How Water Scarcity Exacerbated Iraq’s History of Political Violence

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He traveled to Iraq in the summer of 2016.

The sudden onset of the Iraqi Civil War in 2014 prompted diplomats, generals, and politicians across the international community to debate how they might prevent the return of militancy to a country that has long dominated global headlines. Many of these discussions focused on well-worn topics such as counterterrorism, interfaith dialog, and peacebuilding. However, these conversations never touched on the pivotal role of environmental issues in the Iraqi Civil War. Water scarcity in particular contributed to sparking one of the twenty-first century’s most persistent episodes of sectarian violence.

A man herds cattle near the Glory River, a man-made waterway engineered to divert water from the marsh. The canal has become a reminder of Saddam's vendetta; a debate continues over whether to shut it down (Photo: Carolyn Drake).

A man herds cattle near the Glory River, a man-made waterway engineered to divert water from the marsh. The canal has become a reminder of Saddam’s vendetta; a debate continues over whether to shut it down (Photo: Carolyn Drake).

The relationship between political violence and environmental issues in Iraq goes back decades. In the most notorious example, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein opted to drain much of the Mesopotamian Marshes to weaken a rebellion by Shia militants challenging his rule there in the 1990s. This controversial strategy not only instigated a humanitarian crisis for the region’s inhabitants but also exacerbated water scarcity in the south of Iraq. The problem only grew worse with start of the Iraq War.

“Over the last decade, the water distribution system has steadily deteriorated, due mainly to a lack of spare parts and maintenance”, concluded a 2003 environmental impact assessment conducted by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). “As a consequence, the amount of water available for distribution has fallen by more than half, and much of the remaining resource never reaches the final consumer because of leakages. Furthermore, the rivers that most Iraqis rely on for their water are increasingly contaminated with raw sewage, as waste treatment plants fall into disrepair”.

From the ISIS crisis and the military operation [against the jihadi group], we had nearly three million internally displaced people (IDPs). But we are expecting four million displaced people over the next eight years from the water crisis. This is no longer just an environmental problem, this affects security: social security, water security, food security. This will impact several governorates and will become an Iraq-wide, region-wide, even global problem. — Yousif Muayed Youssef, Iraqi Environment Ministry official, cited in Bel Trew, “Iraq Water Shortages Could Force Four Million People to Flee Their Homes“, The Independent, 09.10.2018.

Desertification and drought, which affect up to 90 percent of Iraq, amplified the consequences of the country’s lackluster approach to water resource management in the wake of the Iraq War. Farmers at Iraq’s fringes found themselves without the support that they needed to maintain their enterprises.

Sunni insurgents moved to exploit the neglect felt by the inhabitants of drought-stricken regions. Prior to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), Sunni militants distributed humanitarian aid to Iraqi farmers during droughts in a bid to sway public opinion. The tactics complemented the insurgents’ wider strategy of appealing to Sunnis experiencing marginalization at the hands of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many of the militants’ recruits came from Iraqi regions suffering from water scarcity.

ISIS soon swept across Iraq’s east and north. These regions happened to contain much of Iraq’s farmland, forcing the country to import 70 percent of its food until as late as 2017, the year of ISIS’s defeat in the Battle of Mosul. Given the role that water scarcity played in fueling ISIS’s rise, policymakers are now studying how the environmental movement might prevent ISIS’s return.

“Water has always been related to security and stability in Iraq,” observed a report by the Planetary Security Initiative at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael. “In the past, water has repeatedly been instrumentalised for political purposes, it played a role in jihadist recruitment for Islamic State, and has been weaponised during the recent violent conflicts. The water crisis decreases food production, threatens the country’s electricity supplies and contributes to migration trends, all of which are significant threats in the current fragile post-conflict setting in Iraq.”

Observers have already noted warning signs that water could lead to another conflict in Iraq. In September 2018, thirteen demonstrators protesting a lack of drinking water in Basra died in clashes with the Iraqi Security Forces. That same month, protesters also burned the buildings of several government agencies in addition to torching the Iranian consulate in Basra. The Institute for the Study of War even predicted that the protests over water were laying the groundwork for “an intra-Shia civil war”.

