July 28, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1592

Iraq's Growing Water Crisis – Iraqi Journalist: Iraq Must Act Against Iran And Turkey To Stop Them Stealing Its Water

July 28, 2021 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iran, Iraq, Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1592


The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world. With approximately 6 percent of world population, the region has about 1.4 percent of the world renewable fresh water. As oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel, have resorted to water desalination to mitigate water shortage, most other countries have resorted to their ground water resources, which are getting systematically depleted. There is risk of saltwater intrusion in aquifers close to the sea. Most countries in the region are dependent on water from outside the region in the form of imported food, particularly grain and rice, to feed their populations.

A number of factors have exacerbated the water crisis in MENA: rapid population growth, climate change with frequent and extended periods of drought, pollution of rivers by uncontrolled dumping of human and industrial waste, inefficient irrigation methods that cause unnecessary water waste, and the construction of dams on rivers, drastically affecting the quantity of water downstream. The result of all these factors has been salination and desertification, dislodging farmers from their agricultural lands into urban centers of massive poverty. They are the first generation of water refugees, whose number are likely to grow.[1]

Water shortages could also generate domestic political violence or even the danger of regional wars. Recent violent demonstrators in the Arab-inhabited Ahwaz region of Iran due to the shortage of water is just one example. The construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile by Ethiopia has triggered military threats by Egypt, as the dam could reduce the quantity of water reaching Egypt by as much as 20 percent, or even more in the event of extended drought. A sharp reduction of water in the Nile could affect not only the livelihood but the very survival of millions of Egyptians.[2]

In Iraq, a severe water crisis caused by multiple factors is greatly compounded by the policy of Iraq's neighbors, which  has considerably decreased the flow of water in many of the countries' rivers, especially in its two greatest rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Iraq accuses Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria, of sharply reducing the Euphrates' water flow by constructing hydroelectric dams on it, thus damaging Iraq's already struggling agricultural sector. It accuses Iran of diverting major Tigris tributaries that has cut the flow of water in this river as well. Indeed, a report issued recently by the European Water Association warned that Iraq could completely lose the waters of its two major rivers by 2040. Iraq, the report warns, is facing "a real disaster," which would mean that the country will become an extension of the Arabian Peninsula desert.[3]

Iraqi woman sits on parched land in southern Iraq. Source: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, July 16, 2009

This policy of Turkey and Iran, and its catastrophic impact on Iraq, is the focus of a July 19, 2021 article by journalist Sami Zubaidi in the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman. Noting that this policy – of damming and diverting rivers upstream of Iraqi territory – is a flagrant violation of these countries' agreements with Iraq, he decries the fact that Iraq is doing nothing to oppose it. He calls on the Iraqi government to take an example from Egypt – which went so far as to threaten military force against Ethiopia for building just one dam on the Blue Nile – and take measures against Turkey and Iran in order to compel them to desist from this aggressive policy. Specifically, he recommends halting the import of goods, agricultural produce, natural gas, and electricity from Iran, and importing them instead from Arab countries, at lower prices and better quality. In order to pressure Turkey, he calls to stop exporting oil through the pipeline that runs from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey, and to use Syrian and Saudi pipelines instead. If these measures prove ineffective, he writes, Iraq must lodge severe complaints against Turkey and Iran with the relevant international organizations. He acknowledges, however, that Iraq is unlikely to take such firm measures, especially against Iran, given the dominance of pro-Iran forces in its government.

The following are translated excerpts from Al-Zubaidi's article in Al-Zaman: [4]

"The Worst Violation Perpetrated By Iran Has Been Against Iraq's Water Rights, Which Are Recognized In International Agreements"; "Turkey Has Also Built Many Dams On The Tigris And Euphrates Rivers, Severely Reducing The Volume Of Water They Carry Into Iraq"

"Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was political and security chaos, and consecutive governments were steeped in corruption and busy robbing and stealing Iraq's assets instead of providing basic services to the Iraqi people. Failing to protect Iraq's sovereignty, they let its historic rights to its land and water be usurped by neighboring countries [such as Iran] in return for several million dollars paid to treasonous and corrupt [Iraqi] politicians...

