Securing Water

Iraq aims to restore rivers, marshes, dams and treatment plants damaged by war and neglect


The historic name for Iraq was Mesopotamia, which means “the land between the two rivers.” The world is indebted to this land as the cradle of civilization, established on the banks of the great rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Those same rivers are equally critical to modern Iraq as an economic lifeline, not only supplying water for irrigation, but harboring millions of fish to feed the population. In the face of wars and devastation caused by Daesh, Iraq’s challenge is to sustain and restore this vital resource. Unipath interviewed Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Dr. Hassan Janabi, who described his ministry’s achievements in trying to protect these pillars of economic security in Iraq and the Middle East.

Unipath:  Iraqis have lived through many water crises in the past that harmed the economy. How vulnerable is the country today to such crises?

Iraqi boys herd water buffalo in the Euphrates River in Najaf. Protecting the river is a priority of Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources. [REUTERS]

Minister Janabi: Iraq has long endured water shortages and natural disasters. Droughts and floods have struck Iraq in different periods of its history. What has changed is that the rivers are no longer regulated solely by natural fluctuations — their flows are controlled by Iraq and its neighbors Turkey, Syria and Iran through a massive network of dams that control flow. This represents a huge change in the hydrological cycle and greatly impacts water flow. We notice the change not only during the peak seasonal flows — when we’ve observed a deterioration in water quality — but also during periods of intense heat and during flood cycles that have long played a critical role in renewing and nourishing the soil, maintaining a diversity of living creatures and resisting desertification. Today we are more susceptible to water shortages even during peak water output.

Unipath: How does the Water Ministry deal with desertification and climate change?

Minister Janabi: Climate change and desertification are best combated at the level of national policy. This requires political and economic stability so we can finance such programs and establish effective strategies to manage growing demand for water and enforce the nation’s goals.

Iraq is a member of the United Nation Framework on Climate Change as well as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. We are very committed and obey these treaties despite the challenges we face in the war against terror and the drastic reduction in national income.

As a ministry, we are facing a critical challenge of water shortages and low water levels in the rivers due to high demand and the fact that our water infrastructure and irrigation systems are outdated. They were designed based on conditions that existed in the 1950s and 1960s and must be updated and rehabilitated to match the realities of today. Therefore, we established a new strategy for water resources and farmland effective through the year 2035, and we are working hard to execute this strategy, despite the financial difficulties.

The ministry aims to focus on small projects that will be placed into service as soon as we complete them. These are coordinated with our overall strategy and estimates of available water resources, even though neighboring countries determine how much water ultimately passes through our two rivers. We think that executing our strategy will play a positive role in climate change policy. In addition, the ministry is working to support projects to establish green belts and resist desertification.

Unipath: Your name has become synonymous with marshland restoration, particularly in southern Iraq. Can you tell us about that plan?

Minister Janabi: Our primary mission is the preservation of marshlands. This means allocating sufficient water to allow Iraqi marshlands to flourish. This provides an essential service for the communities reliant on the marshes and maintains environmental balance, wildlife diversity and food supplies. This is above all a response to a United Nations declaration that added Iraqi marshlands to the list of the world heritage sites. Therefore, we guarantee to supply sufficient water from our annual water budget. We view the marshlands as a water consumer and treat them the same way we treat the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. We are enthusiastic about our commitment, despite the violations and competition from local and regional actors.

We think the Iraqi marshlands have economic, cultural and sentimental value, and everyone is responsible for protecting them. That means restricting any pollution and combating illegal fishing and hunting that sometimes entail the use of poisons and electrical shocks to harvest fish.  Such practices are actually global and addressed in international treaties so that all of humanity can fight against them.

A worker pumps concrete underground in an emergency operation to reinforce Mosul Dam.

Unipath: The world has heard about the dangers facing Mosul Dam in the past few years, particularly during the Daesh occupation. What is the dam’s condition today?

Minister Janabi: We have a known problem with the Mosul Dam’s foundations owing to geologic weakness of its soil at various depths under the dam. This was diagnosed before the dam was built. In fact, the dam was designed and built with tunnels underneath so that concrete could be injected into its foundation. The concrete injection operation has persisted since 1986.

Currently, the dam maintenance and injection operation continues with the help of the Italian company Trevi under the supervision of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for the support of the Corps of Engineers for our ministry to strengthen the dam’s foundation.

A worker passes through the Mosul Dam tunnel used to inject concrete to strengthen the structure. [REUTERS]

Unipath: Do you have a plan to help the Iraqi citizens of Basra affected by environmental catastrophes linked to the rivers?

Minister Janabi: Basra is the most impacted area in Iraq, whether sentimentally or economically. Wars destroyed it, and it has suffered from pollution, sunken ships and the water shortages from the large sources that feed the Shatt al-Arab river, such as the Karoun, Karkha, Tigris and Euphrates. As a result, saltwater from the Arabian Gulf has intruded into the Shatt al-Arab.

The problems in Basra include a shortage of drinking water that requires building large water plants. That is an issue handled by other government agencies; all that we can do here as the Ministry of Water Resources is to support and encourage these government agencies to take necessary steps. The second problem is the deteriorating quality of the Shatt al-Arab river from a reduction of freshwater reaching it from rivers farther upstream.

We are doing our best to supply Basra with about 75 cubic meters of water per second. We hope the Iranians match this quota. If Iran commits to that amount, we can save the Shatt al-Arab and its environment from total disaster. Until that happens, our ministry established an irrigation canal that runs parallel to the banks of Shatt al-Arab. This project is about to be completed, and we have allocated water for this purpose.

A woman from the Iraqi marshes weaves reeds into carpets. The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources is trying to repair environmental destruction of marshes from earlier decades. [REUTERS]

Unipath: What are your plans to restore the area recently liberated from Daesh?

Minister Janabi: Freshwater treatment plants were liberated and secured; however, we discovered sabotage on these plants by the hands of terrorists. Our initial estimate of the damage approached $600 million.

Daesh used water as a weapon of war by flooding villages, towns and farmland and destroying the Ramadi and Fallujah dam and the only canal that supplied irrigation water to the Baghdad belt. Terrorists also occupied Mosul Dam and tried to control Haditha Dam, but the citizens of Haditha prevailed against Daesh. Daesh also controls branches of the Euphrates in Syria and the Al-Tabqa Dam, which exposes Iraqis to great danger. I would like to thank our Armed Forces that moved swiftly to retake Mosul Dam before the terrorists destroyed it and also secured other water infrastructure. I believe we’ve passed through the dangerous period and are using our humble resources to make improvements. Money recently became available to repair and renovate Mosul Dam and the structures that regulate river water flowing into Lake Habbaniya.

I have faith in the Iraqi people to pass through these difficult times and emerge victorious on the other side. Iraqis are a strong and patient people. This was obvious after the liberation of northern Iraq from Daesh, when farmers started clearing their fields of war materiel to ready them for the planting season. Their lives returned to normal within a few months.