Iraq’s Dying Rivers

Iraq is in a fragile state, rapidly running out of water. The water crisis has grown in magnitude because it does not control the flow of its rivers. To what extent is this crisis undermining Iraq’s polity and in aiding IS revival?


Iraq was historically referred to as the ‘Cradle of Civilisation'  with the first urban settlers prospering on the lands between its two main rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. For hundreds of years, these rivers made Iraq one of the most fertile countries in West Asia.

The Shatt al-Arab is a 200 km long river formed by the confluence of Tigris and Euphrates. It winds through the Southern Iraqi city of Basra. The Shatt al-Arab fed many canals in the city giving Basra the name “Venice of the Middle East”. Close to 80% of the country’s revenue comes from Basra, which is also Iraq’s second-largest city housing 4 million people. Basra has the richest oil field in the world, Majnoon Oil Field and Iraq’s sole deepwater port, Umm Qasr, is also located here.

Today, these rivers systems stand thoroughly damaged by years of conflict, economic sanctions, regional political crises and pollution. The Gulf War of the 1990s severely damaged hydro-electric dams in the country. A 1991 United Nations Security Council report said that the war reduced Iraq to ‘pre-industrial ages'.  When Saddam Hussein was fighting rebels in 1993, the fighting was restricted to the Shatt al-Arab basin. He decided to weaponize the water and divert its flow away from the basin, which caused the region to turn into a desert. The 2003 US invasion further ruined much of the remaining infrastructure. 

Between 2006 to 2014, Iraq descended into a civil war, with the Islamic State insurgency rapidly growing. The ISIS further ruined water supply as they advanced southwards following the course of the two rivers. They began to weaponise the water by using it punish pro-government villages- blocking dams, poisoning the streams and deliberately releasing oil into the water-ways to enforce compliance. 


The water security crisis in Iraq has been growing over the years, now reaching disastrous proportions of the Euphrates currently flowing at a quarter of its normal flow. The agriculture that flourished between the two great rivers and accounted for 1/4thof the national GDP, is now reduced to 10%. One out of five people works in farming in Iraq, and the water shortage has forced them to seek alternative employment.  Poor economic and health conditions have turned farmers into refugees. Desperate for help and with the government failing them, they have turned to groups like the IS. This is proven by the fact that one of the worst-hit areas by the water crisis in Iraq’s Euphrates Basin,  comprising of cities like Ramadi, Fallujah and Haditha - have been reported to be functioning as the epicentre of IS revival. As per Peter Schwartzstein of Centre for Climate and Security, “While ISIS was not formed from environmental issues alone, there is a very clear link".

The water crisis has grown in magnitude because Iraq does not control the flow of its rivers. Essentially, 81% of Iraq’s water comes from its neighbouring countries who have been keeping more and more of it for themselves.

In this regard, Turkey’s South-Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP) is the leading cause of water supply being decreased for Iraq. GAP comprises of 22 dams on Tigris and Euphrates.  Syria has constructed three dams on the remaining flow of the Euphrates before it enters Iraq.

A similar situation prevails on the Tigris with Turkey having constructed close to a dozen dams to mitigate the flow of water towards Ankara. The Ilisu Dam by Turkey is its largest hydroelectric power project, built in spite of heavy objections from Iraq. To make matters worse, Iran has built close to 600 dams on the tributaries that water the Tigris.

The weaker flow of water has also allowed salt-water from the Persian Gulf, which both rivers empty into, to flow upstream. This has killed marine life and severely contaminated the water.

While the ISIS has been largely defeated and has lost control of its territories, there has been little or no improvement to the economic and social conditions of the populace, that would serve to protect against any future revival of ISIS.  Also, the damage done to the waterways is so vast that it will take years of work to heal. The Iraqi government since 2018 has launched multiple billion-dollar projects to try and revive the rivers. All have failed, as was seen in the 2018 Basra riots that broke out once water from the Shatt al-Arab became practically unusable. 

Regional politics is adding to the complexity of the situation. Turkey is one of the most powerful Middle Eastern countries, a NATO member and thus has a hold over Iraqi politics. Moreover, being the upstream country gives it many advantages. Former enemies Iran and Iraq began to grow closer post the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But the tussle for the Shatt al-Arab between the two countries, which was one of the leading causes of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, has still not been resolved.  


  • While scholars’ debate upon future conflicts based on water resources, Iraq is actually living the nightmare. The world must study the Iraqi situation and seek solutions which can be applied globally.
  • The region lacks a comprehensive Water Management Treaty encompassing all the countries dependent on these river systems.  Turkey, Syria and Iraq need to decide on the use of the water-based upon the Theory of Territorial Integration of all basin states - which stipulates that each country is entitled to an equal share of the river waters, regardless of its geographical location.  However, entrenched national interests of upstream countries are unlikely to change the existing status quo.
  • A US Energy Information Administration report has claimed that since 2014, Turkey has been importing almost 27% of its oil from Iraq. Iraq is also strategically important to Turkey from a security perspective as attacks on its soil via IS and Kurdish terror groups have been increasing. Iraq needs to leverage this to bargain for a fair water-sharing agreement.
  • Turkey recognises the ominous signs of unrest in Iraq and the impact that would have on its own security. It has formed a 50-member working group to formulate an action plan which will have to be a balanced one, to mitigate Iraq’s water woes. Ideally, such a plan should be crafted under the aegis of a neutral body like the World Bank, akin to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, effective since 1960.
  • The water crisis is acute in southern Iraq, which is largely populated by Shias. The water flows here after crossing the Sunni Arab and Kurdish controlled areas who can block the water through dams at Mosul, Samarra and Fallujah. These are the same towns where IS revival is being reported.  Therefore, despite the present destruction of IS in the Levant, the water crisis will continue to give rise to internal/external conflicts.
  • To effectively manage existing water resources, Iraq must fix its worn-out agricultural practices. The adoption of new and modern techniques of agriculture is essential to overcome this water crisis.

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