Water wanted in the land of plenty

Peter Harling

Iraq, as a society, sprang from an abundance of water. Its ancient name, Mesopotamia, literally means “between the rivers” and what rivers they are: The mighty Euphrates, surging from the Eastern Anatolian highlands through the Syrian desert, soon flirts with the elegant Tigris, which flows at the feet of the Zagros mountains that run along the western border of Iran. They unite to form a flat, fertile plain, which bore fruit that would change humanity’s fate: This is where we learned, hundreds of millennia after mastering fire, to put water at our service.

Some 7,000 years ago, inhabitants of these areas—also known as the Fertile Crescent—developed a combination of flood irrigation and animal-powered ploughing, which in turn enabled the cultivation of grain crops and orchards. This breakthrough was part of a series of domestications concerning both animals (dogs, sheep, cows, camels) and plants (dates, grapes, olives, pomegranates, and melons, alongside cereals like wheat and legumes like chickpeas and lentils). Out of this new diet emerged populous cities, demanding increasingly sophisticated forms of administration. While farmers yoked donkeys and oxen, proto-bureaucratic elites harnessed the oldest known writing system: cuneiform. 

Iraq is deeply shaped by this heritage, which also belongs to our universal culture. This land of lore is the presumed location of the earthly paradise of Eden, where humankind was washed away in the Bible’s Great Flood and where fabled gardens later graced Babylon. The Euphrates and Tigris gush through Iraqi veins as an infinite source of life, pride, and social routines. A glass brimming with water will greet you the moment you enter a home or an office—before anyone asks what you would like to drink. Public spaces display electric water dispensers, which now replace a venerable tradition that survived until the 1990s: the hib, a large clay jar set out on the streets, which passersby would dip into using a communal tin cup hanging by a chain.

Iraq’s environment is striking back

Today, this bountiful legacy is a relic of the past. Iraq’s water supply is growing ever more precarious and yet the country continues to consume—and pollute—as if there were no tomorrow. This abuse of Iraq’s most precious resource implicates every rung of state and society and threatens every aspect of people’s lives—from food security and public health to geopolitics and even oil extraction.

Iraq’s environment, indeed, is striking back. Increasingly violent rainstorms and flash floods have swamped cities and devastated rural areas. Sandstorms are multiplying, stirring up clouds of ochre-colored dust which coats buildings inside and out—lending family homes the eerie sense of having been abandoned for years. Seasonal droughts are protracting, sometimes stretching over two to three consecutive years: The latest bouts left vast tracts of farmland parched and strewn with underfed livestock. 

In other words, the setting of a sanctified past is being degraded to the point of inviting an apocalyptic future. A young man in Baghdad, who grew up amid every form of manmade turmoil, summarized the country’s vulnerability to climate change: “And now comes nature’s insurgency.” 

Blame thy neighbor

As Iraq devours its water, Iraqis tend to rationalize shortages through a deceptively soothing lens: They blame their neighbors for hoarding the blue gold they see as their birthright. “We shouldn’t even be importing foodstuffs from Turkey, Syria, or Iran,” grumbled a senior official at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has long worked the water file. “Those fruits and vegetables are grown with water taken from us, which we end up buying back.” Statements made in response to Iraq’s recurring droughts invariably circle back to the deleterious practices of riparian states.

Indeed, the Euphrates and the Tigris both depend heavily on contributions from other states—mostly Turkey and Iran, which siphon off the rivers upstream. In the 1970s, Ankara—like Baghdad during the same period—invested massively in damming. Six of the 22 dams originally envisioned in Turkey have yet to be completed—a prospect that looms large over Iraq’s horizon. By the end of the process, the Euphrates debit may be down to a quarter of its original volume. Already, the total water storage capacity in Turkey exceeds the combined annual outflow of the two rivers. Thus Ankara could, if it wanted to, turn the taps off in Iraq for an entire year. Such clout was visible in the late 1990s: The inauguration of large dams in Turkey transformed the Tigris into a wretched rivulet Baghdad residents could wade across—a scene framed by broad bridges that made it more agonizing still.
Source: World Health Organisation Aquastat, 2009.

