Best Defense

Could water undermine the American game plan for Iraq? Does a bear…

Could water undermine the American game plan for Iraq? Does a bear…

Basra continues to perplex me. Weird news over the weekend out of there, as  police fired at or over (not clear) demonstrators upset by the lack of electricity.

Meanwhile, my CNAS colleague Will Rogers checks in with other resources and utilities news. He reminds me of something I read years ago in a history of Iraq, that life there has always been a struggle against the people who live just upstream of your irrigation canal and can cut off your water-a tool the British used effectively in putting down the 1920 Shiite uprising.  

By Will Rogers
Best Defense deputy chief, Iraqi natural resources bureau

In Iraq, a country where one in four citizens do not have access to safe drinking water – let alone enough water to irrigate their crops — water shortages could drown any hope of long-term, meaningful reconciliation between the Iraqi people and the government.

Many Iraqis have been pleading to Baghdad to devote more resources to shore up the country’s crumbling infrastructure and unsustainable water management policies in order to effectively tackle the chronic water challenges that have been exacerbated by four-years of drought. “If our government was good and strong, we would get our [water] rights,” one Iraqi told The New York Times recently.

Ali Baban, Iraqi Minister of Planning and Development Co-operation, warned last July that Iraq’s intense drought conditions could push the frail state to a breaking point. “We have a real thirst in Iraq. Our agriculture is going to die, our cities are going to wilt, and no state can keep quiet in such a situation,” he cautioned. But with the government still in limbo after the recent March 7 election, it is unlikely that Baghdad will have the capability or capacity to address these water woes anytime soon.

Acute water shortages continue to shape internal security dynamics, forcing Iraqis to flee their native communities in search of better resources. Iraq’s Minster of Water, Dr. Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, stated last year that more than 300,000 marshland residents were forced to flee their drought stricken communities in recent years. To make matters worse, in provinces where access to water is slightly better, the tattered infrastructure of pipes prevents much of that water from reaching Iraqis in their homes, forcing them to rely instead on water trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross and other NGOs to supply fresh water.

Iraq was once a paradise, the wheat basket of the Middle East, with lush marshes and river ways that sustained a vibrant agricultural community and fresh-water fisheries. Even today, while agricultural production accounts for only 10 percent of Iraqi GDP, it has long been a hallmark of Iraq – producing wheat for world renowned German beers and the region’s most popular varietal rice, Anbar rice.

In recent years, many of Iraq’s crops have been left parched and its fragile agricultural industry in disarray – leaving Iraqi farmers in a veritable dustbowl. Barley and wheat production has declined up to 95 percent in provinces that rely on rain-fed irrigation, while total barley and wheat production declined by more than half last year. Meanwhile Iraq’s date industry – once the world’s leading exporter – is dwindling. At its height in the 1980s, Iraqi date farmers produced 600,000 tons of dates; in 2008, production dropped to 281,000 tons with production continuing to decline as drought worsens.

Regional politics and perennial drought throughout much of the Middle East have not helped Iraq navigate its water crisis either.  Voluntary commitments from neighboring Iran, Turkey and Syria to increase water flow from upstream dams and reservoirs have been made over the last several years, but Iraq has not seen much increase in downstream water flow. The lack of credibility in the new government may also be hampering its ability to get its neighbors to execute on those commitments.

While much attention is understandably on Afghanistan, U.S. national security policymakers should be aware of the challenges that could shape the future security environment in Iraq – especially as the new government in Baghdad struggles to stand on its own. Water shortages alone won’t cause a resurgence of violence, but the issue could be the straw that breaks the back of a (weak) fledgling government. As the United States looks ahead for opportunities to ensure long-term stability in Iraq, access to water may well be critical to the new Iraqi government’s credibility and our ability to responsibly withdraw.

Could 2010 really be the year that Iraq begins to unravel? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing is clear: the broad outlines of a post-occupation Iraq are beginning to take shape, and some of the acute challenges that have been marginalized in the post-war years could increasingly undermine Baghdad’s credibility and long-term stability. If left unaddressed, water shortages could very well leave Baghdad hanging out to dry — and us, too. 

Will Rogers is a researcher with the Natural Security program at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan, non-profit national security think tank in Washington, DC. He is an author of, most recently, Sustaining Security: How Natural Resources Influence National Security and Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces.