A water crisis in Iraq

Summary: as global temperatures climb, Basra is experiencing temperatures hovering at 50 degrees while suffering severe water shortages; delays in a massive desalination project are making an already intolerable situation worse.

We thank Zainab Mehdi for today’s newsletter. Zainab is a researcher and freelance journalist specialising in governance and development in the MENA region, especially in Iraq. She previously worked at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre, British Red Cross in London, and  the Center for Arab-West Understanding in Cairo.

Two months ago, various media outlets shed light on southern Iraq’s ongoing water shortages primarily caused by the continuation of dam construction projects in Turkey and Iran.

Understandably, yet another year of water shortages in the south should be of great concern. As is known, the governorate of Basra is suffering from deteriorating water supplies due to heightened water demands (stemming from the city’s growing population) and the decline of water quality and quantity of the Shatt al-Arab, Basra’s traditional source of water. Recently, water cuts have resulted in the outbreak of protests amid the ongoing heatwave where temperatures have soared up to 50 degrees Celsius.

Soaring summer temperatures combined with power cuts have once again triggered protests in Basra

Further exacerbating worries about Iraq’s water crisis are complications surrounding the Basra Water Supply project which is expected to be finalised in 2024. Aiming to desalinate water from Al-Faw using Reverse Osmosis (RO), plans for the project have included constructing a 1 million cubic metre a day (cm/d) desalination plant and a 240km water transmission system. Alongside the system which will transfer uncontaminated water to nine other cities, a 300MW captive power plant will also be established to produce the needed energy for the project. Plans for the Basra Water Supply project will be crucial in terms of protecting water supplies to Iraq if its riparian neighbours (Turkey, Iran, and Syria) use up too much water from Iraq’s main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates and the rivers that feed them. That being said, Turkey, in March 2021, announced that it would agree to release fair water shares to Iraq. Iran and Syria, however, have not yet cooperated.

Up until this point, the project has witnessed the following issues:

  1. Delays in securing a British loan of £10 billion to go ahead with construction

In a report sent last year to the Office of the Prime Minister, the Prevention Department of the Federal Integrity Commission in Iraq explained that the Office of the Ministry of Construction, Housing, Municipalities and Public Works were not successful in contracting a company specialising in sea desalination projects. Why this was not possible stemmed from the Ministry’s commitment to offer a contract to a British company. According to the report, however, the loan agreement states that no such conditions (e.g., solely awarding a contract to a British company) exists. Under these circumstances, the Ministry was thus asked to hastily issue a tender and award the project. Described as one of the “most important and strategic projects in Iraq,” it is vital that any further contributions towards delays are avoided at all cost. How feasible this will be depends on a number of obstacles, including prolonged bureaucratic practices and ingrained corruption in Iraq.

  1. Corruption allegations

In March 2021, MP Representative Alia Nassif requested that the Integrity and Public Prosecution Commission investigate suspicions of corruption surrounding the Basra Water Supply project. Nassif alleged that there was an effort to divert US$4 billion from the project supposed to go to Biwater, a British water company. Nassif charged that the money will be stolen through what she called “this fake project financed by the British loan that Iraqi people are paying for and not gaining any service from.” While the claim remains unproven, it is the case that fake projects have become a complicated and problematic issue across Iraq. Resolving such issues are challenging for the government due to the involvement of large personalities and influential political parties that stand accused of stealing public money and wasting millions of dollars.

This is not the first time that a planned desalination project has witnessed corruption allegations. In 2014, Iraq constructed the Hartha desalination plant to produce 200,000m³/day of water from the Shatt al-Arab. Also using Reverse Osmosis (RO) membrane technology to treat water, the project, planned for finalisation in 2016, witnessed delays as well as corrupt payment demands. According to Iraq Energy Institute editor Robert Tollast, the corruption involved “component imports, tribal demands for labour and alleged efforts to extort contractors.” That said, postponed payments from the government were also an issue associated with the project.

Given the current state of Iraq’s water crisis, there are various advantages that desalination in the region can provide. First, desalination plants use technologies (such as RO) which can help with challenges such as limited freshwater resources and ensuring a reliable supply of water, especially during times of drought. Across Iraq, the use of compact water treatment units (CWTUs) is the frequently used technology to treat water. However, their proficiencies are constrained by the changing quality of raw water and violated supply networks, which are exposed to illegal water tapping. Under such circumstances, desalination technology will be important when bearing in mind the hot summer months and the effect that boiling temperatures have on the abundance of Iraq’s main source of freshwater supply, the 240-km long Al-Bada’a canal. As has been reported in various Arabic sources, there are plans to convert the open canal to a closed pipeline. Thus far, however, the canal remains open. This is not only problematic in terms of exposure to evaporation but also in terms of unwanted debris and the accumulation of aquatic plants affecting water supply. A functioning desalination plant can provide assistance to the current water situation when the canal is witnessing the afore-mentioned issues.

Desalination technology also has the capability to produce water that can be used for irrigation, which would be a significant benefit for arid and drought-prone countries like Iraq. In a paper discussing the management of natural Iraqi water resources, the authors associated decreased irrigated land in Iraq with factors such as river and watercourse scarcity. Regardless of the difference in the amount of regional and yearly rainfall amongst various parts of Iraq’s surface, three-quarters of nurtured lands rely on rain as a fundamental source of irrigation. As is known, such dependence is problematic, especially if one bears in mind the limitation of rainfall due to Iraq’s hot and dry climate. Limitations in rainfall were particularly evident during ISIS’s seizure of Mosul in 2014. After ISIS gained control of the Euphrates River in Syria, for example, the flow of water across the border into Iraq started to decline as the jihadists used water control as a weapon. The situation was exacerbated by low levels of rain and snowfall in the winter of 2017-2018. Thus was precipitated the water crisis of summer 2018. The crisis resulted in thousands of Basrawi residents being sent to hospital following gastrointestinal complaints. Agricultural lands were also damaged.

Desalination plants are the best way forward but as global temperatures climb inexorably time is running out. And the time pressure is only increasing as bureaucratic inefficiency, endemic corruption and inept governance are delaying water projects that Iraq desperately needs.

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