Iraq is projected to be among the five countries hardest hit by the impact of climate change. The country is already witnessing depreciating water supply and accelerating desertification, leading to the loss of as much as 60,000 acres of arable land each year, according to Iraqi government and United Nations sources. These climate phenomena threaten the livelihoods and food security of Iraq’s population of an estimated 43 million, creating conditions for displacement, instability and a deterioration of social cohesion. The water crisis has grown steadily amid severe drought, upstream damming practices in Turkey and Iran, and increased domestic consumption within Iraq’s borders.

The bridge and causeway that used to run over the waters of the large man-made Lake Hamrin, northeast of Baqubah, Iraq. June 21, 2022. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
The bridge and causeway that used to run over the waters of the large man-made Lake Hamrin, northeast of Baqubah, Iraq. June 21, 2022. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

The impact of climate change grows with each passing year, and so does Iraq’s population — projected to reach 80 million by the year 2050 — while the country’s resources are decreasing. Temperatures in Iraq are rising roughly seven times faster than the global average, which diminishes water levels through evaporation. By the end of the century, water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will likely decline by a minimum of 30 percent and up to 70 percent, necessitating long-range planning of resource management, particularly in agricultural areas. The loss of agricultural livelihoods in water-scarce regions has already accelerated migration across Iraq’s southern and central provinces and provoked local-level disputes over water sharing. As of September 2023, the International Organization for Migration estimated that 130,788 individuals remained displaced due to factors related to drought conditions and acute water scarcity.

Amid this water crisis, a plethora of additional factors are threatening Iraq’s stability and progress, including the widening distrust between citizens and the state over services and corruption; divisive partisanship; armed groups acting with impunity; regional interference and the social and environmental impacts of decades of war. If unaddressed, water scarcity combined with these broader sources of fragility have the potential to undermine Iraq’s ambitious efforts for development — for example, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s “Development Road” project and the Kurdistan Region’s economic transformation plans. At a time when Iraqi citizens are calling for broad-based socioeconomic development, it is urgent that holistic, coordinated and effective measures ensure that the water crisis does not upend these aspirations.  

USIP, in collaboration with the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, has conducted research in 2023 on the drivers and consequences of Iraq’s water-scarcity crisis. Our findings underscore the importance of taking a systems-wide approach to water management in an era of climate change. Unlike other challenges, where Iraq works through a degree of compartmentalization of issues and makes progress at the local level, preventing the worst outcomes in Iraq’s water crisis will require a more holistic strategy that would span the full upstream-to-downstream spectrum. Urgent and sustained engagement is needed at all levels — regional, domestic and local.

Regional Dynamics

In an ideal regional political context, the riparian countries of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin (Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran) would coordinate together based on long-term and legally binding agreements. But divergent water management policies have thwarted this possibility. Iraq has witnessed a dramatic decline in water availability largely due to damming practices by upstream neighbors. Turkey has vastly expanded its network of southern dams as part of an increasingly ambitious state-managed water infrastructure program, while Iran has grown ever more determined to divert shared rivers toward fulfilling its immediate water needs.

At present, meaningfully addressing the problem of transboundary water sharing remains a distant prospect. A senior Iraqi official involved in negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of bilateral talks, reflected upon the feeling of frustration from the government’s perspective. “We, in Iraq, are unhappy about the share of the water we receive from Turkey and Iran. The water issue should not be looked at just as an Iraq problem,” the official said. “To secure our rightful share, we rely on negotiations first and foremost …. We do not want to resort to international courts or military solutions for securing our rights. Access to water is our legitimate right. We need something and they need something, and so negotiation is the way to solve the water-sharing problem bilaterally.”

Frustrations are high, but Iraq’s leverage is perceived to be low. Iraqi officials informed us that Tehran tends to make one-sided decisions without consultation with Iraqi partners, though some observers have noted that the empowerment of the Coalition Framework, considered to be Iran-backed, has coincided with slightly more reliable releases of water from the Karoon River. Talks over water with Turkey are more institutionalized and regular, and yet the existence of such talks has not translated into a much-needed formal agreement on damming practices and water allocations. At most, the Baghdad-Ankara dialogue has meant that Turkey has been more inclined to respond to Iraq’s requests for more water during times of extreme duress.

There are those within the Iraqi government and the international community who believe Iraq could use energy, trade and other areas as bargaining chips more effectively. To that end, the United Nations Development Programme has rolled out a capacity-building program in water negotiations benefitting officials from relevant government agencies such as the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Environment. The trainings focus on enhancing usage of data and “trade-offs,” equipping Iraqi negotiators to leverage the fact that Iraq and Turkey have $4 billion in cross-border commerce each year. Interviews with research participants underscored the program’s benefits and limitations, with one participant noting that it would “surely enhance the technical skills of negotiators” but “lacked participation from the most senior officials.”

Domestic Dynamics

Disputes over water do not stop once rivers pass through Iraq’s borders. The Kurdistan Region, situated in the north of Iraq, is home to some of the country’s largest dams and reservoirs, and 85% of the water in these dams travels southward beyond the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) into federal Iraq. Previous reports have suggested that the KRG might leverage this upstream position to wield influence over Baghdad by withholding water allocations, perhaps leading to conflict between the two sides. Our interviews with officials on both sides suggest that this framing of the Erbil-Baghdad divide misses the mark. The issue is less about the flow of water and more about the flow of finances. Officials in the KRG’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources repeatedly stressed that they “always” abide by Baghdad’s requirements for water. Similarly, officials and advisors in al-Sudani’s government noted that the KRG “never” puts water shares on the table as a threat in any negotiations on broader issues.

