Can the Consequences of the Shatt al-Arab Waterway Dispute be Resolved 35 Years Later?

Ellie Mueller

Image credit: Eleanor Campion

Forming the border between Iraq and Iran, the Shatt al–Arab (شط العرب, “stream of the Arabs”) is approximately 193 kilometres long. Created by the confluence of the Karun, Euphrates, and Tigris Rivers, the waterway is the primary source of fresh water in the northern Gulf. After a long history of border disputes with Iran, Saddam Hussein sought to capture the waterway as this would provide Iraq with unfettered access to the Persian Gulf. Iran and Iraq waged a full-scale war between 1980 and 1988 over this sovereignty clash over the Shatt al-Arab, mercilessly affecting marginalised groups and their access to water security.


The Shatt al-Arab is a crucial navigable route as a westerly-oriented channel, especially for the people settled along its banks. The Marsh Arabs, also referred to as the Maʻdān people (معدان "dweller in the plains"), occupy the Marshlands of Mesopotamia in Southern Iraq; the earliest civilisations known to mankind. Said to be the original site of the Garden of Eden, this cradle of civilisation saw early development in writing, architecture and complex society. During Saddam Hussein's supremacy, Da'esh (ISIL) drained the southern Iraqi Marshes and demolished agricultural fields and irrigation infrastructure, ruining the ancient way of life of the local Ma’dan people. An estimated 200,000 people had lost their homes by 1994, and nearly 3,000 square kilometres of wetlands, almost two-thirds of the previous area, dried-out.


Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, the wetlands surrounding the river became a theatre for bloody battles due to its proximity to the Iranian border. In 2016, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) appointed the World Heritage status of the marshes to preserve their culture and raise the protection of the marshes and the four governates; Thi Qar, Missan, Basra and Al-Warkaa. However, action to achieve these measures remains yet to be underscored.


Evidently, water must be a source of solution more than a source of turmoil affecting Marsh Arab culture. It must provide justice beyond the value of economics to traditionally marginalised peoples. The lack of awareness by the Iraqi government on a local level has enabled climate change to further endanger the marshlands. But, perhaps most dramatically, water has a history of being used for political purposes in Iraq.


While ISIL may no longer be a group that holds territory or is perceived as a global threat, in Syria and Iraq and through its regional affiliates in Afghanistan and Africa, it is launching guerrilla-style attacks on civilians and security forces. ISIL is still active in the southern Iraq city of Basra, on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab. Combatting terrorism is a step toward achieving fundamental water security and addressing the detrimental effects of climate change. Similar to Syria, it not only raises the threat of a water-related state failure, it further heightens the risk that the Middle East could move from tensions over water to actual war.


Water justice in the aftermath of war is critical to safeguarding future generations and their access to water, which is their lifeblood.


Significantly, the situation is not limited to the southern Iraqi Marshes. Mass protests in the city of Basra indicate long-term trends in Iraq. Approximately half of the governorate is living below the poverty line and 118,000 people being hospitalised due to contaminated water of the Shatt al-Arab. The government of Iraq needs to do more to tackle the growing water crisis, and in a swift manner.


The United Nations International Organisation of Migration (IOM) reported that 21,314 Iraqis had been internally displaced due to access to poor water quality and quantity, and the World Bank is warning that Iraq is running out of water. By 2050, Iraq will have no water in nearly one-third of its irrigated lands. Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director, has provided his stance on the issue, stating:


"Without action, water constraints will lead to large losses across multiple economic sectors and affect more and more vulnerable people."


There are no agreements in place for the Shatt al-Arab. No strategy has been issued by either party to restore the water in the southern marshes, and equally no deliberation about whom the water belongs. According to the United Nations, climate change is 'the biggest threat to global security’. Climate change must be identified as a serious conflict and threat multiplier to get the ball rolling. Otherwise, its significance will remain the lowest priority on national agendas. Therefore, water policy is essential in Baghdad-Tehran relations because it will aid in determining long-term government policies.


From the outside, change seems unlikely, but in helping to make cities and countries more resilient, implementing infrastructure upgrades will improve the efficiency and quality of water and wastewater services. Further, it will promote policy reforms, including economic diversification, and lay the foundations for a green future. Once Iraq officially joins the Paris Climate accords, the next step will be to create a national climate action plan. Iraq must move its economy off its current dependency on oil. If Iraq were to achieve this, the increase in the ability to access more international funding to invest in green energy projects would be more probable.


Following almost four decades of a bloody war that shaped a generation - at the cost of a million people - the boundaries of the countries remained intact. Armed force is not the answer with respect to addressing water policy. Iran has since become one of Iraq’s largest trading partners and combatants against the Islamic State. But the road ahead is not without its landmines.

Efficient water management is more of a goal than a priority throughout the country. Bearing the scars of war, the Shatt al-Arab – not only for its own sake but for the people who depend on it – requires urgent attention. The consequences of the Shatt al-Arab need to be tackled from a comprehensive perspective, considering the social justice impacts and the cultural significance of the water cycle in Iraq at the local level. The region is fertile, and water is as precious as oil. It should be addressed with the utmost priority.


Ellie Mueller is leveraging studies in International Relations, Middle East Studies and History through a BA at Deakin University and is also learning Modern Standard Arabic. In 2021 she was a United Nations Institute for Training and Research Trainee and is a current intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs.