Water scarcity could lead to the next major conflict between Iran and Iraq

Water scarcity could lead to the next major conflict between Iran and Iraq
Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iran and Iraq are frequently at odds over water issues. Iraq depends on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for nearly all of its water. But Iran is building dams to redivert some of that water, causing alarm and creating major water shortages for Iraq.

Tehran prefers not to work with Baghdad on water projects, instead opting for quick fixes for its own water problems. Some two-thirds of Iran’s 10.2 billion cubic meters of water that exits the country actually flows across its borders into Iraq, which could lead to a major water shortage inside Iran by 2036.

To address the issue, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has introduced what he calls “modern” irrigation projects along the western border with Iraq, aiming to quadruple the volume of Iranian agricultural products. In reality, the projects are not terribly modern and involve the construction of a number of small dams. In 2019, for example, Iran announced plans to build 109 dams over the course of about two years, and to redirect the extra water in dam reservoirs to other drought-prone provinces across the country.

For its part, the Iraqi government says its own water insecurity is acute, and that Iran should halt these water blockages. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the spokesperson for Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources have accused Iran of rediverting the Tigris in the north, and violating international law that prohibits harmful disruptions in natural river flows. But from Tehran’s point of view, its actions are legal, given that the Little Zab and Sirwan rivers in the KRG originate from Iran’s northwestern Zagros Mountains. Iran continues to divert the Little Zab to feed Lake Urmia, while the Sirwan river is diverted for irrigation projects in the Sarpol Zahab border region of Iran.