31 August 2007

Iraq's Water Crisis

Primary Sources:
23 May 2007: San Francisco Gate
1 in 8 Iraqis dies before fifth birthday
25 June 2007: US Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)
Iraq: Reconstruction Assistance
13 July 2007: US Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)
Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security
30 July 2007: Reuters India
Hunger, disease spread in Iraq - Oxfam report
7 August 2007: BBC
Iraq power system 'near collapse'
20 August 2007: Washington Post
Warming Will Exacerbate Global Water Conflicts
23 August 2007: New York Times
Report Cites Grave Concerns on Iraq’s Government
23 August 2007: Environmental News Network
Iraq calls for water treaty to avert crisis
Blog Sources:
Enterprise Resilience Management Blog
13 August 2007: Turkey, Kurdistan and Water
15 August 2007: Tragedy Knocks on Kurdistan's Door
20 August 2007: Fighting the Wolves at the Door in Kurdistan
22 August 2007: The Coming Water Wars?
Additional sources include Wikipedia and specific links provided below.

I previously posted a brief analysis on Kurdistan that covered both politics and natural resources in the region. As a self-governing, semi-autonomous region of Iraq with relatively little sectarian violence, that part of the country presents a clear contrast to the remainder of Iraq, especially the areas around Baghdad. I was certainly gratified to be quoted (extensively) by Mr. DeAngelis on his Enterprise Resilience Management Blog in the first of his posts listed above, and to have the support on my views of the importance and complexity of natural resources in that region from someone who is actually working with the Kurds on a consistent and progressive basis.

As in many areas where clean water and sanitation are scarce essentials, both hunger and disease are spreading in war-torn Iraq, as reported by Oxfam International. The diseases develop over time, from gastric symptoms and malnutrition, which might not have gone so long untreated if health care had been a primary objective of the current occupation and peace-making efforts. Water will remain scarce in Iraq, and it is up to the occupation force and its leadership to make something out of almost nothing. It sure is a good thing that Kurdistan remains peaceful, and that neighboring Turkey is open to cross-border negotiation on water allocation in the Tigris-Euphrates basin that supports most of Iraq.

Oh, wait, that's not correct...I think my well-developed senses of sarcasm and irony are showing (at least it's not cynicism...yet). Ethnic clashes have recently entered the normally peaceful Kurdish sector of Iraq, and the region remains under threat of invasion from neighboring Turkey as the Turkish military seeks to eliminate fleeing PKK (Kurdish Worker's Party) separatists in the eastern portion of their country. Syria, which at one time supported the PKK in Turkey while suppressing its own Kurdish population's nationalist ambitions, seems mute on the current flare-ups over Kurdish independence, but is not likely to remain so.

Why? Because of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. From my point of view, at least part of the problem comes back to the water again. Water is a fact of life in the region, and the people there don't forget it. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq share the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and these transboundary water resources are subjected to increasingly poor management in the current environment of constant conflict and patchy infrastructure. A fractious population, wolves on the borders, wolves in-country, and near-nonexistent government leadership have left much of Iraq's infrastructure and basic services in a shambles, and all of this as the US continues to throw money at the problem. The Iraqi oil ministry still functions, but the power grid and water supplies suffer from mismanagement and, essentially, ignorance. As New York Times op-ed columnist Tom Friedman wrote on 1 July 2007: "At best we are dog paddling in the Tigris. Which means at least we should start to think about what happens if we have to get out of the water."

To wit (number 1): Much of Baghdad receives consistent electric power for only about eight hours every day, on average. Infrastructure issues include normal repair and upkeep, as well as sabotage from militants and insurgents. Many in the capital have resorted to private generators for electricity. It is not apparent from news reports that the occupied "Green Zone" in Baghdad fares any better, and it can only be assumed that rural areas of Iraq find electric power both less accessible and less available.

To wit (number 2): This past week, the coalition government in Baghdad issued a plea for regional cooperation on water sources and the management of the Tigris and Euphrates River basin. Iraqis see a crisis already in place, where water supplies from upstream depend entirely on the benevolence of Syria and, primarily, Turkey. To add to Baghdad's problems, the water must be pumped out of the Tigris to reach much of the city's population, and the electricity to drive those pumps remains in short and sporadic supply. Both water supply and proper sanitation, basic requirements of life for the entire city, remain in jeopardy.

After $42B (and counting) in US spending for reconstruction efforts in Iraq, this is what we have to show for it? Saddam is gone, there are no longer any weapons of mass destruction to be found and eliminated, and yet the US occupation of Iraq has been compared to that of Vietnam in the mid-1960s by none other than our own president. If I recall correctly, Vietnam has been classified as a "quagmire" in the retrospective consensus of American history. It's almost as if the occupation force has given up on its continuing mission, which ought to be the establishment and improvement of "normal life" for the Iraqi people by now.

As a matter of fact, there is evidence to support that assessment too. Quoted in a BBC news item of 7 August 2007, listed above, "the general in charge of helping Iraq rebuild its infrastructure, Michael Walsh, said that although Iraqi authorities only have one-quarter of the money needed for reconstruction, solving the problem was now up to them. Gen. Walsh told the BBC that the US had jump-started reconstruction but that, working with donor nations, the Iraqi government needed to do the rest." It is disappointing to think that the occupying military, and especially its engineers, don't see the problems that already affect the very area that is most secure. Maybe the Green Zone has no power and water problems, because all the necessities came in with the troops, but I wouldn't know.

It is obvious, though, that the Iraqis are not ready to receive such responsibility for basic infrastructure maintenance and reconstruction, and the military forces have not done enough to bring those facilities back into operation following the initial invasion and subsequent insurgent phases of occupation in the country. General Walsh's statement seems out of line with independent observations of the situation, and reflects a lack of understanding of the situation "on the ground" where the basics of Iraqi survival are at stake. An inability, or refusal, to address such basic infrastructure issues with the available expertise and capability that the US occupation force brought to Iraq may leave the Green Zone the only place in Baghdad, and much of Iraq, not rendered a disease-infested slum where "hearts and minds" are lost. If the Iraqis don't trust the US forces and authority to bring improvement to their country, then who?

The US occupation in Iraq had followed many long and twisty paths, and one goal that seems to have been lost is the maintenance and improvement of day-to-day life for the Iraqi population. When the populace doesn't trust the occupation authority and their nascent, native government to provide the basics of life, the essential elements of survival, a siege mentality could set in, and then a full-scale revolt threatens all groups in authority. We already see rival Sunni groups fighting each other, as well as going after the Shi'ite majority and Kurdish minorities. The Kurds have taken many great steps toward recovery and development of their own region, but I doubt they'll be able to exert much authority in the larger portion of the country, and instead of looking to the Kurds for an example of "just get the job done" the other ethnic and religious groups in the country are too busy fighting for illusive power and political standing.

It's time for the occupation forces to flood the region with honest engineers, and eventually scientists, and then to train the Iraqis to do the jobs that basic infrastructure requires: power engineering, water engineering, sanitation engineering, power grid maintenance and expansion, and transportation engineering in order to bring in the people and the supplies, including food, for which the country is starving. It's time for the politicians in, and the envoys from, the US to jump in the deep end of foreign policy and broker a new water treaty among the Tigris-Euphrates riparians, so that reconstruction in Iraq can accelerate and not stagnate. It's time for the occupation forces to stop treading water and start moving it, for the good of the Iraqi people.

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