January 31, 2011

This Weekend’s News: Water in Iraq Could Be Exacerbating Ethnic Grievances

Like many, my attention was fixed on the Middle East this weekend as I watched events in Egypt unfold, with demonstrations, it would seem, becoming more intense as the days pass. The United States closed its embassy in Egypt on Sunday and was making arrangements to evacuate American citizens. Meanwhile, many Egyptians are running out of food staples and are unable or afraid to go to the market as political and social unrest has paralyzed regular food shipments. But while I watched the events in Egypt, I was also drawn to this headline from a report published by Agence France Presse on Saturday that I worried would get buried, but has important implications for the Middle East, as well: “Iraq water shortages raising ethnic tensions.”

The nexus of water and security is an issue that I have followed closely for the last few years, with a particular interest in water and security in Iraq. In fact, in a guest post for Tom Ricks’s The Best Defense blog last June, I asked, concernedly, if water could undermine the American game plan there? And here in 2011, we are getting a clearer picture of just how important water is for long-term stability and security in Iraq.

A worsening water shortage in Iraq is raising tensions in the multi-ethnic Kirkuk province, where Arab farmers accuse the Kurdistan region of ruining them by closing the valves to a dam in winter,” Marwan Ibrahim reported for Agence France Presse on Saturday. “‘We are harmed by the Kurds, and the officials responsible for Baghdad and Kirkuk will not lift a finger,’ said Sheikh Khaled al-Mafraji, a leader of the Arab Political Council that groups mainly Sunni tribal leaders.”

Back in June, I wrote about Iraq’s perennial drought and water shortages, noting that “with the [Iraqi] 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.” And though the government has since formed a coalition, it seems, according to this report, that water shortages have not yet garnered the attention of policymakers in Baghdad they deserve, in part because the fledgling coalition government’s attention is likely on building the capacity of internal security services; rightly so. Yet as Ibrahim reported, “The issue is a ticking bomb in a province with strong ethnic loyalties, where Arabs accuse Kurds of intentionally harming the province.”

“At the heart of the conflict is the Dukan dam, built in 1955 in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, 75 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Kirkuk province,” Ibrahim wrote. “‘They release too much water from June to September while from October it is the opposite: there is not enough drinking water and even less to irrigate our lands,’ Mafraji complained.”

This particular issue is nothing new for Iraqis, who have long had their water resources subjected to the whims of their upstream neighbors Iran, Syria and Turkey. As I noted in June, “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 water resources of Iraq’s downstream communities are also subjected to the needs and practices of the state’s upstream communities. Yet, as this AFP report noted, geographically these communities constitute different ethnic groups – with Kurdistan to the north – which could be driving the perception that the Kurds are intentionally taking more water from their downstream Arab neighbors. “The peasants claimed that they (the Kurds) cut off water supplies to force them to leave the area. They do not understand there is a shortage and believe it is a political conflict,” one Iraqi who lives west of Kirkuk told Ibrahim.

Nevertheless, perception plays an important role in politics. And if Arab peasants perceive their plight routed in a political conflict with their Kurdish neighbors rather than an actual shortage (even if there clearly is a water shortage), it could continue to exacerbate existing tensions. And while water shortages alone are unlikely to cause a resurgence of ethnic violence, it could be the straw that breaks the camels back. “‘The central government must intervene immediately to ask that our brothers in the north (Kurds) provide the necessary amounts of water for irrigation,’ Mafraji said, threatening to hold demonstrations if his voice was not heard.”

Baghdad would be better served by paying more attention, as would Iraq’s long-term stability.

For more on water and security in Iraq, see this other Agence France Presse report from Friday describing how Iraq’s water shortages are impacting hydropower generation and the effects that it is having on power shortages.  

This Week’s Events

Starting this morning and running through Thursday is the 2011 State Energy Policy and Technology Outlook Conference, hosted by NASEO and ASERTTI.

On Wednesday, SAIS is hosting a day-long symposium on The Future of the Arctic. Also on Wednesday, beginning at noon, the Council on Foreign Relations is holding a conference call with CFR Fellows Michael A. Levi and Shannon K. O'Neil on Energy Innovation in Brazil, China, and India: U.S. Policy Implications. Finally, at 12:45 PM, Resources for the Future is hosting a discussion on Finding Forest Carbon: Estimating and Tracking REDD Supply.

On Thursday, beginning at 12:30 PM, go to SAIS to see Jonathon Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate change at the U.S. Department of State, discuss The Future of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.