On May 1, the outgoing Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, said critical water shortages aren’t exclusive to Iraq, but rather a regional problem from decreasing groundwater.
Speaking on Iraq’s Dijlah TV, Masjedi denied Iran’s responsibility for shortages and said reports about Iran shutting off water supplies from his country to Iraq were “negative media hype.”
Masjedi urged officials in both countries to meet and discuss the water crisis.
“The Islamic Republic has never reduced Iraqi water source,” he declared.
That is false. In fact, Iran’s ongoing construction of dams and diversions of rivers and tributaries to supply its drought-stricken central and eastern regions have deprived Iraq of critical water.
Water stress – meaning a lack of enough water of sufficient quality to meet the demands of people and the environment – is becoming dire in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
In Iraq, climate change is a factor contributing to the deterioration of freshwater quality. Other factors include increasing population and growing demand for farming, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in 2021.
The UNICEF report added: “This is compounded in many countries by limited water management due to conflict, including wars and territorial disputes.”
Many MENA countries depend on transboundary water. That includes Iraq, which largely relies on surface water originating from neighboring countries.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate from Turkey and travel southeast in a parallel through Syria and Iraq, but most of their flow is in Iraq, where they empty into the Persian Gulf.
The basin of the two rivers is the location for the major water challenges. Several large tributaries of the Tigris originate from Iran and flow into the river in Iraq.
Decreasing flow in the two rivers has caused salt water from the Persian Gulf to travel upstream. This is a problem for the Iraqi city of Basra, where the two rivers meet in Shat al-Arab.
The contamination caused an outbreak of water-borne diseases in 2018 that required medical treatment for 118,000 people, half of them children, UNICEF reported.
Iraq blames Iran for causing a water shortage by diverting rivers and building dams, but Iran has also been facing water shortfalls since 2011.
The Pacific Council, a Los Angeles, California, organization dedicated to global engagement, reported in 2019 that Iran was pursuing more aggressive water policies after experts predicted that its western provinces would lose their reserves due to continuous flow into Iraq.
Of Iran’s total 10.2 billion cubic meters of water, almost two-thirds go to Iraq, the Council said.
Rivers in western Iran have been redirected to its central and eastern provinces to irrigate agricultural projects that consume 93 percent of the country’s renewable water resources.
Iran also has built dozens of small dams and announced plans to build 109 new dams. Some experts believe that Iran is using water to pressure Iraq into cooperation, as Iran faces international sanctions for its nuclear program.
“[Iran wants to] ramp up the pressure on Iraq by pursuing a water blockade strategy to force it to get involved alongside it in challenging the international community,” Iraqi expert Muayyed Salem al-Juhaishi told Diyaruna news, a U.S. military-sponsored Middle East news outlet.
In October 2021, Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Mahdi Rashid al-Hamdani told the New Arab news outlet that Iran had cut off several rivers flowing into Iraq.
Al-Hamdani said Iran was not abiding by the Algiers agreement, signed by the two countries in 1975, which aimed to settle disputes over borders and shared waterways.
Al-Hamdani said Iran has executed several projects to reroute shared waterways like the Karun River, Iran’s longest and a tributary of the Shatt al-Arab, and to divert the Sirwan River, as well as diverting the Little Zap River into Lake Urmia in Iran. Both are tributaries of the Tigris River.
Iraq also has a dispute with Turkey over water, but al-Hamdani said that while Turkey is cooperating to find common ground, Iran is ignoring the problem.
In April, officials in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region warned about drought this year after water levels in the Dukan Dam reservoir decreased to less than half. Kurdish officials say low rainfall and the ongoing construction of dams in Iran and Turkey are to blame.
In August 2021, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) suggested falling farm production in Iraq due to a shortage of water boosted Iran’s exports to Iraq. Citing Iranian authorities, DW reported that since 2016, Iraq has imported 35% of Iran’s agricultural exports.
In October 2021, Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture said farming had decreased by 50 percent due to water shortages, spiking fears over deteriorating food security in the country.
That includes grain and vegetables crops, mainly in Iraq’s Diyala province, which has been the hardest hit by Iran’s diversion of rivers, the ministry said.
Iran is also facing an unprecedented drought, compounded by mismanagement of resources. A report by Climate Change News said Iran is using 90 percent of its water for agriculture as the government seeks to achieve food self-reliance while facing global sanctions.
Farmers in Iran have been deserting their land and homes to live in settlements on the outskirts of cities, and villagers can’t find clean drinking water. These conditions sparked anti-government protests in 2021 in the western province of Khuzestan. The protests later spread to other cities and the capital, Tehran.
Reserved water is also evaporating because of intense heat waves, Climate Change News said.
The Middle East includes 11 of the 17 most water-scarce countries in the world. The region is warming at twice the global average and by the end of the century, many cities will become uninhabitable. In the summer of 2021, Iraq recorded temperatures of 51.5 C (124.7 F), while those in Iran reached 51 C (123.8 F).
In August 2021, 13 aid groups warned that 12 million people in Iraq and Syria were threatened by collapsing food and water supplies. That included seven million Iraqis and “large swathes of farmland, fisheries, power production, and drinking water sources have been depleted of water.”