July 27, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 537

Water Crisis in Iraq: The Growing Danger of Desertification

July 27, 2009 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 537

"Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources and they cannot say they share out water resources."

-former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel [1]

"Watercourse States shall, in utilizing an international watercourse in their Territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of Significant Harm to other Watercourse States." [2]


The land we know today as Iraq was, in ancient times, called Mesopotamia, or the land of the two rivers - a reference to the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which fed the region with water, allowing the growth of a great civilization, and which have supplied Iraq with water even to the present day. Both rivers are fed by snowpack and rainfall in eastern Turkey and northwest Iran, and they discharge peaks in March and May, too late for winter crops and too early for summer crops. The Euphrates, 1,730 miles long, flows through Syria while the Tigris, 1,150 miles long, comes down from Turkey into Iraq. There is also a network of smaller rivers from Iran, some of which feed into the Tigris. The combined annual flow of the two major rivers was about 80 billion cubic meters. However, there is an extensive system of diversions and irrigation canals dating back centuries, with more than a dozen major reservoir projects, a few on the main river systems but most on tributaries.

Iraq accuses Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria, of sharply reducing the Euphrates' water flow by placing on it hydroelectric dams that have restricted water flow, damaging the Iraqi agricultural sector already suffering from decades of war, sanctions, and neglect It accuses Iran of diverting major Tigris tributaries that has cut the flow of water in the other major river.

According to Iraqi minister of water resources Dr. Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, the estimated annual Iraq needs are approximately 50 billion cubic meters, 60% to originate from the Tigris and the remainder from the Euphrates. The country's need for water is estimated to grow to 77 billion cubic meters by 2015, at a time when water flows are expected to decline to 43 billion cubic meters annually. [3]

The growing need for water by the riparian countries makes the fair distribution of this finite source a potential source of conflict, if not wars. In Iraq, the ever growing shortage of water is threatening a fertile land with desertification.

Map of modern Iraq showing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
Map courtesy of CIA Sourcebook.

From Plenty to Shortage

Half a century ago, the region sought to control flooding. The World Bank carried out a comprehensive economic review and analysis of Iraq in 1951. The Bank asserted in the follow-up report that "the storage of the flood waters of the Euphrates and Tigris and their tributaries is the foremost problem." [4] Today, the issue of flood, particularly that caused by the Euphrates, has faded into memory; instead, the twin issues of water shortage and desertification confront Iraqi policy-makers today (see photo below).

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

Indeed, a report issued recently by the European Water Association warned that Iraq could completely lose the waters of the two rivers by 2040. The report was particularly pessimistic about the Tigris River, which could lose 33 billion cubic meters of water annually because of the water policy adopted by Turkey. [5] The reduction in the quantity of downstream water would have a significant impact on the existing hydraulic installations on the Tigris River and would cause a change in the natural pattern of the flow of the river's water, with repercussions on supplies for power generating from two key hydro-power generating systems. [6] According to the European Water Association report, the share of water flowing into Iraq has declined by two-thirds in the last 25 years, with the problem being further compounded by severe drought in the last few years. Iraq, the report warns, is facing "a real disaster" which would mean that the country will become an extension of the Arabian Peninsula desert.

Reasons for the Water Shortage

Iraq depends greatly on surface water from the two rivers, which it shares with two other countries - Turkey and Syria - and, to a lesser extent, with Iran. Each of these countries has its own operational plans for water storage and utilization. The construction of dams and water storage plants on the two rivers and their tributaries, by Turkey in particular and to a lesser extent by Syria and Iran, have been the main cause for water shortage in Iraq. The Turkish GAP program has already had a great negative impact on the water situation in Iraq, which will be greatly exacerbated when the Aliso Dam is completed.

