Iraq: UN-sponsored conference tackles country's water strategy

News and Press Release
Originally published
BAGHDAD, 17 May 2007 (IRIN) - The Iraq office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has organised a three-day conference which ends today in Amman, Jordan, which establishes a water strategy in Iraq and will assist the government in developing its water management capacity.

In a statement on 15 May and emailed to IRIN, the UNDP said the principal aim of the conference was to highlight the major challenges facing the water sector and propose actions that include identifying a long-term strategy, strong coordination mechanisms and sound policies for water resource management.

"A country rich in resources that has two major rivers - the Tigris and Euphrates - yet bedevilled by years of conflict and war, the water sector in Iraq has faced a major deterioration in recent years," said the statement.

Like much of Iraq's other infrastructure, the national water networks have been allowed to fall into disrepair over the past 17 years largely as a result of the UN's economic sanctions during the Saddam Hussein era.

Sabotage, violence, disease

Iraq's water problems multiplied as the country's main water-treatment and pumping stations were stripped of vital equipment by looters immediately after the collapse of the regime in 2003.

Four years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the majority of Iraqis find it difficult to get safe water as acts of sabotage and violence have prevented the overhaul of water plants.

"Now sewage and effluent from government and private factories is being discharged into the rivers, and the lack of electricity and chemical agents make it very hard for water treatment plants to produce 100 percent potable water," said Ahmed Khalid al-Obeidi from Baghdad's health directorate.

"And that has caused many diseases like gastroenteritis, brucellosis, hepatitis and typhoid fever, now common among children due to bad drinking water," al-Obeidi added.

The UNDP statement said other contributing factors included "the serious lack of coordination between various public administration bodies, weak capacity to implement a national water resources plan and negotiate a more equitable share internationally, increasingly depleted resources and environmental degradation."

"No matter how challenging or grave the current events in Iraq might be, it is a national imperative for us to strengthen our capacity and establish a vision for managing our precious water resources. We owe it to our country and future generations," Iraq's minister of water resources, Abdellatif Al-Rashid, said.

The conference, which started on Tuesday, is being organised in collaboration with major donors, including the European Union, Canada and Australia as well as organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Turkish dam

"There are challenges," said Jumaa Mohammed, an expert at the Ministry of Water Resources. "We need to reach more regional and international agreements to ensure the just sharing of water in accordance with international law to achieve ultimate benefits for the two neighbouring people and avoid conflicts."

One of these challenges, Mohammed added, is the massive dam which is being constructed by the Turkish government on the Tigris.

"The normal annual amount of water in the Tigris at the Iraqi-Turkish border is 20.93 billion cubic metres [per year], but this amount will be reduced to 9.7 billion cubic metres per year when the dam is completed," Mohammed said.

"That will deprive at least 696,000 hectares of agricultural land of fresh water. And, of course, this will have a negative affect on agricultural production, potable water and electricity," Mohammed added.

The controversial Ilisu dam, located about 65km from the Iraqi border will be one of the largest dams in Turkey and is scheduled for completion by 2013.