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Why Water May Be More of a Commodity in Iraq Than Oil

The government estimates that nearly two million people face severe drinking water shortages and extremely limited electricity due to hydropower shortage.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 10, 2010 (ENS) - Iraqis are calling on their incoming government to devote more energy to resolving the country's chronic water problems, with some experts stating that water will be more important than oil in the long-term development of the country.

Even as recent rains have brought some relief to drought-stricken Iraq, the historic problem of water scarcity has forced tens of thousands of rural Iraqis from their homes.

The government estimates that nearly two million people face severe drinking water shortages and extremely limited electricity due to hydropower shortage.

Meanwhile, diplomatic tensions are running high as promises from upriver counties such as Turkey, Syria and Iran to allow more water into Iraq appear not to have been met.

This week, Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zebari denounced a plan by Syria to divert water from the Tigris River to irrigate some 200,000 acres of land as detrimental to Iraq's future water supply.

Iraq's Minister of Electricity Kareem Waheed called Syria's move a "shock" that would "embarrass" his ministry and undermine its commitments to hydropower. Both ministers decried Syria's plan as a breach of international conventions on down-river water rights.

"The next government will be challenged on the water issue and there is no option but to deal with it. I understand that Iraq faces more than one problem, but this one can't be ignored. No matter what the government is focusing on, this problem will impose itself," said Dr. Awn Thiab al-Ajeli, the head of Iraq's National Centre for Water Resource Management within the Ministry of Water Resources.

"The first step that should be made is to reach a deal with Turkey as well as Iran and Syria in order to have good, stable amounts of water enter to Iraq each day. The current situation is that the amount is good one day, and bad the next. To make this step, a deal must be made between governments, not just between two water ministries. It depends on the diplomatic relations between the two states," Ajeli said.

Officials have said in the past that security concerns have overshadowed the development of a forward-thinking water policy.

With Iraq's recent and relative stability, experts are now calling for a plan to tackle the water problems that have afflicted the country - from rising salinity in the southern marshlands to the imminent demise of traditional irrigation systems, known as karez, in the north.

A UNESCO report found that 100,000 Iraqis have fled their native communities since 2005 due to water shortages.

Another United Nations report claims the water levels in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Iraq's primary sources of water, have fallen by more than two-thirds. The report cautioned that the vital lifelines could completely dry up by 2040.

"At the current rates, Iraq's water supply will fall an estimated 43 billion cubic metres by 2015, far short of the 77 cubic metres that the country will need to avert a widespread humanitarian disaster," the UN report states.

According to UN research, "Inefficient irrigation, lack of government coordination and weak capacity to manage the resource has compounded the current shortage of water.

"After years of neglect during the previous regime, Iraq's water managers still lack sufficient technical capability and knowledge to address its growing water crisis," the UN states. "Budget constraints have handicapped the government's ability to implement a long-term water management plan."

Social problems connected with water scarcity are common in Iraq - fishermen in the southern complain of a declining catches; in agricultural areas, water shortages have caused wheat production to fall by half.