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Water woes likely in post-war Iraq

Water concerns will loom large among the problems facing Iraq after the war and will remain a source of significant tension with neighboring countries, experts on water resources in the Middle East said.

Water will "easily be one of the top two or three issues" facing Iraq during reconstruction, said Aaron Wolf, a professor at Oregon State University and an expert on international water basins.

Iraq has two major rivers — the Tigris and the Euphrates — but the headwaters for the rivers are in the mountains of Turkey, and they snake through Syria before entering Iraq. There is no treaty among the three nations over how to share the water, and tensions have been building for several decades.

Turkey has launched one of the world's largest dam-building and water-diversion programs, the Southeastern Anatolia Project. The Turkish government has informally promised Iraq and Syria to maintain a minimum stream flow of 500 cubic meters per second in the Euphrates, the larger of the two rivers, but Iraq and Syria want 750 cubic meters per second.

"In Turkey they have a favorite saying: 'Oil comes out of the ground in your country and we don't say it belongs to us. Water comes out of the ground in our country and you shouldn't say it belongs to you,' " said John Kolars, a University of Michigan professor emeritus and an expert on the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

Population growth in the region is constantly increasing demand for limited water supplies. If Iraq is able to rebuild its economy after the war, that will further accelerate demand for water, experts said.

Water quality is also an issue. Turkey's plan for irrigating large areas using river water is likely to produce significant runoff pollution from fertilizers and pesticides and increase salinity for downstream nations, water experts said.

"A lot of this also depends upon what happens with the Kurds in northern Iraq and southern Turkey," Wolf said. "If the Kurds have a level of autonomy, then there will be yet another player vying for the water and adding to the tensions." The instances of nations actually going to war specifically over water are rare, Wolf noted. But with demand for water increasingly outstripping available supplies in many parts of the world, some experts believe hostilities will become more common.

"Trans-boundary issues over the water are going to be much more of a political nightmare within the next decade," said Thomas Crisman, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida who has worked extensively on water projects in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

The most immediate issue, however, will be supplying clean drinking water to the Iraqi people. Already there have been serious water shortages in Basra, and water problems are only expected to worsen before the war ends.

U.S. officials said they are in the dark on the state of Iraq's water and sewage treatment infrastructure because the Iraqi government has treated that information as a national secret.

Experts said Iraqi's infrastructure has been deteriorating since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, partly because of economic sanctions and partly because of political decisions made by Saddam Hussein.

The poor quality of public health in Iraq over the past 12 years has not been due to lack of food, but to inadequate and polluted water supplies, Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said. "The child mortality rates for Iraq are not a function of an absence of food," Natsios said. "It is a function of a deliberate decision by the regime not to repair the water system or replace old equipment with new equipment. Most people in the elite drink water from Jordan that is bottled."

The war is likely to further degrade Iraq's water supplies. Environmentalists said they fear that advanced military technology may unintentionally destroy or seriously damage Iraqi water and sewage treatment plants and dams.

Marc Levy, director of science applications at the Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network, compared this war with the conflict in the Balkans, where extended urban warfare left water supplies seriously polluted.

"Unfortunately, we've had a lot of experience in last 20 years at modern warfare in urban settings," Levy said. "When you blow up military complexes and industrial complexes in high population areas, it's a really bad combination in terms of lasting water damage."

On the Net: U.S. Agency for International Development —