War in Syria and Iraq dramatically impaired water access, which in turn threatens lives and long-term peace. Reconstruction offers opportunities for a more resilient future, but are they being taken and what do they tell us about evolving patterns of international influence in the region?
Five years ago, in the midst of Syria’s civil war and the expansion of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, Chatham House published research on the precarious condition of the Euphrates, which flows between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Conflict has only worsened the situation for this river, and its twin, the Tigris. Daesh captured strategic points of water control while municipal water infrastructure became a focus of attacks from all sides.
The World Bank estimates that war damage in Iraq amounted to $1.4 billion in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, with an estimated US$ 2.4 billion needed just to bring the water sector back to a functioning pre-war state. In Syria, the costs are likely greater. According to remote sensing assessments, “two-thirds of the water treatment plants, half of the pumping stations, a third of the water towers, a quarter of the sewage treatment plants, and a sixth of the wells have been destroyed or partially damaged”.
Why are foreign powers interested in reconstruction?
Iraq and Syria represent contrasting cases for financing reconstruction. Iraq has attracted $30bn in international pledges, including from Turkey and neighbouring Gulf states. Little of this has yet materialised due to donor conditions. For Syria, shunned by the US, EU and Arab Gulf countries who want to avoid entrenching the government of Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran show the most interest; yet both expect reconstruction contracts to reward their military support.
Getting vital services like water and energy up and running after a war can be a humanitarian effort, but reconstruction is about trade, geopolitics and profit. With infrastructure financing comes political and economic influence. Rebuilding also carries risks. Contractors can be vulnerable to attack, as US companies in Iraq and Afghanistan have found, while politicians and business elites may profiteer, leaving societies with shoddy results.
Who is doing what in water?
Iraq’s Funding Facility for Stabilization (FFS), managed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is channelling aid from many donor countries – the US and Germany being the largest contributors – alongside finance from the government of Iraq. It has delivered hundreds of projects to return water supply in liberated cities. In parallel, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) led a three-year project to stabilise the Mosul Dam, completed in June 2019. The repair project cost $532 million and was the outcome of cooperation between the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, USACE and the Italian company Trevi SPA. The Iraqi and US governments covered 77% and 23% of project costs respectively, with Italian troops providing security and training.
Syria lacks the framework for international finance. To fill the void left by EU and US sanctions against, Assad hopes to attract finance from the Gulf states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia who abhor Iranian influence, and from China. Oil and real estate have received most attention yet this may be changing. In December 2019, Iran’s energy minister and Syria’s water minister signed a MoU which the former said could enable Iranian companies to construct dams, hydroelectric plants and sewage treatment facilities. Russia is offering assistance in the agricultural sector – where control of water and fertilizer may play to its interests in competing with Iran over wheat and other exports to Syria.
In spite of the ‘no-go’ attitude to Syrian reconstruction from traditional donor countries, UN agencies, the ICRC and EU are involved in ‘humanitarian recovery’, which involves repair and services grouped under WASH (water, sanitation and health). In areas not under regime control, numerous countries including the US, Germany, Kuwait, Japan, UAE and Italy have contributed to the Syria Reconstruction Trust Fund which is headquartered in Turkey.
Turkish authorities talk more stridently about the contribution of their reconstruction activities “to regional peace in the lands controlled by the Free Syrian Army” and have worked to restore wells and pipelines on its borders. However, Turkey’s reconstruction efforts can also be understood in the wider context of Ankara’s hydro-hegemony in the region and the desire to create a ‘safe zone’ against its southern border which would thwart Kurdish nationalist ambitions.
As the US presence in the region recedes, countries in need of infrastructure are looking eastwards. While the majority of China’s investments in Iraq lie in the oil and energy sectors, former Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi specifically called for help with dams. Opportunities to deploy its hydro-engineering expertise both here and in Syria will be of interest to the Chinese government as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Reconstruction or resilience?
Given water challenges that predate the war, conflict damage, and a changing climate, the sector in both Syria and Iraq remains dangerously ad hoc and under-resourced.
Humanitarian efforts remain critical in both countries but tend to patch up existing systems rather than enhance resilience. Consider the Mosul Dam project: this succeeded in restoring infrastructure, but due to its gypsum foundation, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources will face the costs of continual cement-composite injection. Some Iraqi experts have suggested that more durable, cost-effective alternatives could have been explored – for example, first completing the Badush Dam (begun in 1998 and recently resumed) to help manage excess flow and/or creating an energy for water storage agreement with Turkey.
Taking a different course
Whoever pays for it, water needs a radically different approach in these countries.
First, accountability and equity must be integrated into the handling of funds and design of projects. The Funding Facility for Stabilization supported by the UNDP provides an effective model to build on.
Second, unlike oil or real estate, the water sector is not commercially interesting, given low user tariffs and uncertain business conditions. For these reasons, it requires forms of blended finance. Good examples from countries facing similar environmental issues can inspire designs that build back better (a concept embraced in disaster response). For example, the As-Samra water treatment plant in Jordan has benefited from a far-sighted financing plan (a US grant plus Arab bank debt and company reinvestment) and strong accountability. A closed loop design means that the plant generates 80% of its energy needs through biogas produced from sludge and hydropower; and fertilizer is a by-product.
Third, where big financing is lacking, decentralized resilience can be prioritized (for example the use of solar energy for pumping stations to mitigate the risks of power outages and reduce diesel dependence) whilst promoting capacities for basin-wide, transboundary river management over the long-term.