Turkey, in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourse, continues to build dams upstream that deprive downstream countries of their rights on trans-boundary rivers, as it considers the Tigris waters as its own. Professor of international law at the University of Baghdad Muna al-Rifa'i has traced the origins of the GAP to March 1933, when the Turkish government carried out hydrological surveys of the areas in which the GAP projects were to be constructed and to firmly establish that water as Turkish property. [7]

The Turkish GAP Program and Its Impact on Water Resources in Iraq

Like Syria and Egypt, most of Iraq's water is trans-boundary in that it comes from other countries. Iraq's water comes primarily from Turkey and partly from Iran. Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Syria, is affected by decisions made upstream with rival claims on water-sharing by the riparian countries. Iraq is already being negatively impacted by the Turkish South Eastern Anatolia Project, known in Turkish as GAP, which has been held responsible for the ever-declining water flows into the two rivers.

The GAP is one of the most ambitious and costly development projects in the world. Estimates are that it will cost $32 billion upon completion. The plan is to utilize the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers with the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants. With the help of huge tunnels, Turkey plans to divert the waters of the basin into the Harran field, where 1.7 million hectares of land will be irrigated. Turkey, as the upper riparian, wants to utilize the waters of the basin with mega dams like the Ataturk and the Aliso. The Ataturk Dam, the sixth largest rock-filled dam in the world, is the key structure for the development of the Lower Euphrates River region. Completed in 1993, it presently generates 8.9 billion kWh in electricity and is responsible for opening more than 180,000 acres of farmland to irrigation in the Harran plain. Farmers in Harran fields are already harvesting their crops, especially the superb-quality Turkish cotton. [8] However, the construction of the Ataturk Dam has reduced the water flow in the Euphrates by one- fifth.

The Aliso Dam is the most controversial and, when completed, will have grave effects on Iraq's water availability. According to experts, the Aliso Dam, the construction of which began on the Tigris River in 2006, will have a storage capacity of 11.14 billion cubic meters, and will deprive Iraq of a third of its arable land and will cause farmers to desert their farms. The Aliso Dam was initially scheduled for completion in 2020, but construction was suspended in December 2008 for 180 days at the request of the three European countries, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which provide the guarantee to the engineering companies involved in the construction of the dam, on the grounds that Turkey has "persistently violated cultural and social provisions that were part of the deal." The construction of the dam would have meant "flooding the archeologically significant, ancient city of Hasankeyf on the Tigris River as well as the enforced relocation of more than 10,000 people." [9] Turkey has announced that it will go ahead with the construction on its own but there are doubts whether it has the resources to do so on schedule.

The suspension expired in early July. Now Iraq has mounted a campaign among the three donors to withhold further funding of the project, estimated to cost $1.68 billion, in an attempt to force Turkey to increase the amount of water reaching Iraq through the Euphrates River. [10]

Iran and Syria Add to Iraq Water's Woes

Iran and Syria have also built numerous dams and water storage facilities that reduce the amount of water reaching Iraq. Iran has been a factor in reducing the water to Iraq by diverting major tributaries inside Iran. In a most critical comment, Dr. Abdul-Latif jamal Rashid, Iraq's minister of water resources, said in an interview about the water problems of Iraq: "The Iranian side participates actively in the deterioration of the water condition in southern Iraq and particularly in the loss of its agriculture and livestock… By diverting, inside Iran, the tributaries that previously flowed into the Tigris River, and the Karun and Karkha Rivers that had flowed into Shatt Al-Arab, Iran has participated in a direct way to the loss of the agricultural land by causing water shortage and increasing salinity." By its water policy, Iran is also damaging Iraq's marshes and undermining the efforts to revitalize them. [11] One of the unintended consequences of the falling water levels in the marshes is that venomous snakes have begun invading the homes of the marsh dwellers - one more force to expedite their desertion of the marshes and a way of life that goes back thousands of years. [12]

The residents of the city of Faw, 60 miles south of Basra and the southernmost city in Iraq, have complained that, by diverting the Karun River from Shatt Al-Arab into the Iranian Bahman Shir River, Iran has created a severe shortage of drinking water for the residents of the city. [13] In fact, merchants in the city of Basra are importing desalinated water from the UAE to meet the needs of the people.

Syria has also limited the water flow into Iraq. Syria created Buhayrat Assad [Lake Assad] with the construction of Tabaqah Dam on the Euphrates River, which was completed in 1973, upstream of the town of Al-Raqqah. The reservoir is about 50 miles long and averages 1.6 miles in width.