However, the KRG has grown increasingly aggrieved over the perceived lack of financial support from Baghdad for the maintenance of the very dams and water purification facilities that release water into the federal areas. “The wastewater from Erbil eventually flows to the Tigris and contaminates the river, and so if we treat the waste water in Erbil, we will prevent the contamination of the Tigris and stop the spread of diseases in the rest of Iraq,” noted Ali Rasheed Khoshnaw, the former head of Erbil’s Provincial Council, sharing his sentiment that Baghdad should be more cooperative on loans and other financial mechanisms benefitting Erbil’s water infrastructure.

With finances contested, key water treatment and purification plants in the Kurdistan Region have been long planned but not implemented on the ground, which directly impacts water quality from north to south. The dispute over finances is in the context of broader political disagreements between Erbil and Baghdad over budgetary allocations, which show no sign of abating.

Local Dynamics

The Erbil-Baghdad divide is not the only domestic fault line of concern. Particularly during the scorching and water-scarce summers, provincial authorities in southern Iraq have engaged in heated disputes over water allocations and limits, with downstream provinces accusing upstream provinces of consuming more than the share mandated by the Ministry of Water Resources. Such disagreements have been recorded between Basra and Maysan; Basra and Thi Qar; Babil, Diwaniyah and Muthana; Wasit and Diwaniyah; and Najaf and Diwaniyah. Disputes are also commonplace at the local level, as farmers living toward the end of an irrigation canal commonly claim that farmers upstream are siphoning off more water than allowed through illegal pipe extensions. The pervasiveness of such disputes speaks to the difficulty of achieving equitable water distribution at a time when the Ministry of Water Resources is imposing strict and wide-ranging water limits in agricultural areas as a drought response measure. Though the ministry insists that overall compliance with the restrictions has recently improved, the fact is that entire agricultural areas are buckling under the severity of the water limits, and more must be done to develop sustainable and long-term solutions for these communities. Achieving this will require a systems-wide approach across the relevant ministries dealing with farmers, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water Resources.

Gaps in Governance

Indeed, to address all the above challenges from the regional to the local level, the importance of enhancing the effectiveness of the core ministries with jurisdiction over water management cannot be underestimated. The main difficulty facing these particular ministries is that they are relatively marginal both politically and financially within the broader government system, and can only act effectively with the support of other ministries. For example, the Ministry of Water Resources is developing a new water management and infrastructure strategy; however, without support from the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Planning in addition to the parliament, the much-needed irrigation canals and water purification facilities included in these plans will never be realized on the ground. Similarly, the Ministry of Environment is tasked with taking the lead on climate change strategy, but sources within the ministry indicate that it struggles to access the most basic data and compliance from more powerful public entities, including the pivotal Ministry of Oil. It is normal for governments to have some level of interagency friction, but in the case of Iraq, the level of disconnect between ministries has become unsustainable in an era of climate change and water scarcity. 

Policy Implications

In the years to come, conditions will only grow worse. Climate models suggest that snowfall in the southeastern mountainous region of Turkey and southwestern Iran will depreciate significantly between now and 2050, thereby reducing melt into Iraq’s streams and rivers. By 2035, the gap between supply and demand will have reached nearly 11 billion cubic meters of water annually.

The international community has begun developing aid and development packages accordingly. Between 2021 and 2023, U.N. agencies and other major international organizations began rolling out an array of initiatives, programs and collaborations with the Iraqi government on climate change, environmental degradation and water scarcity. And yet, serious questions remain about both the priorities and long-term durability of international efforts and interventions. With ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, both humanitarian practitioners and Iraqi environmental activists alike fear that international funding will continue to decrease with each passing year. The international turn toward long-term development, including climate change programming, is based on a sense that Iraq is now relatively stable and ready to tackle challenges that do not pertain directly to a lack of security or humanitarian emergency. But the caveat is that funding levels remain a major question mark, with most Western officials in Baghdad expressing doubts about sustaining significant levels of international financing now that Iraq is the beneficiary of high oil prices and a surging economy.

One limitation of the international efforts is a tendency toward excessive focus on the local level, as these efforts are less hamstrung by bureaucracy and results are more likely. While sustainable farming and community resilience programming may benefit specific communities where water is scarce, such approaches do little to address the broader context of Iraq’s water crisis. Iraq has complex state-run water infrastructure with dozens of dams, layered irrigation systems and reservoirs. Water levels in the dams of the Kurdistan Region directly impact water levels in Basra. To make a meaningful difference in correcting problems in water quantity and quality, Iraq’s crumbling water infrastructure across the country’s varied regions requires urgent attention. For the international community’s efforts to count, they will have to avoid the pitfall of excessive localism and commit to sustained and holistic engagement at all levels of the federal and KRG water governance system.

The Iraqi government must lead and take the first step to develop — and subsequently implement — a comprehensive water strategy aligned with the realities of climate change. The Ministry of Water Resources has commissioned a study to assess the country’s water management policies and infrastructure. Simultaneously, the Ministry of the Environment is undergoing national strategic planning around climate change adaptation in coordination with U.N. agencies as well as the KRG’s Board of Environmental Protection and Improvement.

In a country with widespread distrust in government and fatigue toward policy reports, many are anticipating that these strategic documents will effectively be shelved upon completion, never seeing the light of day in terms of actual implementation. Al-Sudani, the federal government and the KRG leadership have the opportunity to cooperate to develop a track record of championing services and development in accordance with their respective government platforms, while charting an actionable course for Iraq to minimize destabilizing impacts of climate change and water scarcity.

Mac Skelton is executive director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS), American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS).

Zmkan Ali Saleem is a senior research fellow at IRIS, AUIS.

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