Iraqi Kurds protest Iran's decision of restricting water flow into northern Iraq

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jun 11, 2018
Iraqi Kurds protest Iran's decision of restricting water flow into northern Iraq

Iran’s decision to cut the flow of water from Lower Zab River into northern Iraq has exacerbated water crisis in the Kurdistan region. According to Arab and Kurdish media, residents of Qaladze, a city of about 140,000 inhabitants located north of Sulaymaniyah, staged protest rallies last week condemning the Iranian decision and calling on government authorities to address the issue. Local residents say the Iranian action has caused water levels in the region to decline drastically, resulting in shortage of water for drinking and agriculture as well as loss of thousands of fish. “If Iran uses the water card against the people of Kurdistan and Iraq, then it will lead to environmental problems in the region,” Rang Atta, a spokesman for the protestors, was quoted as saying by al-Sumariyah News. He also expressed the worry that the water shortage will adversely impact precarious socioeconomic conditions in the region and create hardship for the people. “Iran will not benefit from shutting off the water supply,” he added. Some Iraqis have also used social media to urge Iran and Turkey to reverse their water management policies. Others have called for a boycott of Iranian and Turkish products.

Iran’s plan to restrict water into the Iraqi Kurdistan comes at a time when dam construction in Turkey has already depleted river waters in Iraq.

The KRG’s Regional Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources has said  that Iran had deliberately cut the flow of Lower Zab River into Sulaymaniyah, and pointed out that KRG officials have discussed the matter with the Iranian consulate general in Sulaymaniyah.

The mayor of Qaladze, Bakir Baiz, also blamed Iran for his city’s water problems, adding that the Lower Zab is the main source of drinking water for the local residents. According to Baiz, Iran had temporarily shut off water supply to Sulaymaniyah last year as well. Some Iraqi Kurds alleged that Tehran's decision was linked with the Kurdistan independence referendum vote. “Iran will not change its water strategy because of us. The Kurdistan Regional Government has to find a solution for this problem,” Baiz added.

Violation of accords

Iraqi officials say Iran is not adhering by international rules or water sharing agreements between the two countries. But the Iranian consulate in Sulaymaniyah claims there is no agreement signed between Iran and Iraq on the management of the Lower Zab River water. “We and Iraq have agreements about seven cross-border rivers on how to use shared water. Unfortunately Sirwan and Little Zab rivers that come to Iraqi Kurdistan from Iranian Kurdistan are not among these seven written agreements,” Iranian Consul General to Sulaymaniyah, Saadullah Masoudian, told Rudaw.

Nationwide problem

Water scarcity problems are not confined to the Kurdistan region as many other Iraqi urban and rural areas are suffering growing water shortage. Iraq’s water minister has warned that a dangerous water crisis is looming in the country, citing that water levels at the Mosul dam have reached a 10-year low. About a fifth of Iraq’s 37 million population are at risk of facing water shortage problems, which could trigger further internal displacement and migration abroad.

Water issue did not take center stage in the May 12 parliamentary elections, but it will certainly be a priority for the next government. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose alliance won a plurality of votes in the elections, recently called on the government to tackle the country’s growing water problems.  “We give the government a few days to look into the issue of water and electricity, or allow us to work to regain our rights,” the firebrand Shiite cleric said. "If our [electoral] victory is the beginning of revenge for the citizens of Iraq, then I will not allow that to happen," he added. On June 3, Iraq’s parliament held an emergency session to discuss the country's depleting water levels. Water shortage has also reduced electricity generation and food security in Iraq.

There are myriad reasons behind Iraq’s water problems. Declining precipitation, increasing temperatures, conflict, and a lack of comprehensive water management plan are all contributing factors. But the increasing numbers of dams in Iran and Turkey is perhaps the most significant culprit. Only three of more than 40 tributaries once shared by Iran and Iraq have escaped dam projects or other diversion plans. Some ongoing dam projects in western Iran are expected to further restrict the flow of water into Iraq. Dam projects in neighboring Turkey have also depleted water in Tigris and the Euphrates in Iraq.

Iran’s water dispute with neighbors

Tension between Iran and Iraq over water issues is escalating at a time when Iran is experiencing its own water crisis. Water scarcity and air pollution have not only triggered sociopolitical and security problems in Iran, but have also caused strained Iran’s relations with its neighbors. With the collapse of ISIS, Iran and Turkey are stepping up competition for the control of water in the region. Moreover, Tehran and Kabul have publicly sparred over water issues recently, as Afghan officials accuse the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) of arming and training Taliban groups to sabotage dam and power projects in western and southern Afghanistan. Iran criticizes Afghanistan for building hydroelectric dams that reduces the free flow of Helmand River water into Iran’s water-hungry eastern provinces, but Iranian leaders have paradoxically said in recent months that they would restrict the flow of Iran’s waters into Iraq.

On February 27, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned that worsening water scarcity in the region could cause tension between Iran and its neighbors in the near future. According to Safavi, about two-third of Iran’s total 10.2 billion cubic meters exiting the country go to Iraq. The former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) also cautioned that the presence of “foreigners” in neighboring countries – a reference to the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan – could further complicate Iran’s engagement with neighboring countries over water arrangement issues. Tehran views water scarcity as a national security issue.