Iraq wilting: How creeping drought could cause the next crisis

Nabil Musa learned how to swim and fish in the Tanjero River in the city of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. The Tanjero eventually joins the Tigris River, which, together with the Euphrates River, gave life to Mesopotamia.

Today, the Tanjero River is neither swimmable nor fishable. Musa is working to change that. As Iraq’s sole member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a grassroots group of over 300 activists, Musa manages programs to protect Iraq’s upper Tigris. But even as he promotes environmental awareness on pollution, his small gains are more than offset by an overall decline in water levels.

Iraq is in a drought, and with warming temperatures, declining rainfall and ongoing dam construction, “the situation will only become more serious,” says Ali Alkarkhi, a member of Iraq’s Save the Tigris campaign. In the run-up to Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary elections, water policy has been noticeably omitted. It is problematic yet understandable that water has become a secondary concern in the wake of Iraq’s declared victory over ISIS in 2017. This is particularly urgent given that violent disputes related to water scarcity have flared up across Iraq and will only intensify, according to Alkarkhi. All this underscores the vital importance of water security in Iraq.

With dams, there are always winners and losers

Hassan Janabi, Iraq’s Water Resources minister, said the amount of water flowing in Iraq’s rivers has fallen by at least 40 percent in recent decades, largely due to irregular rainfall and the construction of dams. The Waterkeeper Alliance’s Iraq branch conducted a threat assessment and found that dams were one of the major threats to the lower Zab River’s ecosystem. According to Musa, “While rivers have historically connected us, dams are dividing us.”

Of Iraq’s water resources, 70 percent come from rivers and marshes shared with its neighbors. Turkey, Syria and Iran control the flow of water into Iraq, and all three countries have plans to build dams that will further decrease water flow to Iraq, exacerbating the water crisis further.

(Photo: Toon Bijnens)

Once operational later this summer, the Ilisu Dam will completely inundate Hasankeyf, a 12,000-year-old, Silk Road trading post, located along the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey.

Turkey began developing dams in the 1950s, with a disproportionate number affecting the Tigris and Euphrates watersheds. Former Turkish president Turgut Ozal once gloated, “Some countries sell oil. We will sell water.” The most serious development has been Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which consists of 22 dams and 19 hydraulic power plants. The Ilisu Dam, which will begin to fill a reservoir this summer, will displace the residents of Hasankeyf and erase the ancient town, which dates back to the eighth century B.C. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s committee on water and agriculture, Furat al-Tamimi, said in an interview: “Upon completion, Iraq will lose about 50 percent of the Tigris River.”

Of the 45 tributaries once shared by Iran and Iraq, only three have not been dammed, diverted or blocked entirely. For example, Iran’s Daryan Dam, expected to be completed later this year, will reduce the water flow of the Sirwan River—one of two key tributaries for the Tigris originating in Iran—by up to 60 percent. Further, a 30-mile tunnel being constructed next to the dam may completely divert the river’s course.

Nabil Musa uses performance art to complement his work as Iraq's sole Waterkeeper. Musa stands on his head—nearby rivers, trash dumps, and oil runoff—to show Iraqis the impact of sewage and other pollutants on the water supply downstream. (Photo credit: Nabil Musa)

According to Anna Bachman, who founded Waterkeeper’s Iraq branch in 2011, “With dams there are always winners and losers. What has always been lacking is an honest and comprehensive debate about what is being gained and what is being lost by building dams. Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and for that matter, Iraqi Kurdistan, are making decisions about their rivers without being open with each other about their water resource data and also without educating their own citizens about the real advantages and disadvantages of building these structures.”

Factors playing into Iraq’s drought

Slightly less eye-catching issues exacerbating Iraq’s water crisis stem from inside Iraq. These include leaky pipes, which lose huge amounts of water; weak regulation around the dumping of toxins; and lack of proper water treatment facilities. The facilities once extant in Iraq were destroyed during the first Gulf war. Through fixing or replacing pipes before emergency repairs become necessary, Iraq would conserve its limited water reserves by not losing them through cracked water systems. However, the Iraqi government has not prioritized this work.

Additionally, Iraqi farmers have had a longstanding reliance on flood irrigation, using techniques similar to those of the ancient Sumerians. Such techniques are not only water intensive but they also enable salt in the soil to rise to the surface and enter rivers, leading to higher rates of salinity downstream. The Iraqi government could incentivize farmers to adopt more efficient techniques, namely drip irrigation, to reduce the amount of water used to grow food.

The phenomenon of declining water quality and quantity comes to a head in the marshes in Iraq’s far south. Nearby Basra, Iraq’s marshlands, the largest in Asia and named by UNESCO as a heritage site, are in a dire state. In March, the Save the Tigris campaign organized a delegation of water activists from Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the marshes and see firsthand the effects of drought, dam construction and water pollution on the marshes.

Weaponization of water

(Photo: Nabil Musa)

With Iraq’s creeping water security threats, tribal disputes in southern Iraq have flared. In the province of Dhi Qar alone, there were 20 clashes over water scarcity in recent months, according to Mayor Hussein Ali Raddad of the Islah district.

The effects of drought have not only been felt in Iraq’s south. Many of ISIS’s recruits came from agricultural areas in the country’s west, north and heartland. ISIS tapped into grievances within environmentally damaged Sunni Arab villages, which were ripe for recruitment. According to interviews conducted by National Geographic, ISIS crafted a narrative that “the lack of rain wasn’t due to climate change” at all, but rather due to a Shiite government plot to force Sunnis out of productive lands. 

Different factions within Iraq have previously weaponized water to secure their political and military aims. According to local accounts, the governor of Najaf previously diverted significantly more water than his governorate was allotted for his farmers to grow rice, a water-intensive crop, in order to boost his popularity. And, due to budget disputes with Iraq’s central government, the Kurdistan Regional Government previously closed off dams and irrigation canals to deprive water to thousands of acres of farmland in downstream districts. After ISIS swept through Iraq, it seized dams and other key water infrastructure in Mosul, Fallujah and Baqubah in order to position itself as a viable rival to the central government in Baghdad. ISIS also turned off water pumps to delay the Iraqi army from moving into Mosul.

There has also been speculation that Turkey is taking advantage of the chaos in Syria and Iraq to expand its control over water resources and extend its political influence on its neighbors’ affairs. 

(Photo: Nabil Musa)

Iraq's lone Waterkeeper

After seeing firsthand the endangered state of southern Iraq’s marshes, Musa is further motivated to work at the grassroots level in Sulaymaniah and spread awareness within the upstream Iraqi Kurdistan. He recently completed a 25-mile swim through Lake Dukan, the largest lake in Iraqi Kurdistan, to highlight its environmental impact. He regularly stages performances, like staging headstands in dumps near rivers. Musa has also tried to construct barriers in Tanjero River to block drivers from cleaning their cars and polluting waterways.

Although Musa is educating people about their waterways at the grassroots level, his work and those of other Iraqi water activists are interconnected, just like Iraq’s rivers. These various efforts are working to empower local communities to have a greater say in the decisions that impact their waters, which may be enough to push Iraq’s government, after next month’s elections, to take the issue of water seriously.