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Cry Me A River:
Iraq’s Lack Of Water Is A Foreign Policy Problem, Ministers Say

Mustafa Habib
Once it was the extremists who held Iraq’s water to ransom. Now it is tribes in Iraq’s southern provinces using water supplies as a deadly weapon.
22.02.2018  |  Baghdad
Cleaning silt from a stream that feeds off the Tigris river. (photo: وزارة الموارد المائية )
Cleaning silt from a stream that feeds off the Tigris river. (photo: وزارة الموارد المائية )

Last Sunday there was a heated debate in the Iraqi parliament. It was not about the extremist group known as the Islamic State, local militias, the US’ or Iran’s presence in Iraq, corruption or any of the other standard controversies that get MPs yelling at one another. Instead the debate was about water.

The country’s minister for water resources, Hassan al-Janabi, warned that Iraq was about to face a water shortage and that the government urgently needed to make the topic one of foreign policy relevance as well as a domestic issue.

The farmers in Wasit say that locals up river are taking all the water which is why they, in turn, have to take more than they are supposed to.

An official report prepared by al-Janabi’s ministry was submitted to parliament and NIQASH was able to read it. It said that Iraq had lost around 30 percent of the water it used to get from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the two major waterways running through Iraq. Within just a few years, it will have lost 50 percent of its share of the rivers’ waters. And that is without taking into account the impact of climate change.

The ministry of water resources said it would begin working on a long-term plan, working toward 2035, which would require an investment of US$184 billion. Of that, US$68 billion would be allocated to water for irrigation and used for agricultural purposes. Over three-quarters of water in Iraq is used for agriculture, industry and for drinking.

Iraq has always been proud of its two major rivers. And up until relatively recently the country had been spared the kinds of devastating droughts that have hurt countries elsewhere. Baghdad residents still remember the floods of the 1950s that used to hit the country every summer until a newly built suburban dam ended them.

But the situation is very different today. A major part of the current problem lies outside the country’s borders. The sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris, as well as long stretches of the rivers, lie outside Iraq. Turkey, Syria and Iran control parts of the rivers and are already building, or have built, large dams to ensure that their countries have enough water in the future. 

Iraq, on the other hand, does not currently have the resources to start on such huge strategic projects. The Iraqi government’s abilities are limited to the maintenance of existing dams, mostly built during the Saddam Hussein regime. The most important of these are the Mosul and Haditha dams. Since an earthquake last year, the Dokan dam in northern Iraq has been out of service.

Agriculture is being impacted already. “This year we lost about 30 percent of our wheat and barley crops because of water scarcity, drought and low rainfall,” says Mahdi al-Qaisi, the deputy minister for agriculture in Iraq. “That’s something we haven’t seen in decades and we have to reconsider how we irrigate in the country. We need to switch to crops that don’t require large quantities of water,” he argued.

“We have been making a living from growing wheat and barley for decades,” says Karim al-Hajami, a tribal leader in the Maysan province. “But this year we suffered great losses due to a lack of water. That’s because the waters of the Tigris river were stolen by people in the Wasit province,” he complains. “And the state knows nothing about it.”


سد الموصل

Mosul dam.


What is happening outside Iraq is now also happening inside the country, as provincial councils in southern Iraq fight to divert river water to their provinces or to somehow block the flow further down river. There are also fears that eventually the lack of water will lead to mass internal migration, as people living in drought-stricken areas rush to areas with more water.

“Tribes in Wasit are taking more than they should, according to guidelines from the ministry of water resources,” al-Hajami continues. “And that’s why we don’t get enough water.”

In fact, a few weeks ago there were physical confrontations between different tribes over water. “They would have become serious if it were not for the intervention of government authorities who promised they would try and solve the problem,” al-Hajami says.  

However, the farmers in Wasit say that it’s not their fault and that locals even further up river than them are the ones taking all the water which is why they, in turn, have to take more than they are supposed to from the Tigris river.

“The people in Maysan accuse us of taking more than our share but in reality, we are not getting our full share because of a problem with the Tigris river and the low level of water coming in from Turkey,” suggests Abbas al-Maksousi, one of the tribal leaders there.

The same sorts of problems are coming up in the provinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna too, where fighting erupted between tribes last month because of anxiety over water from the Euphrates.

MP Furat al-Tamimi, who heads the parliamentary committee on water and agriculture, warns that this situation is just going to worsen in coming months. “The problem is complex,” al-Tamimi told NIQASH. “Firstly, the sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris are in neighbouring countries. Turkey in particular is trying to fill its Ilisu Dam project. And secondly its complicated because of abuses in Iraq’s own southern provinces.”

In the provinces, al-Tamimi thinks the ministries of the interior and water resources need to work together to prevent those abuses. “Or we will see more dangerous conflicts in the future,’ he suggests.

Al-Tamimi also believes that Iraq’s water should become a part of other ministerial portfolios because it overlaps the trade, energy, oil and foreign policy sectors. In particular, he believes there is special urgency for the ministry of foreign affairs to get involved.

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