More recently, drought-ridden Iran has sought to contain and redistribute its water resources domestically. This has meant diverting major tributaries flowing into the Tigris, notably the Sirwan and the Karoun. Adding insult to injury, Iran has converted such waterways into outlets for its domestic, agricultural, and industrial wastewaters, which it pumps across the border instead of treating at home. “All we see of Iran is militias, drugs, and sewage,” complained an inhabitant of Basra, Iraq’s second largest and southernmost city. The stench rising from the oily surface of the Shatt al-Arab—the waterway formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates—seemed to reinforce the point.

(Syria, by contrast, has in recent years been too consumed by conflict to add to Iraq’ woes. Yet its recovery will hinge on a revived agricultural sector, which will rely heavily on withdrawals from the Euphrates.) 

Surrounded by thirsty upstream neighbors, Iraq enjoys little leverage to defend its stake in the two great rivers. Formal water-sharing agreements have piled up in stages since 1920 and are mostly ignored. It is hard to imagine how Iraq’s fragmented, short-sighted, and self-serving political class could obtain better terms today. But these stakes are at once daunting and overstated. While they pervade Iraq’s popular consciousness, they also distract from safekeeping resources in ways that have little relation to geopolitics.

Vanishing wealth

This skewed focus flows, in part, from how the Euphrates dominates Iraq’s psyche: The river is stunning—akin to an oasis that stretches miraculously across hundreds of miles of desert. But it is also Iraq’s most precarious source of water, whose steady decline makes it as anxiety-inducing as it is awe-inspiring. The Tigris, by contrast, is less extravagant but far more crucial: Its basin feeds two-thirds of Iraq’s irrigated land. It is also more dependable, as half of its total outflow originates inside Iraq.

Indeed, most of Iraq’s water problems—and virtually all of its possible solutions—reside within its borders. Although an estimated 97 percent of its territory is classified as arid or semi-arid, Iraq remains water-rich by regional standards: In 2014, it enjoyed 2,500 cubic meters of renewable fresh water per capita—more than the United Kingdom or Germany. No other Arab state exceeds 1,000, while truly scarce countries like Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Libya fall under 100.

This abundance shapes the country’s landscape as much as its culture. Iraq’s vast deserts coexist with sprawling wetlands in the South, verdant orchards in the East, rainfed plains in the Northwest, the snowcapped mountains of Kurdistan, and palm groves everywhere. The latter hold a world record with some 20 million trees. Aside from archeology, internal tourism revolves around dams, artificial reservoirs, boat rentals, and island-based leisure parks. The country’s national dish, masgouf, is a fish, which Iraqis never seem to eat enough of. It is best served with amber rice—a local, fragrant variety cropped through flood irrigation. 

Missteps have long chastened the overconfident

Those riches, however, tend to disappear as fast as they can regenerate. Iraq produces annually,within its boundaries, an estimated 22 billion cubic meters of fresh water, while 19 billion evaporate in its searing climate. Evaporation, therefore, is what makes the country so dependent on external inflows. Much of it takes place in the vast artificial lakes Iraq uses as reservoirs, which are as ill-suited to the country’s environment as they are central to its water management policies. The lush southern wetlands likewise endure massive losses, which in turn threaten a host of other flora and fauna plugged into their ecosystem. 

Iraq thus lives in a constant tension between dearth and plenty. Historically, the country’s very existence was always premised on careful management of its uncertain water wealth. Four thousand years ago, drought and famine laid waste to the powerful Akkadian empire. As early as 1700 B.C., clay tablets recorded the threat posed to agriculture by mounting soil salinity. In the 10th century, the opulent Abbasid caliphate owed part of its decline to the destruction of the Nahrawan canal—the waterway which made central Iraq the breadbasket of Islam’s golden era. Missteps, in other words, have long chastened the overconfident.

