Local to Global: Tensions Course through Iraq’s Waterways

On March 24, Iraq became the first country in the Middle East to join the UN Water Conference, the United Nations’ multilateral effort to facilitate cooperation on transboundary water resources. Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani announced the move at the United Nation’s first major conference on water since the 1970s. Just two days prior, he had visited Ankara to request the release of more water downstream to ease Iraq’s rising water insecurity—a request President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey pledged to meet.

These two events came a few weeks after violent clashes between protestors and security forces broke out in the Dhi Qar governorate in southern Iraq over rising water insecurity. But protestors in Dhi Qar did not blame Turkey for their water woes—they blamed the Iraqi government. The Turkish-Iraqi negotiations over water were no mere coincidence. For more than three-quarters of a century, diplomats have worked to prevent international water disputes from provoking violence across borders. Now they are working to use international water agreements to avoid violence within borders. Their tasks are growing harder.

States failing to address water management within their borders are inclined to blame external factors for water problems, whether that is upstream neighbors or climate change. For years now, downstream governments in the Middle East and North Africa have complained that neighbors are taking more than their fair share of water. Those complaints have only gotten louder as the effects of climate change and decades of mismanagement have further reduced the share of water available. In December 2021, in the midst of a years-long drought, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources threatened to sue Iran in international court over its water policies, claiming that Iran was digging tunnels to divert water away from Iraq. Iran cast the blame for Iraq’s water troubles on Turkey, accusing Ankara’s water policy of causing the dust storms that disrupt Iraq and Iran. For its part, Turkey claims both Iranian and Iraqi politicians of scapegoating Ankara to shift the blame away from their own mismanagement of water resources.

In some ways, politicians in Ankara and Baghdad are both correct. Accurate data on flow into Iraq is hard to come by, but Iraq’s minister of water resources has said that Iraq’s surface water levels have led to a 40 percent decline in flow through the Tigris-Euphrates river basin due to erratic rainfall and dams in neighboring countries. Turkey regularly violates a 1987 transboundary water agreement with Syria, releasing less than half of the 500 cubic meters of water per second it is bound to release from the Euphrates.

At the same time, Iraq mismanages the water that does reach its borders. Iraqi water infrastructure is outdated, a significant portion of water is lost to inefficiency and waste, and Iraq’s water sector suffers from lack of funding and coordination. About 80 percent of Iraq’s water is used in the agricultural sector, which still relies on inefficient irrigation methods and dilapidated infrastructure. Successive governments have neglected wastewater infrastructure, leading to frequent water contamination. The poor management of upstream sources and a lack of regulations on consumption and pollution has contributed to rising inequality between Iraqis with access to water upstream and those with increased scarcity downstream.

One of the biggest problems is that Iraqi water policy seems to be stuck in the past. Iraq’s aging network of dams was built to manage flooding when Iraqi rivers had too much water, not when they have too little. Within just two decades Iraq has gone from water abundant to water-stressed.

In 2014, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources commissioned a water security strategy that warned that significant reforms were needed to avert a water crisis in the coming years. The ambitious strategy proposed $184 billion in investments and reforms over two decades. But those investments never materialized, and since then, Iraq’s water woes have become front page news in Iraq. Iraqi politicians have shifted blame upstream rather than addressed it.

The country’s internal divisions led to further problems for Iraq’s water supply. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is pursuing a water management strategy that is largely independent of Baghdad, as it too struggles with the downstream effects of Turkey and Iran’s water policies. The KRG’s strategy emphasizes building and renovating dams, which comes largely at the expense of the rest of the country downstream. Since 2014, Kurdish officials have proposed adding 245 dams to the governorate’s rivers. In 2022, the KRG announced plans to build four large reservoir dams, reportedly without any consultation with Baghdad. The KRG’s water strategy risks heightening local tensions in Iraq. So far, Kurdish and central government officials seem united in blaming upstream Turkey and Iran for their water woes, but as upstream dams within Iraq continue to restrict water to communities downstream, water could become a flashpoint for tensions and conflict, especially as the water stress worsens.

Indeed, Iraq’s water management failures are already driving tensions and conflict within its borders. Water scarcity has helped fuel widescale public unrest in Iraq. In 2018, water pollution sent 118,000 people in Basra to the hospital and fueled violent protest at the government’s incompetence in the water sector. Water scarcity in southern Iraq has also led to simmering conflict between tribes over access to irrigation sources. Tribal leaders and influential locals frequently dig trenches or establish illegal wells to tap into shared resources when water levels get low. Local government officials are often powerless to stop them, but fear the outbreak of larger conflict as powerful individuals and groups secure their own water at the expense of others. In 2017, tribes in the southern governorate of Al-Muthanna threatened war with others who exceeded their fair share of water, and in 2021, one official in Dhi Qar warned that local authorities feared tribal conflict could break out any time. As water becomes even more scarce, threats and tensions over scarcity could intensify local fights over water into larger-scale unrest and conflict.

Photo: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Photo: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Better internal water management could help avoid acute shortages and stave off the potential for interstate conflict, but so far, Iraqi politicians have more often shifted the blame upstream than examine their own strategies. One of the first steps to finding a solution to Iraq’s water troubles is to establish a clear picture of where water is going, but Iraq tries to instrumentalize data on water resources and their use to use as leverage in negotiations with upstream neighbors. For example, one Iraqi diplomat reportedly regretted telling a Turkish interlocutor that Iraq’s government knew about significant water losses from ineffective irrigation. As a result of the admission, Turkey doubled down on calls for Baghdad to manage its existing supply more effectively before Turkey would agree to greater water sharing with its downstream neighbor.

The battle of blame between Iraq and Turkey risks ignoring the human element of water insecurity. That neglect could, in turn, affect stability within and between countries. Because human beings experience issues of water supply—both availability and quality—at an intensely personal level, it is impossible to ignore. Water is inextricably linked to people’s livelihoods, their health and well-being, and ultimately, national security. Iraqi politicians may try to incite anger at Turkey for water troubles, but when individuals’ livelihoods and health are threatened, they may seek a more immediate outlet for frustration. Turkey is thousands of miles upstream, and without a meaningful way to hold Turkey to account for its water policy, Iraqis affected by water insecurity are more likely to seek a remedy closer to home. They will turn to protesting against the authorities that failed them or battling their own community over water access. That instability can spill over borders or motivate Baghdad to further blame riparian neighbors—neither is advantageous for regional security.

Transboundary agreements are important, but they are not enough if they are not equitable or if governments fail to address water mismanagement within their own borders. As professor of global environmental governance at American University Ken Conca has noted, “[the] very transboundary agreements that we applaud for preventing conflict at the regional level may, in fact, exacerbate conflicts over water at the local level.”

It has been nearly three decades since then-World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin famously declared that the wars of the twenty-first century would be fought not over oil but over water. So far, no such major inter-state conflict has broken out in the water-scarce Middle East. But while countries may not go to war over water, conflict over water resources and their mismanagement is more common at the local level, and the effects can be just as dire. People lose their lives every day in countries around the region because of bad water management, diminished access to safe water, and violent conflict over water in their own communities. Good governance at the inter-state level helps prevent inter-state wars. But good governance at the local level is still necessary for precluding the most common type of conflict—intra-state conflict, which can easily spiral into inter-state conflict and regional instability.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Caleb Harper was a former program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Middle East Program.

Caleb Harper

Caleb Harper

Former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Middle East Program