Iran’s water hoarding takes its toll on Iraq

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 14 May 2022

Unprecedented levels of dam building by Iran are leaving downstream Iraqi rivers crying out for water, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iran s water hoarding takes  its toll on Iraq
Water scarcity in Iraq has affected agricultural land such as on this farm in Jaliha village in central Diwaniya province (photo:AFP)


Water supplies in the massive Darbandikhan Lake, one of Iraq’s main reservoirs, this spring are just 10 per cent of normal, Iraqi water officials have said, in the latest sign that the country’s drought is growing more devastating by the month.

To the south, large swathes of farmland, fisheries, power production areas and drinking water sources in the Diyalah province have been depleted of water. In this agricultural province bordering Iran, production on over 1,420,000 hectares of arable land is expected to go down by 50 per cent because of the drought.

In other situations, water retention on such a large scale on one side of the border and huge water shortages on the other could lead to brewing conflicts, but in Iran and Iraq’s case the odds of an escalation are impossible to calculate.

Iraq’s water problems with Iran started in the 1970s when the government of the former shah of Iran started to divert rivers pouring into its western neighbour, resulting in the draining of several tributaries and marshes, all of which have now dried up.

The current drought has led to radical changes in the environment and in ecosystems in the border provinces inside Iraq, pushing residents to migrate to villages and cities in the interior.

Iraq’s water problems were recently exacerbated after Iran started building 300 small dams to redirect the extra water to reservoirs across the country, diverting water away from the Sirwan, Little Zab, and Diyalah rivers in Iraq.

Most of these dam projects, part of what former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called the country’s “modern” irrigation network, are along the western border with Iraq and aim to quadruple Iranian agricultural production.

As a result, water levels have declined sharply behind the Darbandikhan, Adhaim, and Diyalah dams in eastern Iraq that feed on water coming from Iran, and local officials have reported that villagers across the border have started facing a drinking water crisis.

Iraqi farmers frequently express their frustration at Iran’s storing and diverting water away from their land, but their concerns have been falling on deaf ears in Tehran while the government in Baghdad remains unable to assert Iraq’s right to the water.

Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources Mahdi Al-Hamadani has accused Iran of hoarding water in its reservoirs and denying Iraq its fair share of the resources under international water-sharing treaties on cross-border rivers.

As a result, the minister said the Sirwan River, which originates in Iran and runs through Iraq’s eastern Kurdish autonomous area before it flows into Diyalah, has been drying up after the Islamic Republic built eight new dams across the border.    

To alleviate the shortages, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources decided to divert water from the Tigris River through a hurriedly constructed 12 km canal to provide more than a million people in Diyalah with drinking water.

But governor of Diyalah Muthana Al-Timimi said the government action was not enough to avert the crisis. “Even if we convince the farmers to stop farming, we cannot convince them to stop drinking,” he told the local media.

Iraq’s water crisis has also been worsened by the cutting off of water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers by Turkey. The Tigris River, the second-longest river in southwest Asia which originates in southeastern Turkey, is slowly drying up, resulting in stagnant water in main irrigation canals.

As a result of the construction by Turkey of the Ilisu Dam, the discharge of the Tigris River into Iraq has decreased from 20.5 billion cubic metres of water to 9.7 billion.

Iraq is also losing the bulk of its water resources in the Euphrates River, which flows from Turkey through Syria, with the water in it receding and parching farms across southern Iraq.

The loss of the rivers, water scarcity, and now the drought has led the Ministry of Agriculture to order cuts in the amount of agricultural land planted with crops by 50 per cent across Iraq, with the effects varying from food insecurity to increased conflicts.

Many lakes and reservoirs in Iraq are drying up, and a few already have, more or less, with at least one disappearing entirely. The Dokan, Darbandikhan, Mosul, and Qaddisyya reservoirs, the Thirthar and Razzaza Lakes, and the Howeiza Marshes have suffered greatly in recent years because of the reduction in water.

The Sawa Lake, once the jewel of Iraq’s western desert near the city of Samawa 250 km south of the capital Baghdad and a former leisure destination for visitors, has completely disappeared.

The drainage of some lakes has been exacerbated by lower rainfall, drought, and climate change. A frenzy of well-drilling by farmers is also draining significant amounts of the groundwater that feeds them.

A government statement issued last month said that more than 1,000 wells had been illegally dug for agricultural purposes near the site of the Sawa Lake, and this combined with other factors had turned it into a barren wasteland with only piles of salt.

UN and Iraqi government studies have revealed that the country is now about 39 per cent desert, while high salinity is hitting more than 50 per cent of the country’s arable land.

Plummeting water levels in rivers and dams across Iraq have impacted agriculture and are threatening the lives of millions of Iraqis in the middle of an economic crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and damage to food imports due to the war in Ukraine.

The Ministry of Agriculture has banned or ordered reductions in the planting of many crops including rice, wheat, and corn due to shortages of water. The yields of two major crops, wheat and barley, have been reduced by half.

A report by UNICEF released last month said that nearly three out of five children in Iraq had no access to safely managed water. Another report by the Norwegian Refugee Council showed that one in two families in drought-affected regions in Iraq required food assistance because of drought, while one in five did not have sufficient food for everyone.

Both Iran and Turkey, meantime, remain intransigent about establishing an equitable allocation of water to Iraq.

While Ankara argues that once it has finished its Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) this hydroelectric and irrigation project will not significantly affect the flow of water into Iraq, Tehran seems averse to Iraqi complaints and continues with its plans to build more dams and store water in its reservoirs.

Although Iraq has consistently urged Iran to adhere to the joint agreements in place to manage surface border waters with its neighbours and allow equal shares, Tehran has rejected such arguments and even the need to address the problem at some point.

Instead, it has opted to act unilaterally, arguing that its dam projects, used to store billions of cubic metres of water that used to flow to Iraq in 40 rivers, will provide benefits to its own farmers and mitigate droughts and water shortages.

Iranian Ambassador in Baghdad Irij Masjidi has denied that Iran’s water projects are behind Iraq’s water crisis. “Iraq receives only seven per cent of its water from Iran,” he said, insisting that the water shortage is “a regional problem.”

However, for many Iraqis, Iran’s actions to cut the amount of water flowing to their cities and farms is inexplicable, especially as Iranian officials boast that the two countries are “inseparable” and that their peoples are tied by “historical and religious bonds.”

Indeed, Iran’s water policy towards Iraq has clearly underlined the pragmatic national interests and geopolitical behaviour of the Islamic Republic rather than its ideological discourse or the idealistic rhetoric of its officials.

Iran and Iraq fought a bloody and protracted war in the 1980s mostly over territorial issues including water-sharing and river navigation. Nearly 20 years after the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iran has emerged as the dominant force in the country.

Iran has been asserting itself in Iraq through aggressive tactics and proxies that have been trying to turn Iraq into an Iranian sphere of influence. Iran is one of Iraq’s main trading partners, and its exports to Iraq amount to about $10 billion annually, most of them food and agricultural products.

However, for those who understand the Iranian establishment and the hardline views of the country’s leaders regarding its vital national interests, Tehran’s water policy in Iraq should not come as a complete surprise.

The question remains what a war-battered and conflict-prone Iraq can now do to safeguard its interests and deal with this existential threat by its closest neighbour that views Iraq as its asymmetric ally.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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