Forecast: climate change

Today’s shifting climate evokes such cautionary tales. Temperatures have been rising slowly but surely. In 2016, Basra registered a temperature of 53.9 degrees centigrade—almost the world record. Precipitation has declined in parallel: A young activist in Baghdad estimated that snowfall in the Northeast had dropped by a third compared to historical standards. Farmers in the northwestern plains, dubbed the “rain corridor,” worry about waning precipitation for cropping cereals and grazing livestock. World Bank projections warn of a calamitous two degree increase in average temperatures by 2050 and an almost ten percent drop in annual rainfall. That shift would exacerbate evaporation issues and tip Iraq from precarity into full-blown crisis.

Such trends will intersect with and reinforce a range of other problems. Region-wide water stress is likely to strain relations with upriver states, whose own water woes will render them even less cooperative. Climate change, moreover, could spur self-perpetuating dynamics. Scientists believe sandstorms, for example, impair cloud formation in ways that further diminish rainfall. 

Human behavior often adds to the problem. In the summer months, Iraqis tend to retreat into a blizzard of air-conditioning, which spews as much hot air on the outside as it stirs up cold winds indoors. They also cool themselves through tremendously wasteful systems based on evaporation, such as the old-styled mubarrida fan, which pumps air through soaked straw; drenching sidewalks; and spraying water into the atmosphere. An Iraqi aid worker noticed incredulously the “open showers that people use to freshen up” in the popular market of Shorja.

Source: Mohamed El Raey, Impact of sea level rise on the Arab region, Regional Center for Disaster Risk Reduction, undated. 
Ironically, Iraq is simultaneously threatened by excess water of the wrong kind. The rivers’ dwindling outflow has invited rising seawater, in the form of creeping incursions up the Shatt al-Arab. Rising sea levels resulting from global warming could spell disaster in the flat plains of the South: A one-meter increase would uproot Basra’s two million residents, while a three-meter surge would reach 150 kilometers inland and swamp millions more.

Climate change also means that when it rains, it pours. A storm-related crisis now occurs almost every year. Iraq misses the chance to collect and store such rainfall, which overwhelms the sewers instead. In Baghdad, tanker trucks could be seen in April 2019 sucking up water in some places only to dump it in others, taking water management into the realm of the absurd. An activist lamented: “Water capture techniques are mostly used in water-scarce countries. We don’t have that psyche.” As if to prove the point, a senior water official dismissed storm waters as “negligible,” although they regularly bring the entire city of Baghdad to a halt.

Ravenous agriculture

While climate change renders Iraq’s water resources more precarious, the country’s wildly inefficient agricultural sector brings it closer to the brink. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that it guzzles some 80 percent of the country’s total water consumption. Much of this goes toward “strategic crops” such as wheat and barley, reflecting a decades-old effort to achieve food self-sufficiency. This objective traces back to the 1960s statist drive and remains the government’s paramount objective to this day.

Yet Iraq remains hopelessly dependent: The country still imports more wheat than it produces domestically, purchasing between three and four million tons from abroad every year. This arrangement is spectacularly costly in both water and cash: While agricultural output typically hovers around a mere three percent of GDP, the Iraqi state annually spends roughly $5 billion—or two percent of GDP—importing basic foodstuffs to compensate for domestic shortfalls. The country’s demographics suggest this hunger for imports is likely to continue: Iraq’s population doubled between 1970 and 1995, doubled again to 40 million today, and is set to grow at an increasing rate.

Extravagantly low returns on investment will only worsen as Iraq’s agricultural practices poison the soil through rising salinity—a problem that relates to the use of alluvial silt as fertilizer, overirrigation, poor drainage, and evaporation. “Our farmers’ suffering has much to do with the techniques they employ,” commented a water expert and activist. “To this day they resort to the same irrigation methods that prevailed thousands of years ago.” With a twist…

Iraq’s population will grow at an increasing rate

Historically, seasonal river flooding would help wash the land of its salt, but a complex system of embankments, dams, and reservoirs made such cycles disappear by the mid-twentieth century. Since, Iraq is said to have lost to salinity more than a third of the total surface currently used for agriculture. Three quarters of all irrigated lands could face the same fate. On the outskirts of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, a former arable plot now serves as a football pitch where children play not on dust, but a ghostly white crust. In the Southern Dhi Qar, salt is so abundant that poor families collect it for industrial purposes–literally scraping a living.

