June 29, 2011

With U.S. Troops Continuing to Drawdown from Iraq, Many Challenges Remain

As the U.S. military continues its drawdown of troops from
Iraq – with the last of those troops to leave by December 31, 2011 –
policymakers and analysts are likely to raise concerns over the country’s
long-term stability and sustainability given the laundry list of challenges
that continue to plague a fledgling and often times beleaguered central
government.  The New York Times report this morning on China National Petroleum
Corporation’s (CNPC) recent oil operations at Iraq’s Al-Ahdab oil field sheds light on some of those seams, including challenges stemming from access to food and
water and other basic social services that are largely not provided evenly by
the government in Baghdad:

The [CNPC] deal began drawing
intense criticism from residents and officials in Wasit Province, where the [Al
Ahdab] field is located, shortly after the contract was signed. Some
people demanded that Wasit be granted a royalty of $1 a barrel to improve
access to clean water, health services, schools, roads and other public needs
in the province, which is among Iraq’s poorest. The Iraqi government rejected
the demands.

As Iraq continues to grabble with these challenges, one
cannot help but wonder how much ill-access to water, food, shelter and adequate
electricity (to name just a few social needs) will continue to exacerbate
existing grievances and drive a greater wedge between the Iraqi people and the
government. I am reminded especially of the hurdles the country faces with
acute water shortages. Last June, I wrote a piece for Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog on this very issue.
Here’s what I found:

 Could Water undermine the American game plan for Iraq?

In Iraq, a country where one in four citizens 
do not have access to safe drinking water - let alone enough water to irrigate
their crops -- water shortages could drown any hope of long-term, meaningful
reconciliation between the Iraqi people and the government.

Many Iraqis have been pleading to Baghdad to devote more resources to shore up
the country's crumbling infrastructure and unsustainable water management
policies in order to effectively tackle the chronic water challenges that have
been exacerbated by four-years of drought. "If our government was good and
strong, we would get our [water] rights," one Iraqi told The New
York Times

Ali Baban, Iraqi Minister of Planning and Development Co-operation, warned last
July that Iraq's intense drought conditions could push the frail state to a
breaking point. "We have a real thirst in Iraq. Our agriculture is going
to die, our cities are going to wilt, and no state can keep quiet in such a
situation," he cautioned. But with the 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.

Acute water shortages continue to shape internal security dynamics, forcing
Iraqis to flee their native communities in search of better resources. Iraq's
Minster of Water, Dr. Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, stated last year that more than
300,000 marshland residents were forced to flee their drought stricken
communities in recent years. To make matters worse, in provinces where access
to water is slightly better, the tattered infrastructure of pipes prevents much
of that water from reaching Iraqis in their homes, forcing them to rely instead
on water trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross and other
NGOs to supply fresh water.

Iraq was once a paradise, the wheat basket of the Middle East, with lush
marshes and river ways that sustained a vibrant agricultural community and
fresh-water fisheries. Even today, while agricultural production accounts for
only 10 percent of Iraqi GDP, it has long been a hallmark of Iraq - producing
wheat for world renowned German beers and the region's most popular varietal
rice, Anbar rice.

In recent years, many of Iraq's crops have been left parched and its fragile
agricultural industry in disarray - leaving Iraqi farmers in a veritable
dustbowl. Barley and wheat production has declined up to 95 percent in provinces
that rely on rain-fed irrigation, while total barley and wheat production
declined by more than half last year. Meanwhile Iraq's date industry - once the
world's leading exporter - is dwindling. At its height in the 1980s, Iraqi date
farmers produced 600,000 tons of dates; in 2008, production dropped to 281,000
tons with production continuing to decline as drought worsens.

Regional politics and perennial drought throughout much of the Middle East have
not helped Iraq navigate its water crisis either.  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 lack of credibility in the
new government may also be hampering its ability to get its neighbors to
execute on those commitments.

While much attention is understandably on Afghanistan, U.S. national security
policymakers should be aware of the challenges that could shape the future
security environment in Iraq - especially as the new government in Baghdad
struggles to stand on its own. Water shortages alone won't cause a resurgence
of violence, but the issue could be the straw that breaks the back of a (weak)
fledgling government. As the United States looks ahead for opportunities to
ensure long-term stability in Iraq, access to water may well be critical to the
new Iraqi government's credibility and our ability to responsibly withdraw.

Could 2010 really be the year that Iraq begins to unravel? Maybe. Maybe not.
But one thing is clear: the broad outlines of a post-occupation Iraq are
beginning to take shape, and some of the acute challenges that have been
marginalized in the post-war years could increasingly undermine Baghdad's credibility
and long-term stability. If left unaddressed, water shortages could very well
leave Baghdad hanging out to dry -- and us, too.