Report: Water Diplomacy

New report: iraq's water diplomacy

A boy tries to navigate his boat in the drying marshes in Basra governorate. © Caroline Zullo/NRC, October 2022.
A boy tries to navigate his boat in the drying marshes in Basra governorate. © Caroline Zullo/NRC, October 2022.


In recent years, Iraq has been afflicted by severe water shortages. With climate change and upstream water management practices as major factors, these shortages are further complicated by geopolitical realities. Iraq is a weak state dependent on upstream countries – namely Türkiye, Iran, and Syria – that have been damming or redirecting the paths of shared rivers to secure their own needs, thus reducing the amount of water flowing to Iraq. Over the decades, successive Iraqi governments have used different strategies to secure the country’s share of water, ranging from collaborative diplomacy to threats of military conflict. Yet so far none of these strategies have been successful at preserving Iraq’s long-term water interests.

Remarkably, to this day, Iraq remains without enforceable water-sharing agreements with its riparian neighbors.

This report delves into Iraq’s relationship with Türkiye, Iran, and Syria, shedding light on the country’s water disputes in the context of an unfolding climate crisis. It also explores the pathways Iraq has taken, or neglected to take, to secure its rights against a backdrop of international law concerning shared watercourses. The report concludes with suggestions for practical ways in which Iraq can leverage its influence, and potential, as an energy producer, trade partner, and key ally in security affairs to reach mutually acceptable water sharing arrangements with its upstream neighbors.

executive summary

  • As a country with a hot and dry climate, Iraq depends on upstream countries for much of its water. State weakness, particularly since 2003, has complicated responses to water shortages, as Türkiye and Iran have dammed or redirected shared rivers to secure their own needs.
  • The consequences of inaction are grave: repeated intense droughts have decimated Iraq’s arable land and agricultural output, and caused many of its lakes and marshes to shrink or even to altogether disappear. As populations grow and the planet warms, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are at risk of virtually disappearing in parts of southern Iraq by 2035.
  • Iraq’s diplomacy has been ineffective at securing the country’s water needs due to lack of engagement by top leaders, reluctance to confront powerful neighbors, confusion over roles and authority, and the focus on oil to the detriment of other sectors.
  • Furthermore, the international laws and conventions on using shared waters lack enforceability, are not universally recognized, and are based on principles open to interpretation, making them of limited utility at times of crises. 
  • Despite lingering weakness and disunity, the government of Prime Minister al-Sudani enjoys stronger diplomatic relations and regional acceptance than predecessors in the early post-2003 period— as underscored by Sudani’s recent meeting with Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 
  • Active diplomacy is crucial to Iraq’s ability to address water problems. Iraq’s leaders must demonstrate the political will to consistently assert Iraq’s reasonable demands and to capitalize on its role as an important partner in security, trade, and energy sectors, where Iraq possesses elements of leverage that can be useful when engaging upstream countries in negotiations. 
  • In trade relations with Iran and Türkiye, Iraq can strategically utilize the offer of new transit routes and the potential imposition of tariffs as effective incentives for engaging with these countries, both of which highly value Iraq as a crucial export market. Trade is inseparable from border security, where Iraq’s cooperation in addressing Iran’s and Türkiye’s concerns about cross-border militant activity can be another valuable tool in the hands of determined Iraqi negotiators.
  • Particularly timely, a resetting of energy relations with Türkiye– to include resuming northern oil exports, offering discounted oil, and reviving gas export schemes with Baghdad’s blessing– could be part of a broader diplomatic effort in which achieving progress in water sharing and management is one of the highest priorities.
  • A deal with Türkiye could include innovative approaches, such as a system of water credits that reduces severe losses to evaporation from Iraqi reservoirs and promotes joint financing and modernization of water management infrastructure.
  • To avoid the confusion and blame-shifting that has plagued past communications with Iraq’s neighbors, the prime minister should unequivocally empower leaders in the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) to represent Iraq directly with its neighboring countries. Promoting the head of the MoWR to the rank of Deputy Prime Minister, similar to ministers in charge of oil and other key portfolios, would reflect the government’s recognition of water as a priority.

A panoramic view of Türkiye’s Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates River, alongside NASA satellite images of the river before (20 August 1983) and after (24 August 2002) construction of the dam was completed in 1990. The resulting lake, sometimes referred to as a sea by locals, covers some 320 square miles (817 square kilometers) in total surface area. The Atatürk Dam is the largest of a series of dams along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which both have their headwaters in southeastern Türkiye. Photos: Bernard Gagnon CC BY-SA 3.0, May 2014

climate change & conservation

See more of EPIC’s programs and publications about Iraqis’ search for solutions amid a changing climate.