Iraq Must Share Responsibility for its Water Problems

Iraq acknowledges that, even together, Turkey, Iran, and Syria do not constitute the only responsibility for the decline of the level of water in the two rivers. There are other factors which are contributing to the water crisis which ought to be noted:

  • Climate changes: Iraq is an arid country with a high variability of rainfall and a high of degree of evaporation. Iraq, like most countries of the Middle East, has been experiencing a multi-year severe drought. The Kurdish region of Iraq, whose farmers rely almost entirely on rainfall, had a completely dry season in 2008.
  • Government neglect: Years of war and conflict have deflected government attention from the water sector. While Iraq was engaged in wars or internal conflicts, its neighbors were busy building their dams and reservoirs. Turkey refused to convene a tripartite panel established in the 1960s to consider water-sharing issues. Saddam Hussein could rule Iraq with an iron fist, but when it came to water issues he was ignored by Turkey, reviled by Syria, and treated as a mortal enemy by Iran.
  • Population growth: According to a study by the United Nations, world population has quadrupled in the last one hundred years, but the consumption of water has increased by a factor of seven. Iraq is no exception. Rising living standards have increased the demand both for domestic water use and for producing ever more food. At the same time, there is considerable waste of water because of outmoded irrigation and drainage methods
  • The absence of economic water pricing policies: Years of water abundance dulled the need to treat water as a scarce commodity, which ought to be priced in a manner that would encourage rational use and discourage water waste.
  • Environmental factors: Water quality has been declining as a result of water salinity and water contamination. A decline in water levels, particularly in Shatt Al-Arab created by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, has meant a greater levels of Gulf saline water mixing into the fresh water of the river. Increased water salinity in particular is a major contributing factor to desertification. [14] Further, water contamination on a vast scale, caused by the diffusion of foreign objects on the river floor and the discharge of waste and untreated water into the rivers and lakes, reduces the potable water and causes public health hazards. The situation has reached such extremes that the people of southern Iraq are importing drinking water from UAE desalination plants. [15]
  • Silt downstream: The Tigris and Euphrates carry large amounts of silt downstream. This silt is deposited in river channels, in canals, and on the flood plains. In Iraq, the soil has a high saline content and the flood water was needed to wash the soil and prepare it for the next planting season. However, the Water Ministry resources lack dredging equipment to clear the water channels.

Iraq also suspects that the neighboring countries are deliberately reducing the supply of water to undermine its agriculture and make it dependent on them for agricultural products, meat, and poultry. [16] Iraq, historically the land of plenty, now must import much of what the country needs to feed its people.

Iraq's Growing Desertification

After years of neglect, declining water flows, and repeated frequencies of drought, large areas of Iraq, particularly in the southern region, are facing a serious problem of desertification. This phenomenon, according to the ministry of water resources, means the spread of sand dunes and changes in the weather, in addition to the reduction of natural grazing, the deterioration of water quality, and the increase of pollution. The head of the environment department in the Basra Province has estimated that 45% of the country has been substantially affected by desertification; other experts maintain that as much as 90% of Iraq has been afflicted to some extent. [17]

Iraq's wars and the stationing of military units on agricultural land have added to desertification. [18] It is known, for example, that during the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, the sides exchanged artillery fire that destroyed two-thirds of the palm trees that provide both income to farmers and a protective natural barrier against the expansion of the desert. [19] With water shortage and high salinity, many farmers have deserted their land, leaving it to be overwhelmed by thickets and wild grasses.

The desertification of Iraq has extended to the north of the country as well. In the province of Nineveh, villagers have deserted 70 villages in search of water because the sands have covered homes, roads, and land. [20] One of the ironies of the situation is that these villagers are afraid to drill for water because in one instance the drilling brought out not water but close-to-the-surface natural gas which exploded, causing a fire that took several days to extinguish. [21]

Desertification is increasing the frequency of sand storms during the summer season, to such an extent that Baghdad international airport is occasionally closed for as long as two or three days because of poor visibility. Dr. Fadhel Al-Farraji, the head of the Authority for Fighting Desertification, attributes the problem to, among other things, the movement of heavy military equipment over desert land since 1990 which has crushed the firm desert crust, undoing the compacting of decades and turning the surface into soft sand capable of being carried by the wind. Because of this crushing of the surface, which he has termed "wind disrobement," Dr. Al-Faraji expects sandstorms to prevail over Iraq for the entire summer season. [22] For example, Vice President Joe Biden was forced, during his visit to Baghdad during the first week of July 2009, to cancel a scheduled trip to the north for meeting with the Kurdish leaders because a severe sandstorm had caused the airports to be closed. Iraqis wore masks outside their homes and the hospitals were inundated with patients suffering from respiratory problems.

