‘Nothing but PR’: Iraq water ministry advances taking Iran to court

    29 Dec 2021

    In the latest stark warning of the threats a heating climate poses to the country, a report by Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources last week predicted that unless urgent action is taken to combat both declining water levels and climate change, Iraq’s two main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, will be entirely dry by 2040, Rudaw states.

    On December 4, in what has been perceived as a weak attempt to get a grip on the former factor, the water ministry announced the completion of procedures to file a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice against Iran, having proposed the idea in October over the country’s water policy towards Iraq. 

    “The ministry of water resources has submitted a letter to the foreign ministry and the cabinet, and completed all technical and legal procedures for the lawsuit,” Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Mahdi Rashid al-Hamdani told Al-Hurra, adding that the decision to take matters further is now up to the foreign ministry and the Iraqi government.

    Officials have warned for years that dams built by Iranands Turkey have contributed to a growing water crisis in the southern and central provinces of Iraq and the northern Kurdistan Region. Iran has created around 600 dams in the country in the last 30 years; cutting or diverting river courses from its territory into Iraq.

    According to a report by the Washington DC-based Fikra Institute, failed international cooperation and an increase in dam construction is not only threatening Iraq’s external security, but the increased water shortages “have the potential to inflame disagreements between the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi Federal Government in Baghdad,” citing the example of previous budget disputes with Iraq’s central government leading the KRG to deprive downstream Shia-led districts of water and warning against focusing solely on regional damming as a solution to water scarcity.

    Earlier this year, al-Hamdani accused Iran of digging tunnels and trying to alter the natural water flows. The lawsuit would seek to guarantee the country’s right to shared water resources. However, critics suggest that it is unlikely to be taken any further by Iraq’s foreign ministry and current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. He’s keen to avoid flaring tensions with Iran.

    Speaking to Rudaw English, environmental expert and founder of Nature Iraq, Azzam Alwash called the lawsuit “a load of hot air” and “nothing but PR,” criticizing the ministry for always acting on the defense and failing to take the necessary forward-planning decisions within the country to modernize Iraq’s irrigation and reduce wastage.

    “It’s a PR-move by the ministry which will lead to no solutions,” Alwash said. “The blame should be on Iraq for not taking advantage of the last 20 years to modernize irrigation – it’s far too easy to blame Iran.”

    Iran, in response, has criticized the Iraqi establishment for their water shortages, pointing to the failure of successive Iraqi governments to implement a sustainable water policy or build new infrastructure like dams to accommodate the burgeoning population.

    Alwash, who was part of Iraq’s delegation to the 26th United Nations Global Climate Summit in Glasgow last month, has long pushed for a more collaborative approach to dealing with water access with Iran and Turkey in particular. “We need to put these ideas on the table first,” he explained. 

    “Iraq is facing an existential crisis, and it is time Iraqis pay attention and take action for the issues on the horizon,” Azzam warned. “What is happening now with Iran will happen in the future with Turkey.”

    Iraq and Syria, which also share the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, have signed up to the UN Watercourses Convention of 1997, governing sources that cross borders, but Turkey and Iran have not.

    Speaking at a panel discussion on climate and water in the Middle East, focused on a new London School of Economics report into water management in southern Iraq in November, Alwash called for greater collaboration between Middle Eastern countries and criticized the frame of mind behind Iraq’s water management for being too focused on flood control.

    He advised moving to a more cooperative situation in a way that makes transnational – and transactional – sense for all countries in the region, by demonstrating that there is an enlightened self-interest in promoting sustainable environmental policies across borders.

    On Monday, the Planetary Security Initiative published a report on how climate-security practices could become an engine for peace, rather than an issue of contention, promoting the idea of a “Green Blue Deal for the Middle East”: a way to turn water scarcity from a “threat multiplier to a multiplier of trust-building opportunities,” promoting increased cooperation among Middle East nations over natural water reallocation, water management, and renewable energy generation.

    On the banks of Shatt al-Arab, the waterway where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet and flow out to the Gulf, and Iraqi fishermen live in fear of arrest by Iranian and Kuwaiti forces for crossing the riverine and maritime borders; it remains to be seen whether such collaborative approaches will be pursued.

    The World Bank warned in October that Iraq is running out of water with devastating consequences on the country’s economy, stressing a failure to manage water resources as a critical damaging factor. 

    The agriculture ministry said in October that the government had approved a plan to reduce this year’s winter crops in irrigated areas by 50% because of a lack of water.

    Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable nation in the world to the effects of climate change, including water and food insecurity. Low rainfall levels and high temperatures caused by climate change are depleting water supplies across the country. Much of Iraq’s agricultural lands depend on irrigation, and this summer, dams, and reservoirs were at record-low levels.

    Parts of Iran also suffer from an acute water crisis, which contributed to widespread protests last month, triggered by drought in Isfahan province, which was heavily repressed by Iranian security forces.

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