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Shifting Coastline
River Erosion Exposes Border Anxieties

Ammar al-Saleh
The eastern banks of the crucial, border-defining Shatt al-Arab waterway are washing away, which means a slow loss of land mass for Iraq. Some fear that Iran may unfairly benefit from the development.
صيادون يصطادون في شط العرب (photo: مدونة الرافدين )
صيادون يصطادون في شط العرب (photo: مدونة الرافدين )

As man-made conflicts rage in the Middle East, nature is silently advancing a dispute of different kind.

With the erosion of the Shatt al-Arab waterway’s banks in Iraq, neighboring Iran is gaining land mass, rekindling old questions about the border between the two countries.

Formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the southern end of the waterway opens up to the Persian Gulf. The imaginary border line between Iraq and Iran runs directly through the river mouth, and was established by the 1975 Algiers Agreement, which was meant to end years of rancorous border disputes between the neighbors.

But with Iraq now losing around 100 acres of land each year as the territorial waters shift, Iraq could also lose oil ports to Iran, warns Captain Amer Adnan, a member of the Iraqi Maritime Centre.

The situation has the Iraqi side scrambling for solutions. That’s because the Shatt al-Arab waterway is an essential conduit for the Iraqi economy as a navigational channel for ships coming to the port of Basra from the Arab Gulf. At about 190 kilometres long, with a width that reaches up to two kilometres, it is also a major source of irrigation for the region’s palm groves.  

Iran already has three ports on its coast there, but as it has gained new mass, it has also started building three new ones, in addition to building new naval platforms.

"The deviation of the Shatt al-Arab course downstream is due to negligence, a large number of sunken ships, and sediments from Iran’s Karun River and Bahmanshir Channel; these have all given Iran new sedimentary land at the expense of the Iraqi side, especially in the absence river cleaning operations," Adnan said.

Meanwhile, orchard owners complain of soil erosion and the collapse of large parts of their tree stands and agricultural land overlooking the Shatt al-Arab, according to Dr. Sarhan Naeem al-Khafaji, a geography professor at the Muthana University.

"The flow of the steep Karun River water in many areas of the Shatt al-Arab led to the emergence of land areas in the eastern bank, which belongs to the Iran, and this led to the erosion of the Iraqi shelf and caused the disappearance of large tracts of agricultural holdings,” he told NIQASH. “Errosion in some areas has reached public roads, increasing cracks and fissures that indicate the banks are likely to slide towards the watercourse."

The reason? Al-Khafaji’s study of the river’s changes indicates that it “is tending to rearrange its course in line with construction and demolition processes on the two sides."

Between 1952 and 2009, the annual rate of construction declined as the demolition rate increased, especially in the Iraqi river bends. This has led to sediment buildup on the Iranian side, he said. Other factors include local tectonic movements, he added.

One solution might be lining the river banks with stone barriers to prevent further erosion, al-Khafaji suggested. But new laws are also needed to protect the rights of agricultural landowners whose properties are exposed to the erosion.

In Iraq’s important port city of Basra, the government is considering what action to take.

"The erosion of the Shatt al-Arab requires sophisticated handling and there are efforts to form a committee composed of members of the provincial council, the province's bureau, and the water resources directorate to discuss this issue with the ministry of water resources to reach the appropriate decisions," Zahra al-Bajari, a member of the provincial council, told NIQASH.

Many officials are demanding the reconsideration of the 1975 Algiers Agreement, because they say that it failed to adequately observe Iraq's water rights.

Signed by Saddam Hussein, who was Iraq’s vice president at that time, and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, it was agreed that the borders between Iraq and Iran should pass through the deepest point of the Shatt al-Arab, known as the Al-Taluk Line, which marks the greatest depth or fastest current in the river. According to the agreement, this imaginary line is generally in the middle of the waterway between the Iraq and Iran.

But the continued erosion has changed this, and some on the Iraqi side suspicious about Iran’s plans regarding the agreement.

"We are doubtful about Iran's moves and we believe that it has intentions to change the border between the two countries," civil society activist Salam Abdul Hussein told NIQASH. "We have noticed moves made by Iran to promote the name of the Shatt al-Arab in the Persian language: the Arvand Rud.”  

The promotion of the traditional Persian name despite the fact that standard maps use the name Shatt al-Arab might indicate intentions to extend Iranian control over the river to “dominate all Iraqi commercial and oil ports so as to control them later on," Hussein said.

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