Water : 'a casualty of Iraq war'

Posted: 11 March 2003

War in Iraq, if it happens, will inevitably have environmental consequences. One casualty is likely to be water. In the interest of open debate, and without comment, we publish below excerpts from a statement by the US-based International Rivers Network, on the possible impact of war on Iraq's water supplies.

"Waging a war with Iraq necessarily means waging a war against the most scarce and valuable commodity in the Middle East: water.

"In this region...limited fresh water resources are threatened by more than the after-effects of oil fires and spills, and chemical and biological contamination. Water supply installations, including canals, high dams, and water desalinisation plants are military targets. Water sanitation systems are also targets

"Iraq's water and energy production and distribution infrastructure were severely damaged during the Gulf war. It has been widely reported that coalition forces bombed Iraq's eight multi-purpose dams during the Gulf war, destroying flood control systems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water storage, and hydroelectric power.

Destroying dams

"Major pumping stations were targeted and municipal water and sewage facilities were destroyed. The US Defence department has recently claimed that Iraq plans to destroy dams as part of a scorched earth strategy in the event of an invasion.

"While piped water reaches most urban homes, 65 per cent of it is not treated (Oxfam, January 23, 2003). Most rural homes in central and southern Iraq do not have access to piped water at all. Air strikes in 1991 destroyed much of the country's power supply, severely affecting water and sanitation systems. Although most water treatment plants have their own generators, 70 per cent of them do not work, according to UNICEF.

"Destruction of water sanitation systems has been slow and recognized by the US government as a direct consequence of sanctions against Iraq. According to the United States Defence Intelligence Agency document "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities" dated January 22, 1991, the DIA acknowledges that unless Iraq convinced the UN or individual countries to exempt water treatment supplies from sanctions for humanitarian reasons, water treatment capability would suffer a slow decline, and finally fully degrade.

Child mortality

"The consequence of this steady degradation is the highest rate of child mortality in the world, with seven of ten infant deaths resulting from diarrhoea or acute respiratory infection linked to polluted water or malnutrition.

"Water shortages in Iraq have been worsened by one of the most serious droughts in recent history. Water resources are now less than half normal levels. According to UNDP recent droughts may have affected up to 70 per cent of all arable land. In addition salination affects more than 75 per cent of land in Iraq and is one of the major causes for desertification (UNDP 2003)."

In addition, says IRN, the destruction of the Iraq's already limited water resources is likely to affect peace and stability in the region. "In particular, relations between Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, already strained in the area of fresh water allocations, are likely to further suffer. "Conflict between Syria, Turkey, and Iraq has long centred on competition over the waters of the Euphrates, which flows from southern Turkey, through Syria and Iraq before emptying into the Persian Gulf. Dams built, under construction, and in the planning stages in Turkey are considered by Iraq to directly threaten its water supply."