Even where the crescent remains fertile, cereal yields are ominously low. Iraq produces wheat at a rate of two tons per hectare—just half the global average per World Bank figures. Worse, its financial value is minimal: Virtually every other major crop generates more revenue while using a fraction of the land. Tomatoes, for instance, bring in twice as much money while using one fiftieth as much acreage. Like date palms, tomatoes tolerate brackish water and are thus more resilient than other crops in the face of growing salinity. For all that, however, wheat and its more robust cousin barley remain the overwhelming focus of Iraq’s agricultural sector.

Such incongruities have not gone altogether unnoticed. On the contrary, countless Iraqi and international experts have trumpeted the need for common sense reforms. These include introducing meters to measure consumption; moving from flood irrigation toward underground piping and drip irrigation, to reduce evaporation; and introducing proper drainage for the 75 percent of irrigated land endangered by salinity.

In the fertile crescent yields are ominously low

Such measures, however, have failed to materialize for several reasons. The first is psychological, rooted in the country’s almost timeless agricultural heritage. Iraqis cannot help but see their country as uniquely fertile. How, indeed, could humanity’s original breadbasket not be self-sufficient? How could the Euphrates and Tigris fail to feed their progeny? Baathist ideology echoed and amplified this line of thinking, turning the power of water into an essential component of national identity and sovereignty.

A peculiar, destructive symptom of this belief in Iraq’s infinite fertility is society’s rampant annexation of arable land: Across Baghdad, both private citizens and companies illegally raze orchards and nurseries in order to erect housing units, leisure resorts, and even an expansive private medical university. On the city’s outskirts, whole palm groves have been torched by unknown arsonists, leaving a forest of charred trunks foreboding buildings to come. The same officials who preach self-sufficiency cash in on such speculative pillaging either through authorizing these schemes or investing in them.

A second factor is built into the country’s institutions. Contemporary Iraq retains eerie relics of the Mesopotamian city-state, emulated by Baathist statism—where central authorities owned the land, controlled production, bought the output, and redistributed food to the populace. This explains why most farmers remain destitute, cultivate small plots, and rely heavily on the state for poor-quality seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, and other inputs. They use water that is virtually free, subsidized down to $0.0002 per cubic meter—one of the lowest rates in the world. In return, Baghdad reserves the right to purchase all strategic crops at low, fixed prices.

Source: Le Monde Diplomatique, 2001.
The system is naturally riddled with red tape that dissuades investments. What projects do materialize tend to be high-profile and symbolic, such as a Saudi-funded scheme to grow wheat in the desert by pumping Iraq’s diminishing groundwater into pivoting sprinklers.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s ruling class remains focused on quick gains, in ways that negate any possibility for forward-thinking. Although Baghdad completed a grand Strategy for Water and Land Resources in 2015, the report—which cost an eye-popping 36 million euros—hasn’t seen the light of day. “That was a major accomplishment, but it has yet to be made public, let alone implemented,” said a senior official involved in the process. “All our catastrophes haven’t spurred any sign of interest within the government.” An activist echoed the point: “In four years, we couldn’t even obtain a draft of this gold-plated report. It has since been updated by another company and the new version is just as invisible.” 

However, the elites’ sleaze and torpor doesn’t account for a third, crucial factor, in which a majority of Iraqis are complicit. Iraqi society is tied together by a skewed social contract, whereby citizens feel entitled to their share of the country’s riches—a legitimate right that also translates into graft, unproductive state employment, and free public services. Every Iraqi is thus eligible, regardless of income, to the Public Distribution System—a food allocation scheme established in 1991 to offset a grueling international trade embargo, which ended in 2003 with the American occupation. This anachronistic arrangement, which makes no distinction between needy Iraqis and wealthy ones, is what costs the state some $5 billion per year in imported supplies. 

