a fragile state. Increasing water crises, desertification and climate change could magnify and drive greater instability and even violence in the future.

About 98 per cent of Iraq’s surface water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries. Both rivers have had natural declining flows of water to Iraq and Syria for decades. But the flows have also been slowed down considerably in recent years by the development of dam projects in Turkey.

A large part of the area of Iraq that is on the border with Turkey is Kurdish, and Turkish-Kurdish relations have been fraught with difficulties for an exceptionally long time. Water is part of those tensions. The Kurdish areas plan to dam up more water, and that will cause tensions with the south.

At most, 6 per cent of water flows into Iraq come from rivers in Iran into the Tigris. Flows from the rivers in Iran have also been in decline due to damming and decreased rainfall there.

A weaker Iraq, of course, empowers Iran in its drive for hegemony and malign leverage in the region, particularly in the south of Iraq, where it is already influential. Because of deficits in energy and food, in part due to water stress, Iraq has had to increasingly import both things from Iran.

Water stress in Iraq has also increased unemployment in the countryside. About one quarter of the Iraqi population used to rely on agriculture for employment. As agricultural employment dropped, migration to the cities increased.

Rural-urban migration has increased resource and social stress on many Iraqi cities. As employment in farming and related industries is in decline, for many the temptation to go into illicit industries and criminal enterprises is rising. With enormous levels of youth unemployment, the problem is only made worse.

Ethno-sectarian conflicts, moreover, risk increasing as water becomes scarcer and desertification spreads. As water stresses get worse there could be significant increases in outward migration from Iraq.

Iraq’s bureaucracy is often sectarian and tribal in nature, which makes achieving positive changes more difficult

Increasing water scarcity has destroyed some communities. As one of many examples, the marshlands of the south that have largely dried up. Salt water is moving up the Shatt al Arab River and into the water table relied on for farming and drinking water. Depopulation has started as a result.

The once mighty river systems are no longer mighty. And that massive change affects the entire country’s livelihood, culture and security. The effects of water crises, desertification and climate change are shredding communities.

Climate change is clearly at work. Increased dust storms, lower and less predictable rains, and increasing temperatures made life exceedingly difficult for many. Evaporation of water in reservoirs, rivers, and on farms has increased.

Some of the problems stem from international issues, such as shared water coming into Iraq that other states seem increasingly less willing to share. The government in Baghdad no doubt understands that this is a major part of the country’s water problems, and popular anger towards the country’s neighbours is growing.

How does Iraq ask a water-scarce Iran and Syria for more water? How does it ask Turkey for more water when Turkey has banked the pacification and development of its restive south-east on massive irrigation and dam projects that reduce water flows to Iraq?

There are no effective solid, long-term agreements on water sharing with any of Iraq’s neighbours, even though there have been many attempts at this since the 1920s.

Turkey sees the Tigris and Euphrates as transboundary water originating from the same water basin in its country. Syria and Iraq see the Tigris and Euphrates as shared water systems. Iran sees the water in its tributaries flowing into Iraq as its own.

Among the most pernicious problems, however, is corruption. Iraq’s bureaucracy is often sectarian and even tribal in nature, which makes achieving positive changes on resource issues more difficult.

The sun sets as flare stacks burn off excess gas at the Mushrif site inside the Zubair oil and gas field, north of the southern Iraqi province of Basra last week. AFP

Better integrated water management could be a solution. However, that integrated system will have to take into consideration national as well as local and tribal issues.

The oil industry uses immense amounts of water, but Iraq is one of the most oil-dependent countries on the planet for its export revenues, government budget and GDP.

Another potential solution would be to look at water efficiency. This may include a move away from water-intensive crops such as wheat and rice. But there is also huge water waste from the way these crops are irrigated. Eighty-five per cent of the water use in Iraq is in agriculture to grow water-inefficient crops using water-inefficient irrigation systems.

There is also waste from ill-maintained municipal water infrastructure. But these amounts are nowhere near the waste in agriculture.

The problem extends into the quality of what little water is available. Diarrhoea, cholera and water-borne sicknesses occur all too often. Water quality and quantity are hygiene and health issues in many parts of the country. Those most affected by these are women and girls, the very young and the old. These groups must often walk long distances in some places to get water.

Better education and training on water issues are vital at all levels of Iraqi society. And better governance of water is required. More efficient and productive ways of using water, meanwhile, are essential, along with more productive ways of solving water disputes. The country is already in dire straits when it comes to its water supply. If nothing changes quickly, it will face an even grimmer and more forbidding water future.

Published: July 21, 2022, 4:00 AM