Main page content

Climate Change Is Exacerbating Iraq’s Complicated Water Politics

Erbil, Iraq

Today, what is commonly known as the Fertile Crescent — the cradle of civilization and the Garden of Eden — is not so fertile anymore. The region that extends from the Nile Valley, through the Levant and along the Tigris-Euphrates river system is facing unprecedented pressure stemming from a toxic combination of global climate change and localized poor environmental management. An article published by 16 climate experts in 2017 highlighted the critical exposure of the whole Middle East to present and future climate change, with devastating consequences for the agricultural sector, water and food supplies, and overall livelihood and social welfare. Furthermore, in a landmark academic peer-reviewed article, US scientists directly linked the undergoing political unrest in Syria with the record-setting drought that affected the Fertile Crescent between 2006 and 2009. Iraq’s ecosystem, running along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is facing an environmental disaster.

According to the UN, Iraq’s rivers have decreased to less than a third of their normal capacity. Specifically, the Tigris and the Euphrates are expected to decrease their discharge by a shocking 50% by 2030, compared to 1980s levels. The two rivers account for 98% of the Iraqi water supply used for drinking, sanitation and irrigation. Lake Milh, Iraq’s second-largest lake, has practically disappeared. Additionally, the quality of the remaining water is deteriorating due to increased salinization. As the Mesopotamia Basin receives between 150-300 millimeters of rainfall annually but experiences 1,500-2,500 millimeters of evaporation per year, it is estimated that 92% of Iraq’s total surface area is subject to desertification, while 100 square kilometers of fertile land are lost each year because of salinization.

This land degradation is translating into an increased frequency of sand and dust storms (300 per year), which are converting Iraq into a “dust bowl.” These dust storms create headaches for industry and aviation, as well as commercial businesses, which restrict operations or operating hours due to maintenance. In general, with the reduction in freshwater resources, plant cover, wildlife stocks, traditional agriculture, local races and endemic species, the loss of biodiversity in Iraq is daunting.

Vicious Circle

Numerous scientists are linking these outcomes to the impact of climate change. Two Iraqi scientists, A. A. Azooz and S. K. Talal, compiled primary data for Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Kirkuk, which showed a systematic drop of precipitations and increase in temperatures for all cities in the last century. If the trend continues, the scholars estimate, by 2050 Iraq will see a 25% drop in precipitations and a 2.2˚C increase in mean temperature by 2050, compared to 1900. That trajectory contributes to the desertification and water scarcity dynamics in the world’s climate specifically in this ecosystem.

Although global trends in the biosphere are undoubtedly crucial in interpreting and explaining local phenomena, meso and micro instances of environmental politics in the region play their part. The concentration of precious natural resources along the Tigris and Euphrates is leading to their constant politicization throughout Iraq’s recent troubled history. Today, climate change and local human action are embroiled in a vicious circle that is progressively deteriorating environmental resources and social welfare in the Fertile Crescent.

Notably, Iraq’s environmental misfortunes stem from its geopolitical position. Nearly 91% of its water supply is not originated domestically but flows first through Turkey, Syria and Iran. Turkey is taking advantage of its upstream position to implement the Southeastern Anatolia Project that envisioned 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric plants and extensive irrigation systems along the Euphrates and Tigris. This infrastructure is drastically reducing the amount of water received by Iraq, with successive governments in Baghdad finding themselves on the receiving end of a troubling hydro-political position.

Also, domestically, the two rivers are suffering from continuous weaponization over recent history. Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq between 1978 and 2003, harnessed the symbolic power of the Tigris by swimming from side to side in a PR stunt. At the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein cited the need to control the entire Shatt al-Arab river (confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates) as a major justification for invading Iran. Yet Iraq’s leader did not hesitate to send fighter jets to bomb the Iraqi Marshes, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world. The area was populated by the Madan — or Marsh Arabs — a people heavily dependent on the wetlands who were punished by Hussein for taking part in the 1991 rebellion against his rule. In an ethnic cleansing effort, the Iraqi leader instructed his engineers to divert the Tigris and Euphrates, thus leaving Iraq’s agricultural powerhouse dry and devastated.

US operations in Iraq further contributed to the destruction of key water infrastructure and facilitated the degradation of soil and vegetation. The politically fragmented context of post-invasion Iraq enabled the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group that weaponized the scarce water resources to its advantage. By seeing control of dams and water supply systems, it cut off entire districts, towns or provinces from the outflow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, deliberately contaminated water with crude oil and used water to flood 10,000 houses and 200 square kilometers of fertile farmland, wiping out the entire harvest, killing livestock and displacing 60,000 locals. 

Zero-Sum Game

In order to grasp the current environmental disaster in Iraq, it is necessary to consider the zero-sum game that is being played by various political forces in the last decades. The state is failing to monopolize the legitimate use of force and to build infrastructural power. Hence, micro-level environmental conflicts are mushrooming across the country. Provincial councils and governments accuse each other of exceeding water quotas and engage in unlawful use of force against each other. Violent inter-tribal clashes have proliferated over access to water, often because of lack of cooperation between upstream and downstream tribes.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, exploiting its upstream position within Iraq, has often threatened to reduce downstream flow to lobby Baghdad. Sectarian conflicts and remaining IS cells are starting hundreds of fires across the country, destroying vast areas of agricultural fields. Furthermore, years of a lack of education and government control are favoring unsustainable farming practices with detrimental repercussions on arable lands affecting crop rotations and land use.

Looking ahead, as the global climate mutates, rising temperatures and decreasing precipitations will only exacerbate environmental mismanagement of the last decades. Increasingly frequent droughts are devastating crop production, leading to unemployment — as agriculture accounts for 36% of all jobs — and increasing some diseases such as diarrhea and typhoid. Salinization is causing a 50% drop in agricultural production capacity over the last two decades.

In many provinces, according to the International Organization for Migration, drought and pollution are the main reasons behind displacement. Decreasing water levels are affecting energy production at Iraq’s largest hydropower plants, while increasingly salinized water threatens the capacity of thermal power stations and is already poisoning livestock and people. The situation is likely to worsen before there is any improvement.


This article originally appeared on