Iraq’s outdated and inefficient agricultural practices form a core component of this patronage system: They keep afloat roughly ten million rural inhabitants—a quarter of the population—who depend on farming for their livelihoods, suffer from rising poverty and unemployment, and threaten to overwhelm already crammed cities through ongoing migration. These farmers see the least of Iraq’s great oil treasures; in exchange, they are given the lion’s share of its water wealth to squander. But other economic sectors and segments of society are equally to blame.

Open taps, open sewers

Water wasting is almost universal in Iraq. On a daily basis, the average Iraqi consumes 392 liters of water for domestic purposes only—almost twice the international average of 200, according to a Baghdad-based UNICEF official. That exorbitant quantity costs residents a staggeringly low $1.4 per year—assuming they even pay their bills, which is infrequent. At that price, many homeowners don’t hesitate to leave taps open and flood their gardens even in the sizzling hours of the day.

The oil industry is guilty of even more spectacular misuse. Blue gold is literally swapped for black gold: Every barrel of oil extracted is replaced by a barrel and a half of water pumped into to the oil field in its stead, to maintain pressure and thus production. The precise impact of this practice has been subject to debate. An Iraqi think tank specialized in energy issues estimates that the oil industry currently needs around 400 million cubic meters of water per year—a relatively modest figure compared with the country’s overall resources. A senior official thus smugly dismissed the issue: “The oil companies use an insignificant amount of water and they don’t draw from the rivers. They mainly use agricultural wastewater. So the value far exceeds any potential damage.”

The full picture is more complicated. In 2010, Iraq’s oil-rich southern provinces experienced water shortages of 400 million cubic meters—the equivalent of what was simultaneously thrust underground. Anecdotal evidence also casts doubt on the premise that oil companies rely primarily on wastewater: A health worker based in Baghdad complained that oil company contractors fill their tankers with whatever water is nearest, to reduce costs and increase margins. The subject, however, remains taboo. “It’s an unusually dangerous topic,” warned an activist. “Oil majors purchase water from Iraqi companies run by people affiliated with militias.” 

Water wasting is almost universal in Iraq

Obvious alternatives, such as piping seawater, would require investments that are repeatedly postponed. This reflects a pervasive mindset whereby water runs freely and inexhaustibly—contrary to oil, which is recognized as costly to exploit, valuable, and finite. Tellingly, the privileged Ministry of Oil enjoyed in 2018 a budget almost 50 times that of the derelict Ministry of Water Resources. 

The latter, which was known as the Ministry of Irrigation until 2003, has inherited an expansive infrastructure built for flood control and irrigation purposes, in a country that has neglected every other aspect of water management. The institution has minimal capacity for data collection and forecasting, which in turn undermines its management of dams, reservoirs, and canals. Administrative structures are equally messy: An expert from southern Iraq grumbled that any water-related initiative could face overlapping interference from the ministries of transportation, roads and bridges, and finance, among others.

Such incoherencies have helped make Iraq’s potable water network among the world’s worst. An estimated two-thirds of the potable water pumped through Iraq’s grid leaks out before ever reaching its end users. Saddam-era sanctions are partly at fault: In the 1990s, Iraq struggled to import piping, which the UN sanctions board—dominated and politicized by the US—deemed a potential military threat. That isolation, however, only compounded decades of underinvestment, which preceded sanctions and have since continued: Only 14 of Iraq’s 252 urban centers treat their sewage, according to the World Bank.

Iraq thus presents a case of collective self-poisoning on a dizzying scale. In Baghdad, private trucks casually pump wastewater out of manholes to sell as fertilizer. Almost everywhere, raw sewage is discharged into rivers, increasing their salinity among other forms of pollution. In the far South, saline levels render water not just undrinkable, but unfit for washing and any form of agriculture. Saline water is also corrosive and damages pumps, purification plants, and distribution conduits. 

TDS is a measure of salinity, which stands for total dissolved solids. Source: Evan Christen and Kasim Saliem, Managing salinity in Iraq's agriculture, ICARDA, 2012.
If in millennia past, floods from the Euphrates and Tigris worked to flush the country clean, now they concentrate its filth and loop it back into the ecosystem. “All rivers in Iraq are sick. Everyone is to blame, from the highest official to the most ordinary citizen,” lamented an Iraqi water pollution expert. “In Basra, these are not even rivers anymore: They are moving septic tanks.”

