12 September 2022

Water governance in Iraq: Enabling a gamechanger

Iraq finds itself amid a water crisis that far exceeds previous experiences with water scarcity and acute shortages. Declining quantity and quality of water, outdated and damaged infrastructure, and inefficient water use have uncovered deficiencies in existing water governance, severely affecting the country’s socio-economic, political, and security situation. In the last years, basic water supply services in the south repeatedly broke down during the summer months which contributed to widespread antigovernment protests, particularly in 2018 (BBC News, 2018). The current state of Iraq’s water sector needs to be understood against the background of the country’s tumultuous history. Iraq remains marred by autocratic regimes prioritizing power politics over good governance, consecutive wars, foreign military interventions, fragile security and political instability. This has prevented the country from effectively addressing water challenges despite the increased attention that has been given to water (-related) issues in recent years.

On the basis of a thorough literature review, semi-structured interviews, and an expert workshop, this paper provides a critical picture of water governance in Iraq. More specifically, the authors look at how water resources are governed and managed across Iraq’s 18 governorates. Zooming in on current practices and challenges uncovers fragmented, outdated, and ill-suited structures but also allows for an initial assessment of intervention options to achieve more effective and efficient water governance.

Two major factors undermining good water governance in Iraq are identified and analysed: first, an insufficiently implemented water allocation framework that neither enables Iraq to meet its water needs nor effectively addresses its wicked water challenges; and second, a dysfunctional decentralisation that undermines local water management and, eventually, hampers national water governance. Both structural hurdles limit the implementation of existing strategies and contribute to a widely shared perception that water governance is informal, non-transparent, and ineffective. However, both undermining factors also offer opportunities to improve the current situation and thus mitigate water-related security challenges. The development and implementation of an effective and transparent water governance system is absolutely essential, including a suitable and fair allocation of water resources. A series of reforms would also contribute to equity and accountability and be highly beneficial through its impact on other water-related priorities of the Iraqi government, such as investing in appropriate infrastructure or increasing the efficiency of the water usage. For future water governance decisions, the Iraqi government needs also determine what to prioritize among the many water-related challenges and identify the most beneficial and efficient starting points (Von Lossow et al., 2022). This process requires consultations with different interest groups, communities, and stakeholders most affected by these decisions.

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This policy brief is published in September 2022, and it is a collaboration between Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership and the Planetary Security Initiative.