Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Iraq's water crisis threatens its economic and politcial development
While Middle East analysts have focused on the Arab-Israeli dispute, Islamic radicalism and nuclear proliferation, a more serious problem looms ever larger, namely the shortage of water facing many of the region’s countries. Despite being known as Mesopotamia - the Land Between the Two Rivers - Iraq is confronting what could be an existential challenge. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which have given life to the Fertile Crescent, are in the process of being significantly degraded, threatening not only Iraq’s agriculture but virtually all aspects of the country’s life. What are the origins and development of this crisis? What the probable political outcomes of Iraq’s severe water shortages and can their negative consequences be confronted?
The argument is often made that the Iraqi state has not, historically, pursued prudent water control and preservation projects. In this view, Iraq’s water shortage problem is a function of state policies which have both neglected and even exacerbated it. This argument does have some merit. However, it fails to recognize that many steps were taken by various governments during the 20th century to try and control and better allocate the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.
The Hindiya Barrage, built on the Euphrates River in 1913 by the famous British engineer, Sir William Wilcox, was the first effort to control the Tigris and Euphrates river system. The Kut al-Amara Barrage, which was constructed between 1935 and 1939 by 2500 Arab and Kurdish workers had a salutary impact on farming, spreading irrigation to a wide area surrounding the barrage. The Wadi Tharthar Project, created by the Iraq Development Board with funding from the World Bank, is set in a large depression near the city of Samarra, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad. It was begun in 1952 and intended to protect Baghdad from the annual flooding of the Tigris River and to increase irrigation waters which could provide irrigation for a half million acres when filled to capacity. The Samarra Barrage, opened in 1956, is part of the diversion scheme to funnel excess water to the Wadi Tharthar. Lake Habanniya, a natural lake near al-Ramadi, has been used since 1956 to contain the flow of the Euphrates when a barrage was built to divert excess water to it.
The Falluja Barrage, first proposed in 1923, was not built until much later, having been completed in 1985 with the intent of expanding irrigation in al-Anbar Province. The al-Haditha Dam, constructed between 1977 and 1987, was designed to produce hydroelectric power, regulate the waters of the Euphrates and increase irrigation around the town of al-Haditha. In 1980, a German consortium began work on the Mosul Dam which was intended to capture the snow runoff from Turkish mountains to the north, to provide hydroelectric power and expand irrigation. The dam is the fourth largest of its kind in the Middle East. Historically, it seems clear that many of the water projects in Iraq have benefited the north central or so-called Sunni Arab triangle.
In the Kurdish region, there is the Dukan (Dokan) Dam, in al-Sulaimaniya Province, on which construction began in 1954 and which came on line in 1959. Initially intended for irrigation, by 1979, it also was able to produce hydroelectric power. Over time, it became so degraded that its ability to produce electricity today cannot be relied upon. The other large dam in the Kurdish region is the Bekhme Dam Project about which more is said below.
It should be clear from this cursory overview that a variety of Iraqi governments have taken water issues seriously. What analysts really mean when they speak of the state’s neglect of water issues is the period between 1980 and 2003 when wars and political instability curtailed most state-run projects. Under Saddam Husayn’s rule, dams and barrages were built in many areas south of Baghdad between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers not for agriculture but to drain them for military training purposes (Islam Online; 2008). The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2003 effectively stopped all projects designed to deal with Iraq’s water needs. As pointed out in an excellent article in al-Sharq al-Awsat (Feb. 8, 2010) by Dr. Hasan al-Janabi, Iraq's representative to the FAO in Roem, it was only in the 1990s that Iraq began to face serious water problems.
During the war, Turkey built tunnels that were completed in 1986,diverting one-fifth of the Euphrates River’s water to the huge Ataturk Reservoir. Because Iraq did not want to antagonize Turkey during its war with Iran, it offered only muted protests against Turkey’s actions. Here is a clear example how Saddam’s wars negatively impinged upon Iraq’s water needs.
Despite the tremendous casualties during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, and Intifada of February-March, 1991, Iraq’s population nevertheless increased from 13 million in 1980 to over 29 million in 2010. During a period when the country’s resources should have targeted to increase agricultural productivity and food supplies, they were instead diverted to two disastrous wars. Indeed, the UN allied coalition bombing of Iraq in January 1991 pushed Iraq back to industrial levels of the early 1960s.
