contributor perspectives

Nov 3, 2017 | 14:35 GMT

7 mins read

Iraqi Kurdistan: The Next Thirsty Nation?

Board of Contributors
Ambika Vishwanath
Board of Contributors
A boy throws a stone into a river near Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
(FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one step closer to achieving its dearest ambition of self-determination. In a historic (if not entirely unexpected) move, an overwhelming majority of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan recently opted to create an independent state. Since the Sept. 25 referendum, nationalist fervor has spread like wildfire through the regional capital of Arbil and the smaller towns surrounding it as Kurds celebrate the long-awaited step. But without proper planning, the region's dream of building a functional state may prove elusive.

More Questions Than Answers

In many ways the seeming victory has already backfired, leaving the region and its people with more problems to solve than ever. With the exception of Russia and Israel, most of the international community staunchly opposed the referendum for fear of the instability it might bring to an already volatile region. Moreover, Iraq's immediate neighbors, Turkey and Iran, are concerned that any success the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has in breaking away from Baghdad will inspire their own large Kurdish populations to do the same.

Amid the political and diplomatic fallout of the vote, KRG President Massoud Barzani announced his resignation and declared that Arbil would not make any immediate moves toward claiming independence, even offering to freeze the implementation of the referendum's result. But the gestures were not enough to appease Iraq's central government, which demanded that the KRG nullify the vote's outcome. Until Baghdad and Arbil resolve the many points of controversy between them, the referendum will continue to be little more than an opinion poll in practice.

Among the hotly contested issues surrounding Kurdish statehood are questions about borders, energy resources, refugees and the ethnic Arab communities living in Iraqi Kurdistan — all of which have featured prominently in recent commentary and debate. One important aspect of Iraqi Kurdistan's future that has yet to receive much attention, however, is water security.

Fertile but Fragile

With an average annual rainfall of between 300 and 1,000 millimeters, the fertile valleys of the KRG have largely escaped the desertification threatening the rest of Iraq and its neighbors. According to government statistics, 95 percent of urban households and 62 percent of rural households in Iraqi Kurdistan had access to safe water sources prior to the Islamic State's rise. By comparison, less than 75 percent of urban households in Iraq proper had access to the same resources. (Because of the extremist group's activities, these figures are much lower and more difficult to accurately assess today.)

Yet scarcities do exist, and in many cases they have been exacerbated by political, socio-economic and environmental factors. Since 2007, Iraqi Kurdistan — like the rest of the surrounding region — has suffered severe drought, reduced snowmelt and groundwater depletion as high as 40 millimeters in some areas. To make matters worse, insufficient environmental regulations, aging distribution networks, inadequate sanitation, years of civil war and water use in upstream countries have further diminished the region's water supplies. As is true in so many places, mismanagement and neglect stemming from assumptions of abundance have proved even more detrimental than climate change to the availability of water. Several estimates predict that the average water discharge from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will drop by anywhere from 50 to 80 percent by 2025, and though there are few clear estimates for the rivers flowing into Iraq from Iran, most are equally dire.

Compared with the rest of Iraq, the KRG has achieved a stronger system of governance, more developed infrastructure and higher standards of living for its people — all advantages that would serve the region well in the event that it becomes its own country. But Iraqi Kurdistan has few concrete policies in place for dealing with the problems of transnational water sharing that are bound to arise. Not for lack of trying, though; the KRG has always prioritized water security. In 2012, Arbil's Ministry of Planning worked with the U.N. Development Program to produce a needs assessment that devoted roughly a third of total investment into the region until 2020 to water, sanitation and the environment. Kurdish leaders also considered several programs designed to tackle overconsumption and sanitation needs.

Most of Arbil's existing water agreements, however, are with Baghdad. Should the region gain independence, it would have to negotiate and sign its own water-sharing deals with countries upstream. Chief among them are Turkey and Iran, from which nearly 60 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan's renewable water flows. But striking new bargains with these countries will not be easy, because Ankara and Tehran — both of which have made their displeasure with the concept of Kurdish independence clear — are unlikely to treat with Arbil. Turkey has already proved unwilling to sign an accord with Iraq on the use of the Tigris River's resources. Iran, meanwhile, has been extremely vocal in its opposition to the Kurdish referendum; Kurdish officials fear it will further dam the river, delay the construction of pipelines and shut down border crossings in retaliation for the referendum.

Until Baghdad and Arbil resolve the many points of controversy between them, the referendum will continue to be little more than an opinion poll in practice.

Building a Sustainable Future

Water scarcity could cause the simmering ethnic tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan to bubble to the surface as well, especially in the disputed oil-rich region of Kirkuk. Home to ethnic Arabs, Turks and Kurds, Kirkuk boasts a large agrarian community that relies on the waters of the Little Zab River to survive. On the tributary, which flows from Iran to join the Tigris River, rests the Dukan Dam. Built in 1955, the Dukan Dam is one of three main dams in Iraqi Kurdistan and holds 1.3 million cubic meters of water. Dips in its supplies have created friction in the region before; any future shortages will likely do the same, reinforcing local Arabs' perception that the allocation of fewer supplies is simply a means of pushing them out of the area.

Distributing limited resources among competing ethnic groups is no easy feat, and the Kurdish government will have to tread with care. In hopes of becoming more self-reliant in meeting the region's water and electricity demand, the KRG's Water Ministry plans to build 20 new dams to supplement the 17 that already exist. Although the move could bring several long-term benefits, it also risks ratcheting up tension with Baghdad in the event that the dams constrict the flow of rivers feeding into the rest of Iraq. As an upper riparian state wedged between more powerful hostile neighbors, Iraqi Kurdistan will need to use its water access as an instrument of peace, working with the central government in Baghdad to overcome their differences and find compromises that are equitable.

Water is crucial not just to farming or daily consumption, but also to the health of the nation's economy. The KRG still lacks many of the financial characteristics of a country: Baghdad currently controls the region's air space and periodically threatens its oil sales. Iraq, moreover, allocates some 17 percent of its annual budget to the long-term development of the Kurdish region. As Arbil presses for independence, it must take these factors into account, as well as the poor track record that nearby states have in cooperating on water issues.

But perhaps the KRG's leaders will learn from these failures, rather than perpetuate them. History has shown that while water can be a difficult issue for countries to manage, often overshadowed by religion, ethnicity, patriotism and ego, it is not impossible. Iraqi Kurdistan has reached a rare crossroads, where it can make a choice to protect future generations from scarcity or become yet another state thirsty for water.

Ambika Vishwanath is an independent consultant and political scientist specializing in Middle East politics and water and energy security. She has consulted with several governments and international organizations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe and helped shape their policies toward conflict resolution, water diplomacy and security. Previously she worked with the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group.

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