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Wednesday, 31 August 2022

A Danger Zone Special

Enterprise Explains — Iraq’s chronic water shortage: Water scarcity in Iraq is causing large-scale environmental challenges, with recent news pieces reporting apocalyptic events like total surface water loss in once-lush marshlands and gazelles dying of hunger en masse. The country was named (pdf) the world’s fifth most vulnerable to decreased water and food availability, extreme temperatures and myriad associated health issues, in 2017. Now, an increasing number of international organizations are sounding the alarm in a bid to avert total catastrophe.

Iraq’s water supply has been in decline for decades, with water flows from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — which supply at least 98% of its surface water — decreasing by an estimated 30-40% over a 40-year period ending in 2018, notes a June 2022 report (pdf) by the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership. In 2021, the country saw record low rainfall, resulting in its second driest season in 40 years, and causing an increased reduction of water flow in the Euphrates by 73% and the Tigris by 29%. As of May this year, river levels had seen a 60% y-o-y decline.

These shortages — and contamination of the existing supply — carry substantial health risks and threaten livelihoods. Currently, an estimated three out of five Iraqi children have no access to safely managed water services, Unicef notes. In 2018, some 118k people were hospitalized after drinking contaminated water. Water shortages saw 37% of farmers surveyed in 2021 (pdf) report wheat crop failure, and loss of livestock. Local wheat production shrunk to 4.2 mn tons in 2021 from 6.2 mn tons in 2020, according to Agriculture Ministry data cited by AP. Annual demand is estimated at some 5-6 mn tons.

Iraq’s overall water inflow from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is expected to decrease by up to 60% by 2025 compared with 2015, WPS notes. Wheat and barley production in the north of the country looks set to see a 70% y-o-y decrease this year. In anticipation of a drier season, the agriculture and water resources ministries decided in October to reduce areas for planting and agricultural irrigation by 50%. Meanwhile, the country’s population of 40 mn is set to double by 2050, further straining its water resources.

So what’s causing these acute water shortages? For starters, climate change: A temperature increase of 1°C and a precipitation decrease of 10% by 2050 — both of which are likelywould cause a 20% reduction of available freshwater in Iraq. Assuming this happens, nearly one-third of the irrigated land in Iraq will have no water by 2050.

Second, regional conflicts: Iraq is highly dependent on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which originate in Turkey and Iran. Geopolitical conflict between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran over water distribution from these rivers has become more heated in recent years, exacerbated by the impact of large-scale infrastructure projects like dams, hydropower and irrigation schemes each country has undertaken unilaterally, WPS notes. Turkey and Iran have been reluctant to negotiate binding agreements over water distribution, it adds. Not to mention the USD 600 mn worth of damage to water transport and storage infrastructure from Daesh-bags.

Third, much of the water that is available is heavily polluted, despite existing legislation: High levels of untreated wastewater, poor waste management, agricultural runoff and high salinity all negatively impact Iraq’s water quality, WPS notes. Multiple sectors produce chemicals that endanger public health, and generally require specialized water treatment. And national enforcement of punitive measures for polluting industries is limited by personnel capacity and insufficient funding, it adds.

Only a relatively small amount of wastewater is treated: At a country-wide level, an estimated two-thirds of industrial and household wastewater is untreated and ends up in Iraqi rivers, waterways and septic systems.

Finally, the inefficient use of water and poorly-maintained infrastructure, the WPS report notes. The country’s national development plan 2018-2022 saw only 49.5% of its estimated annual investments directed towards essential infrastructure, including water. It doesn’t have an effective national water monitoring network, WPS tells us.

The prevalence of water-intensive industries adds to this: Agriculture accounts for an estimated 91% of the country’s water usage, WPS tells us. Many of the crops grown are particularly water-intensive — like rice, wheat, corn and cotton. Oil extraction is also very water-intensive, WPS notes.

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