The most obvious impact of the water crisis has been its impact on Iraqi agriculture, both in the northern and southern portions of the country. Although Iraq’s main source of revenues is derived from oil, agriculture still plays a key role in much of the country. In 2009, 25% of the population was employed in agriculture which generates 10% of GDP. In Diyala Province, one of Iraq’s most unstable areas, 70% of the province is dependent on agriculture.
Iraqi agriculture was already in a weakened condition in 2003 after 12 years of UN sanctions which prevented any form of major development or improvements. By 2002, 80-100% of many of Iraq’s staples were imported. Even though Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces became an autonomous region in 1991, still Iraqi Kurdistan was importing 65% of its agricultural products in 2006 with its own agricultural sector only producing 35% of the region’s needs.
Irrigation in Iraq has been severely curtailed through a combination of drought, restrictions of water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates by its two upriver neighbors, Syria and Turkey, a lowering of the water table of underground aquifers due to excessive pumping, and by the inability of post-2003 governments to implement a national policy to conserve water and regulate water flows.
Rice production has been severely curtailed and even banned by the government in southern Iraq because not enough water is available to allow it to be cultivated. This problem has cultural overtones, making it more difficult for Iraqis to purchase high quality and expensive Anbar rice which is coveted in Europe for making beer and by Iraqis for meals during religious holidays. Many rice farmers have been reduced to collecting and selling salt gathered from drainage ditches along the Euphrates River.
The outcome of reduced agricultural output is that Iraq has been forced to import more food crops from abroad. The necessity to import food crops from abroad places greater strain on Iraqi hard currency reserves because food prices worldwide are on the rise (“UN Data Notes Sharp Rise in Food Prices,” The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2011 ).
Although the northern part of Iraq benefits from greater rainfall than the south, this region has suffered from its own problems with water which are both naturally induced and political in nature. Due to neglect and over pumping of wells, lack of government technical support, and political instability, many of the underground canals (karez/qanat) that have provided irrigation waters since time immemorial to Kurdish, Arab, Turkman and farmers of other ethnic groups in the north have been destroyed. A 2009 UNESCO study found that, after 4 years of drought, 70% of the karez that were still operating in 2005, the year the drought began, had been abandoned. This led to the displacement of 100,000 people in northern Iraq.
Much of this destruction of northern Iraq’s irrigation system occurred during the 1980s when Saddam Husayn decided to ethnically reconfigure the region of the Ninewa plains by removing Kurds who lived and farmed there. During the notorious Anfal Campaign, between 1986 and 1989, 3.5 million Kurds and other minorities were displaced and as many as 150,000 people died. Hundreds of villages were destroyed and with them the irrigation infrastructure that had supported them.
In the south, which has not received as much state attention to water resources as the north (e.g., it received much less electricity than Baghdad or Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces during the 1990s), the situation is dire in many areas. Iraq’s signature agricultural crop, date production, one that has defined Iraq’s culture over time, has suffered not only from the persistent drought, but from the drop in the water level of the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates join, which has resulted in the increased salinization of the river water. Many date palms have died in the far south and the entire industry in this region is threatened with destruction.
With the significant decline in the size of Iraq’s lakes, many have become highly saline making it difficult for fish to reproduce. Fishermen on Iraq’s lakes have also been adversely affected. Many have been forced to leave the Lake Habbaniya area and move to urban areas where they place more pressure on limited government services and employment. This also means that urban areas receive smaller amounts of fish, the amount of which had already been in decline due to the pollution of the Tigris River which led the Iraqi government to ban fishing in it in the area around Baghdad.
Virtually all Iraq’s industries, from cement to oil, are adversely affected by the water shortage problem that the country is facing. Water is necessary for cement and oil production and for many other forms of manufacturing. Once a rural area loses its agriculture production, small industries can also be hurt as they lose the farmers who often serve as part-time workers in these industries to supplement their farm income.
