Iraqi citizens travel on a river boat on the Tigris river during Eid Al Adha at Abu Nawas park in Baghdad on Monday. The passenger boats have returned after years of war. Image Credit: Gulf News archive

Ensuring national security is the most important issue for any country, and strategies are developed and policies made towards that end.

The issue of national security goes beyond the concept of safeguarding the land, skies and water of a given country to stopping the country from breaking apart and protecting it against threats to its natural resources.

Most Arab countries are considered arid because on the one hand the rates of rainfall are very low and, on the other, water resources — if they exist — are located outside their geographical boundaries.

However, over the years, this delicate issue has not received the attention it deserves.

On March 21 this year, the UN issued a report on the eve of World Water Day, about the tragic water situation in Iraq. The report said that 50 per cent of water resources are wasted in Iraq, and six million people have no access to clean water.

In the report, the UN warned that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could completely dry up by 2040. The accelerating decline of water supplies and increasing demand threaten to bring Iraq closer to the water poverty threshold, the report cautioned.

We shall overlook the negative aspects of the report, about Iraq running out of water and the dangers to the environment of the whole region — and focus on the possibility of Iraq becoming an arid country.

The UN report failed to make clear some points, as it follows diplomatic protocols that forbid it from stating facts in a blunt manner. The real reason behind the expected water catastrophe in Iraq is the drop in the water levels at the sources of the two rivers.

Iraq suffers from drought; rainfall is low and does not exceed 200 millimetres annually at most locations, while the rainfall exceeds 600 millimetres, and at times double the amount, in the Kurdish region of the country. Hence water strategy depends mainly on the river water. However, the source of both rivers is outside the country.

Iraq's two major rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates. And while the Euphrates, which originates in Turkey, does not have tributaries in Iraq, there are 30 tributaries — some permanent and others seasonal — most coming from Iran that account for half of the Tigris, with the other half coming from Turkey.

The scarcity of water in Iraq is due to the fact that neighbouring countries are cutting off its water supply. Turkey has built 14 dams on the Euphrates and its tributaries inside its territory, and eight dams on the Tigris and its tributaries in Turkey as well.

Dams and diversions

Syria on its part has built five dams on the Euphrates, and is about to start building a dam on the Tigris, which passes briefly through its territory near the Turkish border. The cost of the dam is over 100 billion Syrian liras (Dh7.59 billion), and has been funded from foreign sources. The project aims to pump 1.25 billion cubic metres of the Tigris water to serve development projects in Hasaka, and to irrigate 200.000 hectares of the governorate's land while providing 125 million cubic metres of drinking water annually.

Iran on its part has diverted most of the Tigris' tributaries inside its territory and set up dams.

As a result, some of Iraq's finest agricultural land, in the middle and southern part of the country, has become arid, forcing thousands of people in rural areas to immigrate to cities in search of a better life. This has also put immense pressure on urban areas.

The water problem in Iraq is grave and the country's various governments did not give the issue a great deal of thought, hence there are no mechanisms to tackle the dilemma on the political, diplomatic, economic and technical levels, whereas Turkey started its Anatolia project in the early 1980s.

Iraq has no alternative but to appeal to international bodies for a solution, as its neighbours are adopting the theory of complete sovereignty over the water which passes through their territory.

Resorting to desalinating sea water, as Gulf countries do, will be very expensive for Iraq. Moreover, Iraq's outlet towards the sea is narrow, and the sea itself is located at the southern tip of the country. Even if there is water desalination, it will be very costly to transport it to other parts of the country.

Moreover, the costs of desalinating the sea water in the northern part of the Gulf is greater as the rate of salinity is much higher there. 

Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.