The international community can take several steps to support Iraq in addressing water scarcity and mitigating the effects of global warming on militancy in the country. As a powerful intergovernmental organization with an impressive history in Iraq, the UN must take the lead in helping Iraq plan a response to climate change. For their part, developed countries can contribute to the UN’s efforts.

The process has already begun. In 2015, the UN Development Program (UNDP), established the Funding Facility for Stabilization to assist Iraq with “rehabilitating water and sewage systems, roads, and bridges” in thirty-one locations retaken from ISIS throughout the country’s east and north. “In the case of Mosul, the Facility is contracting the local private sector to rebuild grids from the bottom-up and connect households as quickly as possible to the electricity, water, and sewage networks,” Hugo de Vries, a stabilization specialist for UNDP in Iraq, said of the aid agency’s work. “Public work crews are removing rubble and upgrading public buildings. Tens of thousands of Muslawis are working on stabilization initiatives—receiving income and spending it on essentials in the local market.”

An Iraqi protester gestures in front of the burning Iranian Consulate in Basra, Iraq, on Sept. 7, 2018 (Photo: Essam al-Sudani).

An Iraqi protester gestures in front of the burning Iranian Consulate in Basra, Iraq, on Sept. 7, 2018 (Photo: Essam al-Sudani).

Since 2004, only a year after the start of the Iraq War, Iraq and the UNEP have been coordinating the critical restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes, which the UNEP described as “the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East”, by promoting sustainable development with support from Italy and Japan. Iraq’s wealthy neighbors in the Persian Gulf can bankroll the expansion of these efforts.

The United States, the country that enjoyed the most sway in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and one whose military still maintains a presence there, can cooperate with its Middle Eastern ally on the scientific front. The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community have spent years analyzing climate change as a threat to international security. By taking advantage of well-developed channels for intelligence sharing with Iraq, American intelligence agencies and military branches can ensure that their Iraqi counterparts have a strategy for fighting global warming and the militancy that it causes.

In addition to collaborating with its Arab and Western allies, Iraq can look to what other countries in the Muslim world have done. In Indonesia, activists, clerics, and gurus have defined environmentalism as a religious obligation for all Muslims. Taking a similar approach in Iraq could facilitate a countrywide response to climate change and promote unity among Iraq’s fractious Shias and Sunnis.

Civil society should represent the last component of a comprehensive Iraqi response to climate change. International NGOs and their Iraqi partners have the decades-old infrastructure necessary to alleviate water scarcity in some of Iraq’s remotest regions. Medair, an aid agency headquartered in Switzerland, noted on Twitter that it had spent 2018 going house to house to deliver water tanks to Iraqi families. Other aid agencies should follow Medair’s example.

If Iraq partners with civil society and the international community, these forces can devise an approach to curbing the effects of climate change that not only embraces environmentalism but also ends the relationship between global warming and militancy. The UN, the U.S., and the rest of the international community must assist Iraq with the challenging task of environmental peacebuilding.

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This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, Climate Change, English, Iraq, Politics in General, Security Policy.

1 Response to How Water Scarcity Exacerbated Iraq’s History of Political Violence

  1. Dr. Mustafa Salim says:

    Iraq’s water problems are closely linked to the extent of corruption that controls the work of the government and militias. This is why the water problems in Iraq during 13 years, from barbaric and inhuman blockade, were lower.
    Solve water problems, need plans and projects, and government corruption prevents it ..

    The report does not want to admit this. He may not want to admit that what the American invasion did is to destroy Iraq and its environment, and the people he was not in conflict with USA.
    Washington seems to have allowed Iranian influence to com plete the destruction mission.

    Washington is the one who created governments after the invasion. These governments have run false elections, sectarian war and live on corruption. The international community will not solve the water problem in Iraq. It will not help. The first step is to eliminate the corruption of the government and militias and restore the value of Iraqi citizenship and identity, and must be far for Iran terrorism ..

    Twitter: @mustafasalem

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