Water Shortage and Unrest in Iraq

Water Shortage and Unrest in Iraq

Around 70% of Iraq’s water comes from sources outside of its territory, predominantly originating in Turkey and Iran. Since 1975, the flow of water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers from Turkey into Iraq has declined by 80%. Over 80% of Iraq’s current water supply is used for agriculture, which supports around 13 million of its 38 million people. 

Iraq is also experiencing high youth unemployment rates and an ongoing protest movement motivated by socio-political grievances. Rampant state corruption, insufficient provision of basic social goods such as education, healthcare, electricity, and Iranian influence over the government are all contributing factors. This all suggests the country may be subject to more of the instability that has characterised the post-2003 era in the near future. 

Water and politics

Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (known as GAP in Turkish), which began in the 1970s is partially to blame for Iraq’s water shortage. Comprising of 22 dams and 19 power plants, this scheme is ostensibly for socio-economic development in a region of Turkey that has traditionally been poorer, less educated and experienced more gender inequality than the rest of the country. However, the ability to exert control over the supply of water into Iraq and Syria means the project has evolved into a tool of realpolitik

Ankara has been accused of using the control of water to crush Kurdish aspirations for statehood and Turkey’s recent military action against the Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) suggests President Erdogan continues to view Kurdish nationalism as a major national security threat. Nonetheless, tensions between Turkey on the one hand, and Syria and Iraq over water sharing stretch back to the 1960s  and no easy solution exists. 

Iran has also spent the past few decades constructing dams; around 600, with a further 13 planned. Rivers such as the Karun and Kark, that have their source in Iran, no longer flow into Iraq due to man-made diversions. In 2018, the then Minister of Water Resource, Hassan al-Janabi, claimed that dams in both Turkey and Iran had caused water levels in Iraq to fall by 40% in the previous few years alone. The projection that Iraq’s population will go over 70 million by 2050 is, therefore, an alarming forecast in the context of a massive reduction in available water.

Water and national security

This cannot be considered an isolated problem but is instead symbiotic with broader regional instability. In July, Turkey announced that a joint action plan had been drafted and a ‘fair agreement’ reached with Iraq, seeming to signal something of a rapprochement over the issue of water. However, sustainable and environmentally sound water resource management requires accountable and transparent governments at the Euphrates-Tigris Basin which does not currently exist. 

Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria has done nothing to create more regional stability in which these water issues might be solved.  Iraq’s own domestic uprisings will, for now, divert the state’s attention away from solving long-term issues. 

Furthermore, Iran’s most western provinces that border Iraq, are themselves suffering from a water shortage that began in 2011. No sharing agreement exists between Tehran and Baghdad, over their shared rivers and there is no political appetite to implement a long term solution. Iraq’s domestic situation is relevant here. Although the goals and allegiance of the militia groups, the Hashd al-Sha’abi (PMFs in English) are complex and subject to constant negotiation, an emerging pantheon of militia groups in Iraq, who are closely aligned to Tehran (many of their commanders have previously served in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) are establishing power and control, independent of the Iraqi state

Crucially, the influence that Tehran holds in Baghdad has been one of the issues motivating protests throughout October and November in Iraq. The Iranian consulate in Baghdad was attacked and protesters have been chanting anti-Iranian slogans on the streets. Despite being recognised as a critical element in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the role that the PMFs have played in suppressing and killing the protests has undermined their legitimacy. How the government negotiates this perceived Iranian influence will be integral to implementing water-sharing agreements that solve Iraq’s water issue. 

The risk of no solution 

It has been suggested that the Syrian Uprising was catalysed and intensified by a prolonged drought between 2006-11 which caused a massive demographic shift as struggling agricultural workers moved to the cities to seek work. Aala Ali, an Iraqi peace activist recently stated that the drought between 2006-7 caused thousands of farmers to become jobless; she claims that this was the ‘critical point for those terrorist groups – including Al-Qaida and, later on, ISIS – [who] recruited those youth really easily, because they had no other options’. Water is, therefore, a problem that whoever holds the balance of power in Baghdad, cannot ignore forever.

About Author

Jonathan Burden

Jonathan Burden has a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies and a Bachelors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, both from the University of Exeter. He currently works as a researcher at Clarion Defence and Security. Jonathan’s primary interests are international relations, terrorism, conflict, security, political economy and the wider geopolitical context of the Middle East. As a British native, he is also concerned with the UK’s global role after Brexit.