Despite full reservoirs, Iraq water woes far from over

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi admitted the water systems are not ready for summer, when temperatures in Iraq can reach 55 degrees Celsius.
Saturday 11/05/2019
 A canal with low water level at the Al-Mashahada pumping station north of Baghdad, April 16. (AFP)
Every drop counts. A canal with low water level at the Al-Mashahada pumping station north of Baghdad, April 16. (AFP)

AL-MASHADA - After plentiful winter rains, Iraq is heading into summer with overflowing reservoirs and lush marshes but don't be fooled, observers warn, because Iraq’s water woes and related protests are not over.

Far from last year's shortages, "the Land between the Two Rivers" is expected to have 42 billion cubic metres in its reservoirs at the start of summer, more than twice the 2018 amount.

However, that has not washed away long-standing challenges of poor infrastructure, few funds, sharing disputes with neighbours, climate change and population booms.

Nestled between palms and tall reeds north of Baghdad, al-Mashada pumping station is pockmarked with bullet holes, its metal pipes and cisterns rusted. Broken plastic pipes litter the dirt road leading up to it.

At another overgrown station nearby, a main tank leaks a steady stream, day and night.

These stations are usual for Iraq, whose water infrastructure is decades old and has been worn down by wars, sanctions blocking spare part imports, the US-led invasion and then the Islamic State (ISIS).

Parts of the network were installed more than 60 years ago in soil that can be corrosive when wet, said Iraqi environmental expert Azzam Alwash.

"So you have a network with corroded pipes full of holes," he said, that could leak out as much as 60-70% of pumped water before it reaches households or farmlands.

Once there, water is hardly used responsibly. Farmers rely on inefficient flood irrigation and families leave taps running unnecessarily. The United Nations estimated that Iraq's daily per capita water consumption is nearly double the world standard of 200 litres.

In 2014, Iraq prepared a 20-year, $180 billion plan to manage its water crisis but it was not implemented because ISIS seized one-third of the country the same year and money was diverted to fight the militant group.

"We've needed a new station for years but the funding totally froze in 2014 for military purposes," said Ahmad Mahmud, who heads al-Mashada's water resources.

Despite ISIS's defeat in 2017, promised funds never came, he said, and a new station is being built by UN children's agency, UNICEF. "I couldn't afford pipes without them," Mahmud said.

Mehdi Rasheed, who heads Iraq's dam projects, said the ministry's budget was "almost zero" as Iraq fought ISIS.

Last summer, massive protests over water shortages put the spotlight squarely on services and Iraq's government appeared to take notice. It allocated nearly $760 million to the water ministry for this year, about 60% more than for 2018.

"It's reassuring but it's just a good start," Mehdi said.

It remains one of the smallest ministerial budgets, around 15 times less than the Electricity Ministry.

Even Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi admitted the water systems are not ready for summer, when temperatures in Iraq can reach 55 degrees Celsius.

"I would not be faithful if I said infrastructure is ready to receive all this," Abdul-Mahdi said.

Iraq's shortages can also be sourced beyond its borders. Approximately 70% of its water originates from its neighbours, the International Energy Agency said, with the Euphrates winding from Turkey through Syria and the Tigris -- also from Turkey -- is fed by rivers from Iran.

As Turkey and Iran have developed dams and reservoirs, flows to Iraq dropped.

"We used to get about 15 billion cubic metres of water a year from Iran, we no longer get that," because of dams and rerouted rivers, said Alwash.

When Turkey fills its massive Ilisu Dam, levels in the Tigris are expected to sink even further.

Iraq is negotiating with both neighbours to reach water-sharing agreements but its position as a receiving country gives it little leverage.

Grinding on slowly behind the man-made disasters is climate change. The World Bank has predicted severe droughts for Iraq starting in 2020.

"One year we have to deal with a drought, the next year we have floods. This is the climate extremism we see worldwide," said Kareem Hassan, manager of the massive Tharthar Barrage north of Baghdad.

Despite Hassan's nod to climate change, his answer to how Iraq should respond was less reassuring. "It was God's will to bless us with rain this year, so we'll see what next year brings,” he said.

The apparent lack of planning is stark, considering Iraq's population of 40 million is projected to grow by another 10 million before 2030. That will leave the country with a 37% deficit in its water supply, the Iraq Energy Institute said.

That gap was on Mahmud's mind as he looked at the fresh paint on Al-Mashada's UN-funded station.

"It's great now, for the 300 families here but, in three years, there will be double that number here," he said.

(Agence France-Presse)