Legal Agreements Covering Water Rights

There are many treaties, agreements, and conventions which regulate the water rights of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, going back to the Peace Treaty between Turkey and the Allies signed in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 24, 1932 which calls for protecting the acquired rights by Syria and Iraq in the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. There is a Syrian-Iraqi agreement signed in Baghdad on April 17, 1989 which calls for the distribution of the Euphrates on the Turkish-Syrian border with 58% for Iraq and 42% for Syria. There is the Iran-Iraq agreement signed in Algeria in 1975 which called for a comprehensive survey of the land and river navigation rights [in Shatt Al-Arab] and which was abrogated by Saddam Hussein upon the outbreak of the war between the two countries. [23] Finally, there is the UN Convention on Water, already mentioned.

"A Barrel of Oil for a Barrel of Water"

While Turkey has often promised to increase the quantity of water in the Euphrates, it has failed to do so, except randomly and for short durations. The flow of the Euphrates which runs through Syria before reaching Iraq is running at just over half its year 2000 level of 950 m3/second. Iraqi Minister of Oil Resources Dr. Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid has questioned whether Turkey continues to adhere to a slogan uttered by some of its leaders about "a barrel of oil for a barrel of water." [24]

Not satisfied with their government's timid position in dealing with Turkey on water issues, the Iraqi parliament is holding up the ratification of a comprehensive trade and cooperation agreement between the two countries. Members of parliament insist that a provision guaranteeing Iraq's share of water of the two rivers should be included in the agreement. [25]


Water is the key to war or peace. Borders can be redrawn, refugees resettled, trade barriers removed, and agriculture reformed and made more efficient. But there must be water to meet basic human needs. Population growth with a rapid shift toward urbanization will render these needs even greater and the risks of armed conflicts far more imaginable in the future. In the words of a UNDP study, "Water is power - and when water is in short supply, power relations figures prominently in determining who gets access to water and on what terms. [26]

The Middle East region, which is already one of the most volatile regions in the world could become even more volatile if millions of its people cannot find water to drink, let alone to grow food.

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



[1] John Bulloch and Adel Darwish, Water Wars: Coming Conflict in the Middle East. London: Victor Gollancz, 1993, p. 74.

[2] United Nations, "Convention on the law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourse," Article 7. Environmental Policy and Law, 27/3 (1997), pp.233-337.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), July 8, 2008.

[4] International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Economic Development of Iraq. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1952, p. 183.

[5] Al-Mada (Iraq), October 28, 2008, and Al-Sabah (Iraq), June 9, 2009, quoting an official in the Ministry of Water Resources.

[6] PUKMedia, Iraq, September 17, 2007.

[7] Al-Mada (Iraq), October 28, 2008.


[9] Spiegel Online, July 8, 2009.

[10] Al-Rafidayn (Iraq), July 5, 2009.

[11] Al-Hayat, July 17, 2009.

[12] Al-Mada, June 15, 2009.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 28, 2009.

[14] Al-Sabah, July 17, 2008.

[15] Sotiliraq, July 11, 2009.

[16] Al-Mada, July 1 20.

[17] Al-Sabah, July 4, 2009.

[18] Al-Mada, July 6, 2009.

[19] Al-Zaman (Iraq), July 14, 2009.

[20] Al-Mada, June 16, 2009.

[21] Al-Mada, June 16, 2009.

[22] Al-Sabah, July 4, 2009.

[23] Al-Mada, Jun 10, 2009.

[24] Al-Mada, June 17, 2009.

[25] Al-Mada, July 11, 2009.

[26] UNDP, Beyond Scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis, 1966, p. 173.

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