Of the cruelty and turmoil that the Islamic State has inflicted on Iraq, the damage it has done to the country's waterways is often overlooked. Most reporting and analysis on the group and its pillage have focused on the human toll, and understandably so. But the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — the beleaguered nation's lifelines — have also suffered mightily. Over the years, the Islamic State has used the Euphrates-Tigris Basin as an instrument of war, a weapon against the Iraqi state and its people. The extremist group has used the Tigris as a mass grave, flooded plains along the Euphrates, destroyed water pumps and sanitation networks, and allegedly poisoned water delivery systems. Then, as coalition forces pushed them back, members of the Islamic State torched arable land and blew up irrigation canals.
Today, thanks to the formidable efforts of the Iraqi forces and their allies, most of the country's dams, water installations and sanitation networks are back under the control of local authorities. They are in shambles, however, after three years of abuse and a harrowing monthslong battle to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State. And repairing the damage is but one of the challenges facing Iraq's water supply.
The Key to Water Security
Mosul is an important city, not only from a strategic perspective, but also because of its role in Iraq's water security. The Mosul dam, situated on the Tigris River, is the country's largest dam, providing water and electricity to millions of people in northern and central Iraq. It also controls the flow of water to Mosul and Baghdad — two of the nation's largest cities. Taking Mosul and its dam gave the Islamic State control over 75 percent of Iraq's electricity supply. Now that coalition fighters have wrested the city and its water infrastructure away from the militants, the difficult task of repairing them remains.
The damage is extensive. Reports indicate, moreover, that while returning residents have faith in the security forces to keep them safe, they have little confidence in local or national authorities to provide basic services to the city and its suburbs. Service networks are now reportedly under the control of newly formed neighborhood watch groups and ambitious armed men who have created organizations not unlike the Mafia. The spotty water and electricity service in Mosul and other recently retaken territory presents a lucrative opportunity for these informal networks and non-state groups. But the city is the key to Iraq's future water security. At some point, the Iraqi government will have to make a difficult choice over whether to keep committing its limited resources to security or to rebuild legitimate state-led institutions to oversee its infrastructure.
If the ravages of war within its borders were the only problem facing its water supply, Iraq could probably manage the situation with enough funding and government action. The country, however, also has to worry about what happens upstream along the Euphrates in Syria, large swaths of which are still under the Islamic State's control. A disruption to the river's flow or contamination of its waters would have serious consequences for Iraq, especially in larger cities in the country's south such as Fallujah or Ramadi. The city of Deir el-Zour in Syria's Euphrates River Valley is a strategic stronghold for the Islamic State and offers the group a means to destabilize the reconstruction effort in Iraq. As the United States, the Islamic State, Iran and the Syrian government all vie for control of the region, Iraq is left vulnerable, with little control over a vital water source.
A Shared Problem
And that's only part of the difficulty. Iraq also has several pre-existing issues to address regarding its water supply, including its water-sharing arrangements with Turkey and Iran. Over the past couple of decades, Iran and Turkey have built numerous dams on the waterways of the Euphrates-Tigris Basin, and in all the tumult shaking the region, the countries don't seem to be abiding by previous agreements over the water's allocation. Reports have surfaced that Turkey has reduced the flow of water down the Euphrates in a bid to weaken the Islamic State and rebel factions in Syria. In the process, though, it has hurt the Syrian and Iraqi populations who depend on the river. Iran allegedly stopped all flow down the Karun River, which feeds the Shatt al-Arab and famed Iraqi marshlands, in 2016, causing seawater from the Persian Gulf to seep farther inland. The problem has continued unabated and appears, in fact, to be getting worse. For arid Iraq's agricultural production, dependent for the most part on irrigation, the repercussions of broken or unenforced water-sharing agreements can be devastating, compounding the costs to local populations.
On the Tigris, meanwhile, Turkey is set to complete construction on its controversial Ilisu Dam sometime later this year. Baghdad has lobbied over the years to stop the project, because it will significantly restrict the Tigris' flow as its reservoir fills up. In 2016, it stepped up its efforts at diplomacy with the Turkish government, to no avail. Iraq now has more leeway to negotiate with Turkey, having largely contained the threat of the Islamic State, though it has little chance of halting construction on the dam. Even so, Baghdad could try to use the international uproar over the project to its advantage, for instance, as leverage to persuade Ankara to strike a new water deal.
Iraq also could try to replicate the Joint Technical Committee for Regional Waters, a trilateral effort to monitor water use with Turkey and Syria that achieved modest success toward the end of the last decade. Ankara and Baghdad could revive the committee, which still exists on paper, perhaps starting at the bureaucratic and technical level and later expanding to the ministerial level. Forming a joint committee with Syria would be difficult at the moment, given the country's disarray, but Iraq could start thinking about new agreements that the countries could implement in the future when political circumstances allow it. Clinging fast to old numbers and values for the river's flow, quantity and water quality, after all, is unlikely to benefit Iraq as it plans for its future water and environmental needs. The country needs to update its irrigation techniques and improve its water storage and water transport systems — endeavors that could be put into motion while the region's political future is still being sorted out.
Heeding Past Mistakes
Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq's water woes have often taken a back seat to more pressing security matters. But by overlooking the crucial issue of water security, Baghdad helped fuel the backlash against it, which, in turn, facilitated the Islamic State's rise. The Iraqi government will have to avoid that mistake if it wants to keep history from repeating. A report by the World Resources Institute in 2015 placed Iraq 21st on a list of countries threatened by a water crisis, even though the nation has two ancient and celebrated rivers running through it.
Two years later, Iraq's water security probably is worse off, as the country deals with the effects of a grueling war, rising salinity levels, decreased flow, drought and a refugee crisis. Depending on the strategies that Baghdad employs in the coming few months, Iraq's path in the wake of the Islamic State could provide the new beginning its people have been awaiting for more than a decade — or negate the last four years of struggle.