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A Watershed Moment for Iraqi Kurdistan: Subnational Hydropolitics and Regional Stability


Iraqi Kurdistan is blessed with abundant water resources, but these resources are under increasing stress. Changing demographics, dam building in neighboring countries, and drought have driven Kurdish hydropolitics to a critical juncture where two distinct water futures are possible—and both have implications for regional stability and for U.S. interests.

As water in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin becomes more polluted and scarce, residents of southern Iraq blame overuse by the upstream Kurds. This perception could be enough to erode the already-frayed working relationship between Kurdish and Iraqi leaders. At the same time, tensions over water are rising between indigenous Kurds and displaced people seeking refuge from the wars in Iraq and Syria.

While research by preeminent scholars finds that water issues are almost always managed cooperatively, I argue that Kurdistan’s regional hydropolitics puts it at higher risk of conflict over water resources. To avoid instability, the Kurdistan government needs to develop a more forward-looking national water policy that responds to these growing hydropolitical trends.

Water Stress in Kurdistan: Emerging Trends  

Iraqi Kurdistan—the area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq—is blessed with abundant hydrocarbons and water resources. Rivers fed by the snowcapped Zagros Mountains, relatively heavy natural rainfall, and a sufficient and rechargeable aquifer support an optimistic outlook, but recently, concerns about the mid- and long-term reliability of these supplies have emerged.

Water shortages fluctuate seasonally, with the greatest scarcity of water during the hotter and drier summer months. A drought last summer exacerbated this situation and new evidence suggests that climate change has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in the region. 

Efforts to address water stress have been hindered by bureaucratic limitations, mismanagement, and lack of planning. For example, Kurdish policymakers are hampered by the unavailability of hydrological data; there are few water gauging stations and observational wells monitoring groundwater and aquifers. Recharge rates for the aquifer are not well understood.

Despite its vast groundwater reserves, Iraqi Kurdistan is suffering from localized water shortages. For example, Iran cut the flow of the Zei Bchuk River to the city of Qaladze in the summer of 2017. The area is not suitable for groundwater extraction, so the long-term solution would be to build new dams, but no such plans were developed during the years that the Iranian dam was being constructed.  

Simmering social divisions in Kurdistan have led to internal struggles over water resources between indigenous Kurds and the internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. By one estimate, Kurdistan has hosted 2,250,000 IDPs and refugees fleeing conflict zones elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, increasing water demand by 15 percent in 2015. A 2014 report by the UN High Commission for Refugees found poor water conditions in displaced persons camps, and household surveys  indicated that only between 25-59 percent had enough drinking water.

The continued presence of the IDPs and refugees has increased ethnic tensions and the possibility of civil unrest and localized violence. The deep animosity between the Kurds and Sunni Arab Iraqis can be traced to horrors of successive Arabization policies and the outright genocide directed by Saddam Hussein. As of February 2018, the battle against ISIL had essentially concluded, but these populations have not begun to repatriate in significant numbers.

Kurdistan Hydropolitics: A Critical Juncture  

Kurdistan is at a critical juncture politically and with regard to water risk management. The lack of international recognition for Kurdistan means that the KRG cannot participate in multilateral water governance regimes; it must negotiate through Baghdad, and the other riparian nations treat the KRG with varying levels of hostility. In addition, the KRG shares juridical responsibility for water governance with the government of Iraq, which poses internal governance challenges for the KRG. And the region’s growing water stress is occurring just as its economy is shifting toward more dependence on water-intensive agriculture. 

In contrast to the cooperative dynamic in most transboundary water basins, my research finds that Kurdistan’s regional hydropolitics trend toward the conflictual end of the continuum, due to three factors:

  1. There is systemic precedence for hydro-hegemonic behavior—the monopolization of water by a single country—in the Tigris and Euphrates river basin (which includes Iraqi Kurdistan).
  2. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq provide a number of recent examples of water being used as a weapon or as leverage. My 2015 study found that water was used as a weapon in Syria and Iraq 44 times from 2012 to 2015. The KRG has on more than one occasion used water to seek political leverage over Baghdad.
  3. The riparian countries’ conflicting views of ownership and rights to the Tigris and Euphrates river waters set the stage for confrontation.

Looking Forward: Water in the Back Seat?

A report by the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani outlines a sound framework for policy interventions within Iraqi Kurdistan, including:

  • Improving monitoring information systems;
  • Consolidating water planning now handled by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources into a single water organization;
  • Increasing regulation of private groundwater withdrawals, and promoting greater ecological awareness among the Kurdish people.

But, as usual, water planning is taking a back seat to more pressing geostrategic issues that have emerged in the wake of the devastating blow dealt to ISIL. September’s independence referendum newly complicated KRG’s relationship with the Iraqi government. And Turkey’s invasion to flush out a faction of hostile Kurdish militia added more challenges this month.

Kurdish internal hydropolitics have an indirect effect on the United States, a country with a great interest in regional stability. In 2012, the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security found that “during the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor quality or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working on important policy objectives.” U.S. regional security strategy depends on the continued support of Kurdish forces in the battle against ISIL and any other violent extremist organizations that may emerge from its ashes.

Ultimately, given the Kurdish conundrum, the KRG must exercise careful statesmanship. Of equal importance, it needs to develop a more forward-looking national water policy that responds to these growing hydropolitical trends. If the KRG fails to implement such a policy, water stress will increase the risk not only of general instability, but also  conflict ranging from localized violence to strategic interstate weaponization of water. However, if it manages its resources well, Kurdistan could continue to be in a position to use its relatively large water and oil resources to support its political and development objectives.

Marcus King, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of International Affairs at George Washington’s Elliott School and Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security.

Sources: ACTED, American University of Iraq, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, U.S. Office of the Director of National IntelligenceThe Washington Quarterly 

Photo Credit: Luis Tosta/Unsplash