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
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
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
The rest of the country is mostly desert.
A vast network of infrastructure is used to
generate power, distribute the water, and
That includes Dams, canals, and water treatment
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
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
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
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
But when levels are low, these pollutants become
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
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
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,
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
40% of Iraq didn’t have access to clean
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
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
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
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
Year after year, the water crisis has gotten
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.