Her face is covered in sweat and she turns to check that her daughter is alright. Halima Mustafa, 43, is carrying a large bucket of water on her head and she has another large bucket in her hand. Her 10-year-old daughter Coral is beside her, also carrying two buckets of water. Everything drips as the pair makes their way slowly home.
Halima lives in Shoresh, a town southwest of the city of Sulaymaniyah, in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Every day Mustafa must walk around four kilometres to bring water to her family of six.
“This is a journey that we have to make every three days,” the fatigued mother said, her voice trembling, as she returned. “The government ration the water supply and we only get water every ten days.”
Mustafa’s family live in extreme poverty and they can’t afford to dig their own well. “The cost of digging a well is around IQD2 million [around US$1,600],” Mustafa told NIQASH. “We need water and can’t survive without it so I must go and get it, despite the pain it causes in my head and my back. Some evenings, the pain is so bad I can’t even sleep,” she complained.
Official statistics suggest that almost 14 percent of the people in Iraqi Kurdistan don’t have easy access to drinking water. According to figures from the region’s Ministry of Planning, around 3,850,000 people there do have easy access to drinking water. But the total population of Iraqi Kurdistan is around 4,500,000. Which suggests that there are approximately 650,000 people who must do similar to what Mustafa does.
Most of the people who don’t have easy access to water or water on tap are living in villages. They collect water from nearby tanks or wells; the local authorities fill the tanks every few days. But as Mustafa says, “the government keeps making promises to increase the amount of water easily available but it has never kept these promises.”
And it’s not like Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t have enough water. Most of the region’s water comes from collected rainfall, hundreds of rivers, some of which are fed by melting snow from surrounding mountains, groundwater sources and three large dams.
However analysts say that mismanagement and the lack of a scientific plan for water management is causing suffering in the region; the effects of climate change and population growth may also cause a problem with water resources.
“The methods used for the administration of water supplies in the Kurdistan region are weak,” Dr Jamil Jalal, who works in the department of geography at the University of Sulaymaniyah, says. “There are not enough dams to collect rain and as a result, huge quantities of water are wasted.”
In terms of the amount of water naturally available to Iraqi Kurdistan, sources at the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources say that over three quarters of it is not collected. Additionally future projections indicate that the amount of water coming into the region will eventually decrease.
Mainly this is because around half of the sources of the rivers in the region are actually located outside the region. Iran and Turkey have both built dams and set up irrigation projects that decrease the amount of water reaching Iraqi Kurdistan. Unofficial sources say that these kinds of projects in neighbouring states have already caused at least30 seasonal streams to dry up. And both Iran and Turkey have plans to build more dams.
Seasonal streams – that is waterways that only flow for part of the year – provide the bulk of surface water sources in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is thought that these kinds of streams provide the region with just over half of all of its water.
Local engineer Mohammed Idriss, who specializes in hydrology, suggests that if dams were to built on these rivers the water that they collected could be extremely valuable later, in the dry season.
“Most of the seasonal water in the region passes through the mountains,” Idriss explained. “From an engineering point of view, this would allow the construction of dams. Unfortunately, up until now not one dam has been built.”
Despite plenty of warnings – the United Nations has repeatedly written about world water scarcity due to population increase, wastage and climate change – Idriss believes that the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have not taken adequate measures to protect the region’s populace from an inevitable water shortage.
“Nearly every country in the world is preparing itself for this crisis,” Idriss said. “What is the government of Iraqi Kurdistan doing about it?”
The government of Iraqi Kurdistan does have a plan, it insists. Akram Ahmed, Director of Reservoirs and Dams at the local Ministry of Agriculture, points out that the region has around 180 suitable areas in which dams could be built and that the authorities are actually looking at what could be done to avert any future water crisis.
“But the government is not the only party responsible for this,” Ahmed said. “People need to get engaged on this issue and start saving water.”
Today, there are three dams in Kurdistan and these dams are managed by the Kurdistan region’s authority: Dukan on the Little Zab river, the Darbandikhan on the Sirwan river and Dohuk on the Dohuk river. These dams were built by successive Iraqi governments, starting from 1958.
In 2009, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan approved a strategic plan to develop the local agricultural sector. According to this plan, eight large dams and 19 small and medium sized dams were to be built around the region over the next five years.
However according to information obtained by NIQASH, only four small dams have actually been completed out of the 27 planned. These are the Hamamok dam in Koya, the Bawa Shaswar dam in Kifri and the Hassan Kanosh and Gali dams the areas of the same name.
Ahmed admits that the dam building has not taken place according to the original timetable. But, as he says, “we are still striving to create a practical and scientific management plan for water resources in the region. I remain optimistic about our capacity to contain any crisis.”
Unfortunately the regional government has something of a history of failure when it comes to dam building. The Bakhma dam, on the Greater Zab, a tributary of the Tigris River, is a good example of this. The idea dates back to the early 1930s but up to 1991, only one third was completed. In 2003, the federal government allocated US$5 billion for the completion of the dam but it has never happened and nobody seems to know exactly why.
One government statement suggested the dam building might cause earthquakes. But engineers dispute this and government critics suggest that actually the most likely reason is the fact that the dam would submerge the hometown of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud al-Barzani.
So until something more happens that would realise the plans to build more dams and improve the water supply, most of the people that live without water on tap depend on wells.
And over the past three years the number of licensed wells in Iraqi Kurdistan has reached 19,448. But this is far from a safe source of drinking water. Most of the wells drilled recently collect water from near the earth’s surface and this may well be contaminated. The Ministry of Health in Iraqi Kurdistan has statistics that say that out of every 1,000 infant deaths, 24 can be attributed to polluted water.
Additionally the Ministry of Planning in Iraqi Kurdistan says that the region’s population will continue to increase; it will amount to 5,500,000 by 2015 and at that stage, current water sources in the region will no longer suffice.
Given all of these issues, critics say that government efforts in this area are totally insufficient. “There is, and will be, a genuine water crisis in our region,” Dr Jalal said. “If the government continues to ignore this reality, then the new generation will suffer because of lack of water too.”
Some, like Mustafa’s daughter Coral, who helps her mother carry water back to her family’s house every week, already know this all too well.