The environmental situation in Iraq is extremely fragile: in recent years, the country has witnessed an acceleration in the incidence of climate-related phenomena such as droughts, sandstorms, desertification, water salinization and higher than normal temperatures. Water scarcity and deterioration in quality, in particular, act as multipliers for instability in a country already strained by social, political and economic instability. In turn, structural insecurity and cyclical violence push climate-related issues down the list of Iraq’s priorities. In Iraq’s water system, the Tigris and the Euphrates have been and still are central. However, according to current estimates, the water flowing through the two rivers has registered a reduction of 30 percent since the 1980s. Among the factors reducing the availability of surface water in Iraq are climate change and water mismanagement, but also measures undertaken by riparian neighbors, Turkey, Syria and Iran. In particular, Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project is an ambitious project of water infrastructure building (22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants and an extensive irrigation network) that is affecting the downstream flow of water. Despite the potential impact on Iraq’s water system, at the moment there is no comprehensive treaty between Iraq and its neighbors on water management.
Domestically, water scarcity has already triggered and amplified the impact of socio-political developments, especially in the south of Iraq. Rural Iraq is largely dependent on agriculture as a source of livelihood and employment. However, according to the UN Environment Program, Iraq is currently losing around 25,000 hectares of arable land annually. Water scarcity is increasingly depriving Iraqis of livestock, agriculture and fishing, forcing them to abandon their land and move to other parts of the country. In a 2012 report, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) already noted the significance of water scarcity and deterioration for displacement patterns in the country. More recently, the Organization reported that “as of February 2019, 1,727 families originally from the governorates of Qadissiya, Wassit, Najaf, Babylon and Kerbala were displaced due to water shortage in their locations.” The same report also notes that water scarcity and deterioration is cited as a factor preventing internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their original locations. The situation is particularly dire in the Iraqi Marshes – a wetland area in the south of the country – which is becoming uninhabitable for its population. In addition to internal displacement, in Iraq disputes over access to water have the potential to inflame existing tribal and/or sectarian tensions.
Not only is the abandonment of rural areas contributing to their deterioration, but also population movements are putting additional pressure on urban centers, already strained by massive population growth. Here, water scarcity and deterioration in quality are stressing the already poor delivery of basic services, such as potable water and sanitation, which, over the last years has become a key trigger for social unrest and popular mobilization against the political establishment. In summer 2018 protests erupted into the streets of Basra to denounce the shortage of electricity (as the city was facing rising summer temperatures) and potable water, which led to several cases of water-related illnesses. The protests targeted the provincial and federal governments for their incapacity to manage the crisis and comply with the population’s needs, but also Iran, for its alleged culpability in causing the shortage. Basra illustrates the difficulties of combining the exploitation of the oil-dependent Iraqi economy with environmental protection: the governorate is the richest in oil resources, but suffers drastically from environmental deterioration and pollution. Over the last few years, episodes of social mobilization have intensified in the south of Iraq: the October 2019 protests are the latest example of how the Iraqis, especially Iraqi youth, are challenging the status quo.
Despite the evident destabilizing force of water scarcity, little has been done to tackle this issue. The Ministry of Water Resources launched an ambitious 20-year plan (Strategy for Land and Water Resources in Iraq, 2015–35), but it lacks the financial resources to implement it. In recent years, the Iraqi government’s priorities have shifted rapidly, reflecting the pace of events in the country: the fight against the Islamic State, conflict-induced displacement, social unrest, the rivalry between the US and Iran, to mention just a few. However, the inability to implement a comprehensive plan to address the challenges of water scarcity is also due to an overall inefficient and corrupt political establishment, whose immobilism has prevented much needed reforms in the country – the object of a growing dissent among the population. The country needs an effective plan to empower its water infrastructure – devasted by years of neglect and violence – and to ensure a waste-free system of water management. On a positive note, however, the issues of water scarcity and, more broadly, the environment, are pushing a new generation of young activists to take action and work towards greater awareness among the public. This is part of a larger trend that is challenging the ossified political system and looking for alternative forms of participation in politics. In the future, Iraq will desperately need the power of its civil society if it wants to manage rather than to suffer from the effects of climate change and keep water from becoming another “weapon” in the country.