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Jul 18, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Iraq's Water Crisis Gives the Public One More Reason to Protest

An undated photo shows Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the banks of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey that will be inundated as part of the Ilisu dam project.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Water shortages will plague Iraq throughout the summer, causing a decline in agricultural production and a greater risk of social unrest in the southern part of the country.
  • Political gridlock in Baghdad will impede progress on water management, while fighting over water at the provincial level will influence discourse at the federal level.
  • Turkey will focus on maintaining and advancing its own strategy in Iraq without making any substantial changes over its water use.
The Big Picture

As regional powers struggle for dominance in the Middle East, a water crisis in Iraq will exacerbate the country's weakness relative to Turkey and Iran and add to domestic discontent over its deteriorating economy. Sweltering summer temperatures and political paralysis in Baghdad will drive Iraqis to demand more in services, including water, than the government can reliably provide.

The future looks bleak for Iraq's water supply. Long-term pressures are conspiring with an acute drought and a tricky transition in the political system to make for a full-blown crisis. Water shortages have added to public dissatisfaction over economic issues such as high unemployment, fueling mass protests in southern Iraq. Bans on crop planting and the impending filling of a reservoir in Turkey will further rile up the populace, some of whom will be forced out of rural areas and into cities because of the drought. The problem, however, is only likely to worsen. Given its lingering security challenges and political instability, Iraq won't be able to solve the current water crisis on its own, and its neighbors will do more to hurt than help the situation.

The Trouble With Living Downstream

Although it sits in the cradle of civilization between the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq is a water-strapped country. Nearly two-thirds of its surface water originates outside its borders, leaving it vulnerable to the actions of upstream neighbors Turkey and Iran. The three riparian nations have not signed a formal water-sharing treaty since the early 20th century. They have, however, made numerous informal or bilateral agreements, including one that promises Iraq 9 billion cubic meters of water from the Euphrates each year.

A timeline showing important events in the history of water diplomacy between Turkey and Iraq.

For the last half-century, meanwhile, Turkey has worked to take advantage of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, building dams and hydroelectric plants even in the face of international opposition. The latest of these projects, the Ilisu Dam, will have the potential to produce about 2 percent of Turkey's electricity on completion, and its reservoir will hold 11 billion cubic meters of water, roughly half the Tigris River's annual flow from Turkey into Iraq. Concerns over the dam's effects on the environment and on surrounding archaeological sites have caused repeated construction delays over the past two decades. Nevertheless, the project reached a critical stage in its development last month. The only thing that stopped Turkey's government (albeit temporarily) from pushing ahead to fill the dam's reservoir, in fact, was outcry from Iraq over the amount of water Ankara could keep from flowing downstream during the driest part of the year. As Turkey moves forward with the project, the Iraqi government will probably face an additional decline in the Tigris' flow.

And the availability of upstream water is hardly the extent of Iraq's water woes. The quality of the country's groundwater is also suffering. Saltwater intrusion due to overuse and pollution has reduced the quality and availability of most aquifers in Iraq over the past several decades. As a result, groundwater is becoming more and more difficult and costly to access. Years of mismanagement and deteriorating infrastructure have further contributed to the decline of water quality and availability throughout the country. On top of that, the southern section of the country is experiencing a multiyear drought, forcing the government to ban the planting of several summer crops, including amber rice, cotton and mung beans. This isn't the first time Baghdad has restricted planting because of drought, and it likely won't be the last.  

A map showing key dams in Turkey and Iraq.

Water Adds Fuel to the Fire

The drought restrictions are compounding the social and political strain on Iraq. To begin with, the country's economy is in dire straits. Iraq relies too heavily on its rich energy reserves as a source of revenue, and the government struggles to efficiently distribute services everywhere on its territory. In addition, the number of Iraqis living under the World Bank's determined poverty line has grown over the past decade, while the rate of internal displacement has accelerated, largely because of the rise of the Islamic State and the fight against it. Violent protests over the inconsistent provision of basic services have rocked the country's majority-Shiite southern reaches, including Basra, Iraq's third-most populous province, which produces the lion's share of Iraqi oil and natural gas. So far, the government's response has been piecemeal and lackluster.

Should these provincial protests continue, they will aggravate political tensions at the federal level. Iraq's Shiites, as the country's dominant religious group, command significant political power in the country today. Yet the top Shiite leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr, are currently too divided to form a government, let alone pursue productive policies. The unrest in southern Iraq will only encourage more infighting among Shiite politicians in Baghdad, given the disputes among the various southern provinces. While leaders in Maysan, for example, insist that their counterparts in neighboring Wasit are taking more water from the Tigris than their province is due, officials in Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Qadisiyah are demanding firmer quotas from one another on the use of water from the Euphrates. And each of the provinces places most of the blame for its water shortages squarely on the federal government.

Just two months into a transition following parliamentary elections in May, however, the government in Baghdad is in no position to answer their accusations. Allegations of electoral fraud in the votes set off a full manual recount of the ballots that could take several weeks to finish. Furthermore, the results of the recount could change the distribution of power among the country's political coalitions. In the meantime, the incoming government will be reluctant to respond to the public's grievances for fear of inviting more criticism from voters. These factors will further slow the process of coalition-building and prevent coherent policymaking, particularly on the tricky matter of international water management, setting the stage for a tumultuous summer in Iraq.

Protests Fall on Deaf Ears

Upstream in Turkey, by contrast, the government has little standing in the way of its policies. The political system is more consolidated than ever under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party since snap elections in June expanded the authority of the executive branch. His victory and increased powers will embolden Erdogan to continue pursuing nationalist domestic policies and an assertive foreign policy to strengthen Turkey's political and economic influence in the region, including in Iraq. Water will continue to play a central role in this strategy.

Because maintaining good relations with Iraq is essential to Turkey's security and economic imperatives, Ankara will take a conciliatory tone with Baghdad on water sharing issues, chief among them the Ilisu Dam project. Even so, the Turkish government will prioritize its own objectives above all and will steer bilateral relations with Iraq to suit its needs. Iraq will be at a disadvantage in these discussions as the weaker of the two countries in terms of politics, economics and security. Although powerful Iraqi allies such as Iran and the United States typically work to shield Baghdad from Ankara's strong-arm tactics, the objections of the international community over the Ilisu Dam have so far done little to change Turkey's water management policies. In the absence of an updated water-sharing agreement, moreover, foreign powers such as the United States and Europe will find it difficult to compel Turkey to change its behavior.

Iraq's deeply bureaucratic government – hamstrung as it is by the many competing factions within it – has long struggled to devise efficient solutions to its problems. As the political transition in Baghdad drags on, the political paralysis and the recent campaign promises of the incoming government officials will push members of the public to demand steady access to clean water, among other basic services. But the protests won't achieve their ends. With no easy solution at its disposal, the federal government will try to pass the blame off on local leaders and upstream countries, perpetuating the cycle of public unrest.

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