ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – At a spot where the Zei Bchuk River flows out of Dukan Lake young boys dive into the cool waters to escape the summer heat, a few men are washing a car right on the edge, pumps draw water into houses on the bank, and bottles and plastic bags drift with the current.
This scene at Zei Bchuk, or Little Zab, exemplifies the strain placed on the Kurdistan Region’s water resources.
The Kurdistan Region is blessed with ample water, but the resource is misused and wasted, according to experts who say it boils down to two issues: lack of management and lack of education.
The primary sources of water in the Kurdistan Region are five main rivers that provide 75 percent of water for household and commercial use, drinking, and agriculture. The Sirwan and Zei Bchuk flow into the Region from Iran. Zei Gawre, or Greater Zab, and the Khabur flow from Turkey. The Awa Spi is located entirely in Kurdistan. In the northwestern areas they also draw water from the Tigris.
The Region also has groundwater that quenches the remaining 25 percent of the need. But the government wants to preserve this source as much as possible.
“It is not that we don’t have water, the problem is in our management,” said Dr. Mohamed Amin Barzinji, dean of the Natural Resources Engineering and Management department at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler (UKH).
Akram Ahmed, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Directorate for Dams and Reservoirs agrees. “That’s absolutely right. Absolutely right,” he said. “Integrated water resource management is strongly required for our Region.”
The failure is evident in an ongoing water shortage. Iran recently cut off the flow of Zei Bchuk, leaving residents of Qaladze high and dry. The KRG has no contingency plan to provide water to Qaladze even though construction on Iran’s dam was ongoing for years.
Qaladze is not suitable for digging wells to draw groundwater; they rely on the river for 100 percent of their water. So the long term plan is to construct dams, said Akram Ahmed.
That will take years and half a billion dollars.
What to do in the short term and in the emergency? The answers were a series of shrugs.
Masood Karrash, who runs Erbil’s water department under the Ministry of Municipalities and Tourism, threw his hands into the air wondering why the government had not braced itself for the eventuality of Iran cutting the river’s flow.
Dams take years to build. Iranian authorities spent millions of dollars and relocated people in their construction project. It was a “clear message” that they would one day cut the water, he said.
Karrash recently met with Qaladze officials who showed him photographs of what was happening, which was disheartening, especially knowing that thousands of people were dependent on the water.
The Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources, Abdulsatar Majid, said the government has two solutions to the problem: diplomatic talks and building their own dams to store water.
“We expect Iran to help, not harm us, using water as a weapon against the Kurdistan Region and its people,” Majid said.
The Kurdistan government thinks it has a bargaining chip in its talks with Iran.
“Iran has many interests in the Region – political interests, security interests, economic interests. If they are ready to sacrifice these interests by blocking water, let them do it,” said Majid.
What is needed, said Ahmed, is to create a balance between water supply and use.
For him, “water management means distributing water through the canals to the agriculture in order to reduce the amount of loss, and to send the proper water to the inhabitants, to protect water from pollution, to start at the same time to have water treatment plants.”
Before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq the Kurdistan Region had no money for large-budget projects.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Region saw exponential growth and rapid expansion of cities which led to investment in water infrastructure based on 3.1 percent population growth, Karrash explained. And for a few years, his office, responsible for distribution of water, did not receive any complaints from residents.
The government also negotiated several dam projects with private companies, reaching “final” stages, Ahmed said.
Then came the financial crisis of 2014 caused by a complete budget freeze from Baghdad and a sharp decline in oil prices.
The Region was also flooded by 1.8 million refugees and Iraqis displaced by war. This 40 percent increase in population, Karrash explained, disrupted all their plans. Now people with complaints about lack of water are regular visitors to his office.
Majid’s ministry has not received funds since 2013 which means their dam and irrigation projects are all on hold.
Barzinji at UKH suggests that oil revenues should be spent on water, which is life.
“Why not use the oil to support the other domains?” he asked, arguing that water and agriculture are more important. “We can live without oil and cars, but we cannot live without bread and water.”
The agriculture minister agreed that water shortage and food security are linked.
“I believe these two issues, water and bread, are very significant in which the government should have plans, allocate appropriate budget and make good decisions in this regard,” he said.
Ahmed believes that politicians should leave water management to technocrats and experts who warn that without a firm plan further development and climate change could only make the situation worse.