Iraq Needs Water of Life

As international troops pull out of Iraq, rebuilding the country's water infrastructure is a top priority. Natalie Coomber and representatives from K-water explore how projects are breaking ground and promising to secure future supplies.


On 30 April, British forces formally completed combat operations in Iraq. By the end of July, all Australian troops will also have departed with US soldiers set to follow suit between now and 2011. Debate will continue long into the future about how successful their mission was, but as it does, Iraqis begin the daily grind of rebuilding their war-torn country's infrastructure.

Top of their list is building an efficient and reliable water supply for drinking, power and agriculture. In October 2008 the Red Cross warned that improved security had failed to prevent Iraq from a humanitarian disaster with a lack of water supplies and sewage systems putting millions at risk of disease. Today the government is demanding more water from its upstream neighbours and calling for international assistance to build domestic hydro schemes to try and secure reliable power sources.

On 12 May, Iraq's parliament voted to compel the government to demand a greater share of water resources from Turkey, Iran and Syria in any bilateral deals with them – resolving to break contracts that already stand but don't represent a fair deal.

"Lack of water supplies and sewage systems in Iraq put millions at risk of disease."

Hydroelectric dams sitting upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates that flow from Turkey and Syria strangle the supply of water that could be used in downstream desert Iraq. And although the move may not help already strained relations with Syria and Iran, many argue it is essential to improving the country's arid agricultural sector.

In a release issued in early May the Iraqi Water Resources Ministry warned of a 'possible crisis' in coming years if a greater water supply wasn't secured.

"Iraq currently faces a lack of water," the ministry said in a release received by news agency Aswat al Iraq. "The ministry demands the two neighbours, Turkey and Iran, provide Iraq with the required share of water according to international treaties."

But there is one project that is making the most of spring water found in Bekhal, northern Iraq – and it's aims are far-reaching As part of the reconstruction work on infrastructure damaged by war in Iraq, the Ministry of Energy (MoE) of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) requested assistance from the Korean government to develop a hydro power project in the country. The project is set to be up and running by July and alongside providing power, hopes are that it will invigorate tourism and solidify relations with Korea.

International assistance

With a population of 1.5 million, the Northern Iraq state of Erbil requires 430MW of power to ensure uninterrupted power supply. However, there is currently only 29MW of power being produced by power plants in the area, with a further 160MW being supplied intermittently from the national grid. Importantly, some of the surrounding areas of Erbil City have not been connected to the national grid, and some villages are only being served by independent power sources such as diesel generators.

Annual rainfall in the area lies anywhere in the region of 375mm to 724mm, and, as a semi-arid continental climate, it usually has hot and dry weather in summer, and cold, wet winters. The area is one of few tourist resorts in Erbil and is famous for its topographically beautiful scenery. Soran substation, together with an 11kV distribution line, serves the project area – although regular power failures occur due to the overloads.

K-water, a state-owned enterprise primarily established as a national water resources organisation in Korea, was contracted to conduct a preliminary feasibility study in the Bekhal area of Northern Iraq and confirmed that spring water combined with favourable topographical conditions meant the development of a small hydro scheme was economically viable.

But dangerous local conditions, notably July to November 2007 when fighting escalated, had to be overcome by K-water, in partnership with Donghin, to produce a detailed design. An unusual feature of the project is that it will use water flowing from a rock bed in a canyon, rather than using stream or reservoir water.

"Some Iraqi villages are being served solely by independent power sources such as diesel generators."

For a reliable estimation of flow, 20-30 years' worth of hydrologic data is recommended.

Unfortunately there was not enough data for this and instead, the flow out of Bekhal spring was estimated by analysing monthly mean flow based on available daily flow data investigated during a UNDP feasibility study, and monthly flow data surveyed by the Ministry of Water Resources from 2001 to May 2007.

The flow out of Bekhal spring was found to be linked to the rainfall in the project site, with the rainfall influencing the flow after one month.

All structures for the scheme had to be designed to ensure they did not negatively impact the surrounding environment because this project was about more than just building a power plant. As an example of a plant that has reached out to the international community – and is set to transform the economy of the area – this holds the promise of showing the rest of the country how its done.

A version of this article first appeared in our sister publication Water Power & Dam Construction.