Water Security Provides Opportunity to Achieve Peace and Development in Iraq

March 11, 2023

The world has changed since the first United Nations water conference 45 years ago. Pressure on natural resources like fresh water has increased significantly as the population has nearly doubled, but its availability remains the same. And because of increased weather pattern changes, we are seeing alarming weather changes like reduced rainfall and severe drought that continue to wreak havoc on Iraq and the region.  What is critically important now is that we learn to manage the limited water resources that are available to help guarantee life-saving and life-changing approaches to clean water for drinking, sanitation, and sustainable development.


Iraq’s Water Crisis

Water scarcity and climate change are of serious concern in Iraq. In 2021 and 2022, Iraq experienced record drought and scorching temperatures with 54° Celsius/130° Fahrenheit recorded in the south.
Additionally, Iraq relies heavily upon two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, for about 98 per cent for its water supply. The country lies at the bottom of the river basin, however, and receives less water than before – from an approximate 30 billion cubic meters in 1933 to around 9.5 billion today. The water availability per capita is expected to be 479 cubic meters by 2030 – a far cry from the WHO standard of 1700 cubic meters per year. This threatens food security, lives, and development.

The lack of sufficient water flow has also led to increased salinity in the Shatt Al-Arab River – southern Iraq’s main source of water supply – resulting in 10 times higher salinity levels than acceptable WHO standards. Increased salinity has also affected Iraq’s famous Mesopotamian Marshlands, once the Middle East’s largest wetlands, and heralded for both global cultural and ecological significance.


Need for Water Agreements

Since 1964 Iraq has worked with neighboring countries to cull water tensions, leading to a 2021 agreement between Türkiye and Iraq that declared Ankara's commitment to fair water flow. Despite this, however, a Euphrates-Tigris basin-wide agreement has not yet been reached. Such an agreement is a critical next step as a solutions-based approach to equitable water sharing. Along with shared surface water, Iraq jointly uses at least five aquifers with neighboring countries without water usage agreements.

The UN recognizes water and sanitation are essential to human rights, and fundamental to health, dignity, and prosperity. As such, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Iraq supports the government to finalize the accession to the 1992 UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Waters which works to strengthen regional cooperation for sustainable water management.

We also work closely with national stakeholders to create a new vision and strategy for negotiating the best water resources for Iraq and offer a space for Euphrates-Tigris basin-wide benefits. If transboundary water management can be secured for all basin countries, and if the benefits of water allocation are shared fairly and maximized according to each country’s priorities and limitations, everyone will benefit.

UNDP is working diligently with the Iraq government to help prevent growing water scarcity and deteriorating water quality crises. With support from international partners, we are working to maximize water resource use and improve integrated water resource management. One example is through the Catalytic Climate Action in Iraq project – supported by Canada and the United Kingdom – that works to: (a) monitor the river basin through a web- and GIS-based platform; (b) develop joint water and climate change adaption projects among local basin governments; and (c) improve Iraq’s integrated water management through guidelines and tools that address water supply, quality, and access, and the sustainable management of river basins within its territory.

Additionally in Basra, with USAID funding, UNDP’s Iraq Crisis Response and Resilience Programme is working to rehabilitate seven major water treatment plants that will provide over 100,000 people with improved access to potable water. Around 960,000 people will also gain access to safe drinking water through the rehabilitated water facilities by UNDP and UNESCO, that have been supported by  Netherlands. Moreover, UNDP’s Climate Action for Human Security in the Al Hawizeh Marshlands project supports crisis-affected communities to enhance access to clean water through solar photovoltaic (PV) water purification and wastewater treatment systems.

Iraq has no time to waste. The upcoming UN 2023 Water Conference on 22-24 March in New York is a platform for voluntary country commitments around global water-related goals and targets.  It offers a unique opportunity for the Iraq government to present its forward-looking strategy to gain regional and international support. UNDP remains committed to supporting Iraq in the implementation of its integrated water resource management strategy.