Water, War and Iraq
by Juliette Majot/ International Rivers Network
Waging a war with Iraq necessarily means waging a war against the most
scarce and valuable commodity in the Middle East — water.
In this region, where the war over oil has only temporarily eclipsed the war over
water, limited freshwater resources are threatened by more than the aftereffects
of oil fires and spills, and chemical and biological contamination. Watersupply
installations, including canals, high dams, and water desalinization
plants are military targets. Water sanitation systems are also targets
Iraq’s water and energy production and distribution infrastructure were severely
damaged during the Gulf War. It has been widely reported that coalition forces
bombed Iraq’s eight multi-purpose dams during the Gulf war, destroying flood
control systems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water storage, and
hydroelectric power. Major pumping stations were targeted and municipal
water and sewage facilities were destroyed. The US Defense Department has
recently claimed that Iraq plans to destroy dams as part of a scorched earth
strategy in the event of an invasion.
While piped water reaches most urban homes in Iraq, 65 percent of it is not
treated (Oxfam, January 23, 2003). Most rural homes in central and southern
Iraq do not have access to piped water at all. Air strikes in 1991 destroyed
much of the country’s power supply, severely affecting water and sanitation
systems. Although most water treatment plants have their own generators, 70
percent of them do not work, according to UNICEF.
Destruction of water sanitation systems has been slow and recognized by the
US government as a direct consequence of sanctions against Iraq. According
to the United States Defense Intelligence Agency document "Iraq Water
Treatment Vulnerabilities" (January 22, 1991), the DIA acknowledges that
unless Iraq convinced the UN or individual countries to exempt water treatment
supplies from sanctions for humanitarian reasons, water treatment capability
would suffer a slow decline, and finally fully degrade. The consequence of this
steady degradation is the highest rate of child mortality in the world, with seven
of ten infant deaths resulting from diarrhea or acute respiratory infection linked
to polluted water or malnutrition.
Water shortages in Iraq have been worsened by one of the most serious
droughts in recent history. Water resources are now less than half normal
levels. According to UNDP, recent droughts may have affected up to 70 percent
of all arable land. In addition salination affects more than 75 percent of land in
Iraq and is one of the major causes for desertification (UNDP 2003).
In addition to the immediate impact of renewed fighting in Iraq on irrigation and
industry, the destruction of the region’s already limited water resources will
diminish the likelihood of lasting peace settlements in the region. In particular,
relations between Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — already
strained in the area of fresh water allocations — are likely to further suffer.
Conflict between Syria, Turkey, and Iraq has long centered on competition over
the waters of the Euphrates, which flows from southern Turkey, through Syria
and Iraq before emptying into the Persian Gulf. Dams built, under construction,
and in the planning stages in Turkey are considered by Iraq to directly threaten
its water supply.
According to Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, behind-the-scenes
discussions were held at the beginning of the Gulf War to discuss using the
Turkish dams to deprive Iraq of a significant fraction of its fresh water supply.
While no such action was taken, the military value of what Gleick refers to as a
"water weapon" is clear.
The humanitarian tragedy of war in Iraq would extend far beyond the period of
direct conflict as a consequence of intentional environmental destruction.
For More Information, contact: International Rivers Network, 1847 Berkeley
Way, Berkeley CA 94703. (510) 848-1155; FAX: (510) 848-1008. www.irn.org