Why Iraq's great rivers are dying

This is the Shatt al-Arab.

The river that winds through the city of Basra, here, in Southern Iraq.

It was once one of the most important waterways in the Middle East:

Here lies the great port of Basra, at the cross-roads of the world’s trade.

It fed dozens of canals throughout Basra and

earned the city the nickname, The Venice of the Middle East.

It made Basra the symbol of Iraq’s growth and prosperity.

Today it's the second largest city with over 4 million people.

And with these oil fields and the only deep-water port in the country, it's also the economic


About 80% of Iraq's revenue comes from here.

But this is what Basra’s canals look like today.

In the summer of 2018, they were choked with debris, raw sewage and rotting garbage that

was poisoning the city’s residents.

About 100,000 people were hospitalized because of water-related illnesses.

Basra now represents a crisis that's been looming over Iraq for decades:

The country is running out of water.

That's because it neither controls the flow of its rivers, nor has the infrastructure to clean them.

It's standing in the way of Iraq's recovery.

"The waters of the two great rivers, Tigris and the Euphrates, are indeed the waters of life."

Almost all of Iraq's water comes from two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris.

Which run down most of the country then converge

here to form the Shatt al-Arab before emptying into the Persian Gulf.

Along the way these rivers provide drinking water to these cities and irrigate farms and

marshlands here.

The rest of the country is mostly desert.

A vast network of infrastructure is used to generate power, distribute the water, and

clean it.

That includes Dams, canals, and water treatment facilities.

But this system is delicate.

Anything that affects the amount of water flowing down these rivers or the infrastructure

around it can have massive consequences.

Over the last few decades, both have taken a hit.

Iraq relies heavily on these rivers, but it doesn’t control them.

Both rivers begin in Turkey.

About 71% of Iraq’s water comes from there, while Syria and Iran add another 10% as the

rivers move south.

Which means 81% of Iraq’s water is controlled by its neighbors.

And they’ve been keeping more and more of it for themselves.

Since the 1970s, Turkey has built at least 20 dams on the Euphrates and the tributaries

that feed it, including the Ataturk dam - the 5th largest in the world - to provide electricity

and water to its growing population.

Syria has built several dams too.

Both countries are holding the river hostage.

Today, only a quarter of the Euphrates' normal flow reaches Iraq.

The same thing is happening on the Tigris.

Turkey is building a number of dams here, including the Ilisu dam.

When it was close to completion in 2018, it blocked so much water that residents all the

way down in Baghdad could cross the Tigris by foot.

To make matters worse, many of the tributaries that feed the Tigris begin in Iran.

And there, they’ve built 600 hundred dams in the last 30 years and dozens are under


All of this means that Iraq, the furthest country downstream, isn't getting enough water.

There’s less to drink, irrigate crops and generate electricity.

It also means the rivers are more contaminated.

At a normal flow, water can dilute a lot of the toxins and sewage that get dumped into

the river.

But when levels are low, these pollutants become more potent.

Plus, the weaker flow allows salt water to move upstream from the Persian gulf - which

kills fish and crops.

All of this puts more pressure on Iraq’s infrastructure to distribute and clean the water.

The problem is - much of this infrastructure has been destroyed - and Iraq hasn’t been

able to rebuild it.

There have been 3 devastating wars in Iraq in the last three decades

Just 2 hours ago, allied airforces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

The Gulf war began when Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait - a US ally.

The US led a coalition to retaliate with airstrikes.

"We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb potential,

destroy his chemical

weapons facilities. Much of Saddam’s artillery and tanks will be destroyed.

But they also bombed Iraq’s infrastructure.

Including 4 hydro-electric dams.

Which in turn, disabled the water treatment facilities that relied on electricity.

A sewage treatment plant in Baghdad was also bombed - causing sewage to flow into the Tigris

- poisoning the water supply for Southern Iraq.

This UN report said the war reduced [Iraq] to the “pre-industrial age” and that the

country would face a “imminent catastrophe”.

Saddam survived the war, but the UN imposed

strict sanctions, freezing Iraq’s bank accounts and restricting what it could import.

Including construction supplies and water purification chemicals.

Then Saddam made things even worse.

In 1993, he was fighting rebels in these marshlands.

Despite the post-war water crisis he weaponized the water here by diverting the rivers away

from the marshes.

Over the years, this whole area was drained - and turned into a desert.

Thousands reportedly died and at least 100,000 people were forced to leave.

By the early 2000s, Iraq’s water supply continued to shrink while infrastructure failed.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians had died from water-related diseases like cholera, typhoid,

and dysentery.

Then in 2003, the US returned with a full invasion of Iraq.

This time they quickly toppled Saddam’s regime and installed a “temporary” Iraqi


But the invasion further damaged the country’s infrastructure.

40% of Iraq didn’t have access to clean water.

And 70% of the sewage systems needed repair a few months after the invasion.

So the US and Iraqi governments announced a huge reconstruction plan to rebuild infrastructure.

They planned to bring safe water to about 23 million people and triple Iraq’s water

treatment capacity.

But by 2006 - the program only delivered safe drinking water to over a third of the people

it intended to.

And Iraq’s water treatment capacity was still an eighth of the program’s goal.

Millions of dollars were lost because of mismanagement and corruption.

Reconstruction was a failure.

"Meanwhile in Iraq tonight, more deadly violence in what appears to be a concerted effort to spark a new civil war there.

"Inching toward a new civil war, many fear."

"Falling apart. The government is collapsing, the violence is starting.

"We're seeing all the symptoms of the civil war in Iraq starting up again."

By 2011, Iraq was still unstable when the US pulled out its remaining troops - creating

a dangerous power vacuum.

Which was quickly filled by a violent extremist group called the Islamic State.

Their tactics deepened Iraq’s water crisis further.

They advanced down the two rivers capturing strategic points, taking control of Iraq’s

water supply, and turning it into a weapon.

Like this dam in Ramadi:

"Controlling the dam, cutting the water, flow, cut supply to the pro-government towns downstream,

making it easier for ISIS to attack. Water the ultimate weapon, in this blistering desert."

ISIS also poisoned water-supplies with oil, here in the city of Tikrit.

And destroyed most of this barrage in Fallujah. By 2018, ISIS lost most of the territory it

controlled, but the damage to Iraq's water was already done.

If the country was going to recover - it had to rebuild this system, and fast.

So the Iraqi government announced a massive $100 billion dollar reconstruction effort

in 2018.

But by the summer, the water crisis came to a head at the southern tip of the country,

in Basra, where the river was dangerously low and toxic.

Deadly riots erupted in Basra.

Government buildings were burned and many called for the Prime Minister to resign.

Despite being the economic center of Iraq, Basra had been ignored and left to deteriorate.

The Iraqi Commision of Integrity, which investigated corruption found that:

13 water desalination plants that had been donated to Basra in 2006 never opened.

About $600 million was pledged for water projects that were never completed.

And Basra’s sewage network was supposed to receive a multi- million dollar upgrade

in 2014, but it was still leaking into the Shatt al-Arab in 2018.

Despite the uproar against corruption and lack of public infrastructure, Iraqis continue

to suffer.

Year after year, the water crisis has gotten worse.

And Basra, once a symbol of growth and prosperity, has come to represent Iraq's biggest battle


If the country wants to rebuild, it first needs to stabilize Basra.

And bring clean water to its people.