While the al-Maliki government has provided a limited amount of loans to farmers to help them improve agricultural output, there is little official infrastructure through which to make these loans effective. The government has not provided loan guarantees for potential agribusiness investment. With water levels dropping, increased soil salinity and the lack of government support for agricultural exports, the incentive for companies to invest in agriculture has declined. Many government officials support the ban on agricultural imports because otherwise Iraqi farmers could not compete. However, many likewise favor price supports for consumers so that they will not be adversely affected by the sharp rise in local food prices.
An important outcome is that, once economic activity has been adversely affected in rural areas, it is often difficult to reintroduce it (something we already see in the KRG farm sector). Once crops have been destroyed and farmers have been forced to leave their land, it is not easy to entice these farmers or other agricultural workers to return to the land if suitable conditions of cultivation cannot be reestablished, and if they do not have access to urban amenities.
Not all is doom and gloom. In Ninewa Province, Iraq’s breadbasket, grain production of wheat and barley grew by 370% in 2010 due to favorable rains followed by mild winter temperatures and is expected to have continued high productivity in 2011. This is also true of Arbil, Dohuk, Sulaimaniya and al-Tamim governorates.
At present, the greatest problems caused by the water shortage are being felt by those sectors of the Iraqi populace who are most adversely affected by the drought and its social, economic and cultural impact. Peasant farmers who have been forced to migrate from their ancestral villages to urban areas where life is very difficult are angry that the government has done little to help them sustain their farms. Among families who remain in the villages (and those in urban slums), the lack of fresh drinking water, which requires purchasing water from private tanker trucks, places an added economic burden on the family.
Others who have been adversely affected by Iraq’s water shortages are urban consumers who see the prices of vegetables, fruits and grains rising sharply. Price rises are both due to reduced size of crop output and a government policy designed to help farmers by banning foreign imports of many agricultural products. Prices of vegetables have doubled in some parts of Iraq. While the Ministry of Agriculture has banned the import of a variety of fruits and vegetables to protect Iraqi farmers, the policy has created outrage among many consumers. Water affects the price equation in another manner because farmers need to resort to pumps to bring water deep in wells to the surface given the contraction of Iraq’s aquifers, further adding to the costs of production.
In the KRG, we see a more focused problem as many peasant farmers were already forced off their land by Saddam Husayn’s Anfal Campaign (1986-1989) and/or by the degradation of the Kurdish agricultural sector due to neglect on the part of the two dominant political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) after the region became autonomous in 1991.
Because so many farmers have been forced to leave their farms, many are now dependent on the KRG for their livelihoods as an estimated 90% of all jobs in the KRG are under the patronage control of the KDP and PUK. Because Kurds need to have ties to and influence (wasta) in one of these two parties, securing employment is often not easy. With the inflation rate in the KRG putting sharp pressure on salaries, which have not risen as quickly, there is much resentment towards the KRG leadership, as I discovered in my own interviews with Kurds, which is seen as permeated by corruption and nepotism.
There has been some effort by the KRG to lure Kurds back to agricultural pursuits. This would make the KRG less dependent on food imports and reduce population pressures on urban areas. However, Kurds will be reluctant to pursue farming unless there is a good livelihood to be made. And such a livelihood will not be possible unless local water resources are improved.
As water shortages place ever greater constraints on Iraqi agriculture, a process that began in the 1920s and 1930s has increased, namely migration from rural to urban areas (especially by the so-called al-shurugi/pl. al-shargawiya). This not only depopulates villages but undermines tribal and other social networks. This creates an ever larger social stratum that lacks employment, housing and other social services once migrants arrive in towns or, more often, large urban areas such as Baghdad or Basra.
Young people are more inclined to migrate from rural areas than their elders. Older farmers are usually more tied to the land, often more fearful that leaving the land will not produce a better outcomes than remaining in the village, or too infirm to leave. This creates a “perfect storm” for political instability because youth are more susceptible to recruitment by criminal gangs and sectarian organizations when they arrive in urban areas and are unable to find employment and lack social connections that would help them find employment, housing and other services.
As US forces have withdrawn from Iraq, new sectarian militias have emerged in the south of Iraq, while the so-called Islamic State of Iraq has increased its acts of violence in the so-called Sunni Arab triangle and in Baghdad and Mosul. One of the drivers of this new uptick in violence is not just the recent nine month imbroglio over forming a new government as Iraq’s political elite fought over the prime ministerial post and cabinet positions, but also the rising unemployment of youth as the government still has not been able to confront this problem in a serious manner.
