Iraqi woman waits for water
Iraqi woman waits for water

Oil may provide much of the wealth across the Middle East, but the most important commodity is another liquid – water, which the region is running out of.

The Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, has again warned that drought and wasteful water management practices in his country, as well as other regional nations, present a grave threat for the future.

The situation is so dire, Maliki declared, that states could conceivably go to war over the precious substance.

The Middle East Economic Digest has already speculated upon such a scenario.

One prediction, which has yet to come true, has been made repeatedly by former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali since 1988: That the Middle East will at some point in the future see war break out over access to water, the weekly wrote.

Boutros-Ghali thought an inter-state war would occur because of disputes over the ownership of the Nile. This has yet to happen. But if policymakers in Baghdad do not act soon, water could well be the source of renewed strife, not between Baghdad and its neighbors, but between Iraq's already deeply divided population.

Conflicts over water rights have already sparked tensions in Jordan, Syria and Israel, and elsewhere.

Speaking at a conference in Baghdad, the Prime Minister urged his fellow leaders to cooperate on tackling water shortages in the region and develop a unified plan.

BBC reported that in the past Arab states have failed to find consensus on the water crisis due to infighting. For example, an official of the Palestinian Water Authority criticized Yemen for wasting too much water by irrigating its qat crops – a narcotic.

On Monday, Maliki opened a major new water project in the city of Nassiriya, in the southeastern part of the country, according to Iraqi media. The Nassriya facility will transfer salt water from central and southern Iraq through a network of canals to the Persian Gulf.

Iraq is particularly vulnerable to water shortages and droughts – the country’s marshlands have been sliced in size by up to 90 percent during the four decades ended 2000, according to the UN. This process was accelerated by Saddam Hussein, whose regime established drainage schemes and dam-building which emptied most of the marshes in southern Iraq.

Maliki has already formed something called a Water Council, which will deal with Iraq’s growing water problems. Iraq has long complained that neighboring countries do not provide it with sufficient water for its needs and has asked the UN for help in the matter.

Iran, Turkey and Syria do not give Iraq sufficient shares of water, which made the country pass in a water crisis in both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,” said Muhanad Si'aidi, an Iraqi water official.

Hydroelectric dams in Turkey, Iran and Syria have also taken up too much water from Iraq’s two principal rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Agricultural production near these two legendary bodies of water has plunged in recent years.

Years of war and under-investment have also damaged Iraq’s water system and irrigation networks. As an arid, desert country, Iraq is also painfully familiar with recurring droughts. But the situation in Iraq did not appreciably worsen until the early 1990s after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait prompted western sanctions and attacks by the U.S. military on Iraqi water treatment plants and other key infrastructure.

Larry West, an environmental author, wrote of Iraq’s water crisis: “There is not enough water in the Euphrates to feed the surrounding marshlands or to prevent salt water from the Persian Gulf from contaminating the drinking water. There is not enough water to drink, let alone wash, and both are taking their toll on the region. Animals are dying, disease is rampant, and at least two towns have been entirely abandoned due to the lack of fresh water.”

The International Red Cross estimated in 2010 that one-fourth of Iraqis lack access to safe drinking water.

West added: “This water crisis in Iraq is bad, but it is only a glimpse of where the world is headed if current trends continue. One-third of the world's people are already running short of fresh water, and scientists now predict increasing water shortages due to climate change, pollution and runaway population growth, which are creating increased demand for a rapidly diminishing supply of fresh drinking water.”