Accordingly, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis, and other waterborne diseases have swept across the country. In mid-2018, over 100,000 residents of Basra were admitted to hospitals with water poisoning. “We are swimming in cholera,” said an Iraqi epidemiologist originally from the city. “The Ministry of Health called me to provide an opinion on the crisis, but all they wanted to hear was support for conspiracy theories about malicious poisoning.” Water-related paranoia is indeed spreading, and is perhaps best captured by an unusual custom developed by the middle class. Rather than have potable water gallons delivered at home, even the elderly lug the large bottles to filling points that look like gas stations. The water isn’t necessarily cleaner, but at least provides an illusion of quality control.

* * *

Social tensions have risen in sync with scarcity and toxicity. Residents in the deep South have taken angrily to the streets. Officials, in turn, have accused the Kurdistan Regional Government of hoarding water to compensate for its own shortages. In central Iraq, downstream farmers accuse those upstream of using more than their fair share. In a highly tribal environment, petty friction could easily devolve into more serious conflict. Water stress, in other words, is tearing at the seams of a society struggling to put itself back together. 

On the surface, the challenge posed to Iraq’s government is simple: Most of these problems could be resolved through basic public policy-making. Yet the ruling class has shown interest in nothing but scapegoating and magical thinking. A local think tank report earnestly echoed the latter, lobbying for one of two solutions: Iraq should either turn toward technology to trigger artificial rainfall or drag a full-blown iceberg to Iraq from the South Pole. Although sound advice abounds, such fantasies illustrate Iraq’s tendency to resort to pipedreams in the face of life-threatening inertia.

Ordinary citizens simultaneously criticize the government and mirror its worst tendencies. Droughts, floods, and epidemics all prompt short-lived outrage, which is soon extinguished by an overwhelming desire to treat such problems as transient. The 2018 masgouf crisis, when millions of carps died from a highly infectious disease, provides a perfect example of such denial. Despite the off-putting scenes of carnage, consumption picked up as soon as fish were back on the market—long before any scientists could establish that they were safe to eat.

Water, like oxygen, has no substitute

Such mentalities can only change slowly, despite expanding efforts to ring the alarm. Students attending an awareness-raising event at the University of Kut, southeast of Baghdad, left as soon as attendance certificates were handed out—before any of the presentations took place. An ageing Iraqi poetess, sunken deep into the house where she has retreated from the world, lamented this tendency toward short-sighted individualism: “Tilling the land is like raising a child. What is the point of a country called Iraq, if all who inhabit it neglect it and care only about themselves?”

Yet awareness is spreading nonetheless—both within a small but growing community of activists and in less obvious quarters. A devout middle-aged women described her evolution: “The Prophet had a saying, which once seemed absurd to me: ‘Do not waste water, even in the middle of a river.’ But I have come to realize: We have done so much damage and change will start with us.” Among other small gestures, her garden is potholed with little burrows, where she makes compost based on techniques she looked up online.

Water, like oxygen, has no substitute. Virtually everything else—starting with oil—can feasibly be replaced with alternatives. Whether we treat water as a commodity, a public service, or a right, it remains nothing less than a prerequisite for life. More than bricks and mortar, society is built on water—a fact Iraq, of all countries, is best placed to know. Ancient Mesopotamia was born of that blessing: Modern Iraq will survive only if it remembers to honor its birthright.

5 August 2019

Peter Harling is the founder and director of Synaps.

Illustration credits: Pierre Mortier Situation du paradis terrestre by Wikipedia / public domain; Baghdad bridge, Port of Basrah, Wharf of local resources Amarah, Hindiyah barrage, Floods on the Euphrates from Sir John P Hewett Report for the Army Council on Mesopotamia by Qatar Digital Library / licensed by Open Government Licence; Myths and legends of Babylonia & Assyria by Kelly - University of Toronto via Flickr / public domain; maps designed for Synaps by Rosalie Berthier / licensed by CC.