As Muqtada al-Sadr has now returned to Iraq, and his movement holds important posts within the new al-Maliki government, it will be in a better position to increase its strength by channeling discontent against Iraq’s political elites among the urban masses whose day to day economic status is very precarious.
Political tensions have already emerged between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG over the Bekhme Dam Project. The idea of the project was first put forth in 1950, but it was only under Saddam Husayn’s regime that it began in earnest. Already in 1975, villages were depopulated in anticipation of building the dam and filling a large valley with water which would produce irrigation, significant hydroelectric power - enough to power the homes today of most Kurds in the KRG - and create tourist attractions. The problem with the dam is that it will displace several Kurdish villages and inundate priceless historical sites that relate to ancient Kurdish culture. Because the dam will be placed on the Greater Zab River, which supplies 33% of the Tigris’ waters, Baghdad has reacted with alarm that the KRG wants to build it.
With the central government and the KRG already struggling over control of oil in the north of Iraq, over the city of Kirkuk, over villages along the so-called Green Line that separates the KRG from the Arab provinces to the southwest, and control of the peshmerga, the KRG militia, adding the problem of water resources will only make a bad situation significantly worse.
It is true that myriad laws and regulations exist from the period of the Hashimite monarchy (1921-1958) and onwards that are intended to regulate water usage. However, most of these rules are not obeyed, e.g., restricting the use of water for irrigation purposes, because neither the central government or the KRG has the power or the will to enforce them. To date, both Baghdad and the KRG have been focusing on different issues, such as control of Iraq’s oil resources, control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk, and the military balance of power between the two governments.
Only when the central government and the KRG realize the extent to which water shortages can have disastrous consequences for both parties will there be an incentive for the two sides to cooperate in developing a national Iraqi water policy that can serve both Arabs and Kurds. If the other main issues that separate the two sides see some progress - which is highly doubtful in the short term - then water issues may also be treated in a more systematic and cooperative manner.
What policy changes can we expect in the near term? As an indicator of government concern with the water shortage problem, Minister of Water Resources, 'Abd al-Latif al-Rashid, signed a $35 million contract in April 2010 with two Italian firms (MED and SGI) to develop a comprehensive water resources plan for Iraq through 2035. At a Baghdad conference on water resources in 2009, government officials spoke of an impending disaster. In discussing the drop in water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Ali Baban, the Minister of Planning, was quoted as saying that, “Our agriculture is going to die, our cities are going to wilt, and no state can keep quiet in such a situation.”
For the first time, Iraqi officials seem to be taking seriously the need to develop a regional water policy and no longer view the problem of water shortages as simply a domestic issue. Ali Baban visited Turkey and Syria and made the case that Iraq needs their cooperation if it is to avert a national water crisis. Inserting himself once again into important domestic issues, Grand Ayatallah Ali al-Sistani has proposed that Iraq provide oil at reduced prices to those countries (meaning Turkey Syria and Iran) that provide Iraq with water.
The KRG needs to reconsider its water policies. A prominent Kurdish engineer who worked on the proposed Bekhme Dam believes that it can be broken down into several smaller manageable dams without having a detrimental impact on the region where they would be constructed. He argues that 90% of the building material for these small dams could be generated from the site and the surrounding areas, making the dams less destructive of surrounding villages as well as more cost effective. The engineer also points out that all of Iraq’s dams are in poor condition and in need of repair. This state of affairs was especially evident after the US invasion of 2003 when there were fears that the Mosul Dam might collapse. Here is an area, namely dam repair, where the Federal Government and the KRG could cooperate in sharing information on dams and in making the necessary repairs.
One area where little has been done is that of water conservation. The winter runoff of waters from the mountains in the KRG could be used in the summer throughout Iraq, but is not being so used at the moment. A team of foreign experts, in addition to the Italian companies already under contract with the Iraqi government, should be brought to Iraq to develop a sound conservation policy, and more effective means of finding above and underground safe water storage. The more time that passes, the worse the crisis and its long-term consequences for Iraq will become.