"The worst violation perpetrated by Iran has been against Iraq's water rights, which are recognized in international agreements between the riparian states, and which Iran has ignored or violated in two dangerous ways: First, by changing the course of some rivers that originate in Iran and continue to Iraq, and diverting their waters back to Iran, and second, by damming rivers and keeping their waters from reaching Iraqi cities, especially in the summer. This has caused the people in those cities much suffering, in addition to the great impact it has had on Iraq's agriculture. In the last few years the country has lost 80% of the water that used to reach it from Iran. This year this figure rose even further, after Iran dammed 35 more rivers and tributaries and diverted others... Iran has decided to build 152 [further] dams to control [the course of] the rivers entering Iraq and to enjoy their [waters].  The most important rivers and streams that Iran has dammed or diverted into its territory are the Al-Wand..., Al-Zab Al-Saghir..., Karun..., Dawarij..., Larkheh..., Al-Tayib...,  Kalal... [and] Kalikar..."

"Turkey has also built many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, severely reducing the volume of water they carry into Iraq and causing problems in the regions through which they pass. The shortage of water in the Tigris and Euphrates has gravely affected Iraqi agriculture... in violation of bilateral agreements between the countries, which guarantee adequate water quotas for Iraq. The most important dam built by Turkey in the recent years is the Ilisu dam on the Tigris. It is one of the four largest of the 22 dams that Turkey has built in the southeast [of the country], on the Euphrates and Tigris [rivers]... causing Iraq to lose 50% of the water flowing into it from Turkey, which is a grave threat to Iraq's people and agriculture. The reduction in the quantity of water coming in from Turkey will have immense impact on the economy... and will also cause environmental problems, since water coming through the Ilisu dam is of poorer quality, severely contaminated by chemicals and fertilizers used by the Turkish farmers..."

Why Isn't Iraq Doing "What Egypt And Sudan Are Doing Vis-À-Vis Ethiopia For Building Just One Dam On The Blue Nile[?]"; "Iraq Must Take Several Measures That Will Force Iran To Comply With Its Demands And [Respect] Its Rights"

"Iran's and Turkey's violations [of the agreements regarding] Iraq's water quotas... can leave Iraq without any rivers [at all] by 2040, and the problems caused by the intense drought will increase and come to a head [already] by 2025. I do not understand why Iraq does not do what Egypt and Sudan are doing vis-à-vis Ethiopia for building just one dam on the Blue Nile... Egypt has threatened to use every possible means to defend the water rights of the country and its people if Ethiopia continues to fill the dam, hinting that it will use military force to keep Ethiopia from continuing its hostile policy. How different is Iraq's conduct [vis-à-vis] Iran, which has usurped all its water rights... Iraq has not lodged a single complaint against Iran, even though, according to the Iraqi minister of water resources,  this year Iran has released no water at all [from the dams] on the shared rivers. Iran also refuses to accept any Iraqi delegation to discuss the water issues. The minister has hinted that if Iran continues its aggressive water policy, Iraq will be forced to appeal to the international organizations, [but] this seems unlikely at the moment, given that its government is dominated by pro-Iran parties... 

"Turkey promises to release a large, agreed-upon amount of water, adequate for Iraq's agricultural and other needs, and that is indeed what has happened. Negotiations with it continue, in order to increase the amount of water allowed to flow into Iraq...

"In order to guarantee Iraq's water rights and stop Iran's violations of the bilateral agreements, which have been going on for years... Iraq must take several measures that will force Iran to comply with its demands and [respect] its rights, including: halting the import of industrial goods and agricultural produce from Iran, in favor of imports from other countries like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the Arab Gulf, which are better and cheaper than the Iranian goods, and [also] halting the import of gas, petroleum products and electricity from Iran, and importing them instead from the Gulf,  at lower prices and better quality.  If Iran fails to heed Iraq's demands after these measures are taken, Iraq will lodge severe complaints against it with the relevant international organizations. The same goes for Turkey, if it continues to violate [the agreements regarding] Iraq's water quotas. In addition, Iraq will stop exporting oil through Turkey's Ceyhan terminal, using Syrian and Saudi [oil] pipelines instead, after they are adapted [to this purpose], as well as Jordan's pipeline, once it is completed..."


*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst (emeritus) at MEMRI.


[1] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1524 – Water Crisis In Iraq: The Growing Danger Of Desertification, July 13, 2020.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1525, Rising Tensions Over The Nile River Basin [Updated], July 16, 2020.

[3] On Iraq's water crisis, see Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli,  MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1524, Water Crisis In Iraq: The Growing Danger Of Desertification, July 13, 2020.

[4] Al-Zaman (Iraq), July 19, 2021.

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