Whose Water Is It Anyway: How Political Violence and Corruption Has Become Iraq’s Existential Challenge

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS's Natasha Hall on her commentary with Husam Sobhi, "Whose Water Is It Anyway: How Political Violence and Corruption Has Become Iraq's Existential Challenge."

Audio file

Iraq's Lake Habbaniyah was once a glamorous resort. Surrounded by a hotel, bungalows, and gardens, it drew local and international celebrities for years after it was developed in 1981. The area was so rich in water that Lake Razzaza was built in the 1970s to absorb Lake Habbaniyah’s overflow. Now, both lakes are shrinking abruptly. Yet even as dead fish litter their expanding shores, a web of unlicensed fish farms and newly irrigated farmland are emerging nearby. Challenging the forces diverting the lakes’ water is not merely difficult—it is perilous, even for the Iraqi government.

Husam Sobhi

Founding Member, the Iraqi Green Observatory
Remote Visualization

Iranian-backed militias and powerful political forces have been channeling the lakes’ water to their own enterprises. Their actions are both illegal and unsustainable. Satellite imagery shows the shrinking of Lake Habbaniyah in recent years and the expansion of agricultural areas nearby.  The satellite imagery shown above shows a dramatic decrease in the water volume due to decreased water flow from the Euphrates River, evaporation, and the expansion of agricultural areas using the Normalized Different Water Index (NDWI) of Lake Habbaniyah, Iraq from August 9, 2020 (left) to August 14, 2023 (right). NDWI uses near-infrared and green wavelength measurements to delineate and monitor content changes in surface water. The image below shows a dramatic increase in agricultural area in the former northwestern section of the lake, using the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) from March 2, 2020 (left) to March 22, 2023 (right). NDVI utilizes visible and near-infrared light reflected by vegetation.

Remote Visualization
Remote Visualization

While dams upstream on the Euphrates River have cut the flow of water into Iraq, more proximate obstacles to better water management are the ones draining Iraq’s capacity to move to a more sustainable course. In 2018, the Federal Board of Supreme Audit reported that almost 2,000 unauthorized lakes were constructed in Iraq between 2014 and 2017 for irrigation and fish farming purposes. The current Minister of Water Resources, Aoun Dhiab, noted that the number of illegal lakes had more than doubled to 5,000 since. While the government sets a limit of 330 million cubic meters of water to be used annually for fish farms, he estimates that Iraqi fish farmers use 2 billion cubic meters of water annually – an amount equivalent to twice of neighboring Jordan’s entire annual water budget.

To tackle this problem, this year the Iraqi government initiated a campaign to close illegal fish farms in Baghdad, Basra, and Nineveh provinces. The campaign was only partly successful. Although the effort drained more than 2,900 unregistered lakes, Iranian-affiliated militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Imam Ali Brigades ensured that areas they control in Karbala and Najaf provinces remained unaffected by the crackdown.

Simultaneously, the dramatic expansion of the Al-Abbas Holy Shrine in Karbala has further depleted nearby Lake Al-Razzaza’s water supply. Satellite imagery of Lake Al Razzaza from April 22, 2017 (left) and April 1, 2023 (right) show a dramatic increase in agricultural areas west and south of the lake (see above). Many shrine foundations have grown into robust conglomerates, bolstered by donations, subsidies from the Shia Department of Religious Endowments, and tax-free status. One foundation in Karbala headed by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani operates extensive fish farms in addition to its well-known hospitals and schools. Shrine foundations are even tapping into groundwater found in Najaf’s deserts. The body overseeing the Imam Hussein Holy Shrine farms 400 hectares of wheat in the desert. Its activity helped cause the local water table to sink 12 to 15 meters in a single season.

Accountability for Iraq’s dwindling freshwater resources is an urgent issue, but recent developments in the country could potentially exacerbate the crisis. Late last year, the government led by the new Iraqi prime minister, Muhammad Shia’aal-Sudani, ordered the creation of a public company owned by pro-Iranian militias. The operations of the “Muhandis General Company for Construction, Engineering, and Mechanical, Agricultural, and Industrial Contracting” are opaque, and it can acquire government contracts for agricultural projects without a competitive bidding process.

On March 21, the company launched its first project: planting one million trees in an almost 2,000-square-mile area of Muthanna Governorate. The area already struggles to supply water to its existing population, and environmental activists are concerned that projects like this could further degrade the country’s water security. The fears are well founded. The company will be exempt from paying for water, electricity, fuel, and taxes, and it passes on all risk to the Iraqi government.

Politicians cannot prioritize Iraq’s future without accountability centered on its citizens’ interests. The endemic corruption represented by the Muhandis General Company not only affects financial budgets, it also further shrinks the country’s water budget and degrades its land. The rising economic and political power of Iraq’s militias, many of which are organized as government-recognized “Popular Mobilization Forces” and which have ties to myriad sectarian groups with discrete agendas, complicates addressing the overall problem.

Breaking the cycle of political violence and corruption will not be easy. Militias that are embedded in water-intensive businesses or that derive money from protecting such businesses have ruthlessly targeted politicians and civil activists simply for calling attention to Iraq’s water issues. Incentivizing heavy water users to adopt sustainable fish farming practices and regenerative agriculture in their projects is one possibility, but it is difficult when politicians and other stakeholders prioritize short-term gains over the country’s long-term future. Some aspects of water management, such as wastewater treatment, need not be threatening to water users and may even present options for cooperation. Policymakers and donors need to triage what is most politically feasible by mapping stakeholders for each policy and program. With one of the fastest growing populations in the region and, inversely, decreasing renewable water per person, Iraq will need to advocate for its own water security. As the graph below shows, the Iraqi government must provide for a population that will nearly double by 2050, increasing the strain on water and sanitation infrastructure just as the country falls into the category of water scarcity at below 1,000 cubic meters of renewable water per capita annually.

Remote Visualization

The way forward is difficult to envision and not assured, but there are no alternatives for a country that is running out of time and water. What is clear is that ignoring these vested interests in favor of the status quo is a recipe for disaster.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.CHusam Sobhi is a biologist and environmental activist specializing in Iraq. He is a founding member of the Iraqi Green Observatory.