by Zainab Mehdi
Two years have passed since the catastrophic water crisis and consequential poisoning outbreak in Basra, Iraq. In a 2019 Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Basra is Thirsty: Iraq’s Failure to Manage the Water Crisis’, predictions were made of dire consequences if the local and federal governments did not work together to tackle the crisis. These predictions included the outbreak of water-borne diseases and major economic difficulties, which have unfortunately become a reality in the south of Iraq today.
In July 2019, for example, the International Organization of Migration in Iraq recognised 21,314 internally displaced persons from the southern and central governorates, who relocated due to limited water supply linked to high salinity content and/or waterborne disease outbreaks in urban and rural areas.
With regard to economic difficulties in 2020, researchers discovered that people were being forced to leave their homes because poor water provisions were leaving families unable to support themselves financially via agriculture.
Despite the Ministry of Municipalities, Housing and Public Works announcing plans in April 2019 to build a seawater desalination plant south of Basra, there have been delays in securing a British loan of £10 billion to go ahead with construction. Set to be bigger than the Taweelah desalination plant in Abu Dhabi, which is under development with a 900,000 m3/day capacity, the seawater desalination plant has geostrategic importance for the south of Iraq. The plans are seen as necessary to safeguard water requirements if Iraq’s neighbouring countries (Turkey, Iran and Syria) over-deplete water from the Tigris and Euphrates, disregarding Iraqi water needs downstream.
Until this project is complete, the water crisis in the south will remain dire, especially if one considers the current and ongoing water shortages, principally caused by Turkey’s dam and hydropower plant constructions on the Tigris and Euphrates.
If some sort of negotiated settlement is not agreed upon between Turkey and Iraq about their respective water shares, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources estimates that Iraq will face a water shortage of 10.5 billion cubic metres by 2035, as a consequence of both Turkey’s construction work and climate change.
Yet so far Turkey has been ignoring protocols and treaties signed with Iraq on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and Iraq has little negotiating currency. For example, it cannot use trade pressure, as Iraq heavily depends on imported goods, primarily from Turkey, and it is not easy to access these goods from other countries.
In an attempt to tackle water shortages and improve water quality in Basra, the Iraqi Minister of Water Resources, Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani, announced in July a decision to convert the 240 kilometre-long Bada’a open canal, the primary source of fresh water for the city of Basra since 1996, to a closed pipeline. By converting the canal, water will be saved due to reduced illegal extraction opportunities and less evaporation, while water quality will be improved due to less waste dumping. The conversion may also mean that residents in the south can depend less on marashanah (المراشنة), a system whereby citizens are occasionally told to ration the consumption of drinking water and use tanks to store water.
Besides these factors, the conversion of the canal will supposedly also help prevent the accumulation of aquatic plants, namely the Hornwort plant, known scientifically as Ceratophyllum demersum or al-Shamplain (الشمبلان) in Arabic.
In Iraq, C. demersum is widespread. The plant first emerged as a serious problem affecting most streams and canals in the Euphrates basin towards the end of the 1980s, following the construction and operation of the Haditha Dam, the second-largest hydroelectric supplier to the power system in Iraq after the Mosul Dam. Following the environmental catastrophe which occurred after Saddam Hussein’s decision to drain the Mesopotamian marshes, as retribution for the 1991 uprisings against his Ba’athist regime, the plant died off. After the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, however, the marshes were re-flooded, leading to the re-appearance of C. demersum which then spread across different regions of Iraq.
The mass accumulation of the plant in Iraq’s waters has negatively impacted the operational effectiveness of water pumping stations, accentuating water shortages across Iraq, especially in the south. Throughout the years, the plant has:
- Gathered around the suctions of the pumps, leading to blockages and the restriction of water flow. Before blocking the entire pump chambers, the plant can block the strainers or filters on pump inlets.
- Densely floated on surface water causing supply interruptions by obstructing streams and pump inlets.
- Obstructed the flow of water, especially in the channels of rivers and small streams. For example, obstruction can prevent water from reaching the end point of small rivers that are branched.
There are certain conditions required for the plant to grow rapidly. This includes the plant being present in stagnant and clear waters of lakes, ponds, marshes and streams with moderate to high nutrient levels. Two experiments carried out in 2004 and 2006 at the University of Kufa also showed that the high temperatures and low levels of salinity in Iraq’s waters may also be helping to intensify the plant’s growth.
As such, the plant has been able to reproduce in the water basins of Water Treatment Plants (WTPs). An example of a WTP affected by the presence of the C. demersum plant is the R-Zero station, located just south of Basra International Airport.
The results from the two studies also help to understand why it will be beneficial for the Bada’a canal to be converted to a closed pipeline. By going ahead with the conversion, there will be less exposure to temperatures which encourage growth of the C. demersum plant.
Despite this limited progress in combatting water pollution and the rise in waterborne diseases since 2018, it is fair to say that the current Iraqi government, through the Ministry of Water Resources, is working towards addressing some causes of water shortages, such as the growth and spread of aquatic plants. However, the Ministry of Water Resources must also increase pressure on Turkey to release an equitable share of transboundary water. Political negotiations may be the only way for Iraq to settle its water dispute with Turkey; otherwise there may be a possible water war which Iraq, having already witnessed several years of conflict, cannot afford to ignite.