minimppv.gif (940 bytes)minimtoc.gif (878 bytes)minimpnx.gif (858 bytes)



Iraq, with a total area of 438 320 km including 924 km of inland waters, is surrounded by Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, Syria and Jordan to the west, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to the south, and the Persian Gulf to the south-east. Topographically Iraq is shaped like a basin, consisting of the Great Mesopotamian alluvial plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. (Mesopotamia means, literally, the land between two rivers). This plain is surrounded by mountains in the north and the east, which can reach altitudes of 3 550 m above sea level, and by desert areas in the south and west, which account for over 40% of the land area. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into 18 governorates, of which three are gathered in an autonomous region.

It is estimated that 11.48 million hectares are cultivable, or 26% of the total area of the country. The total area estimated to be used for agriculture is 8 million ha, which is almost 93% of the cultivable area. However. due to soil salinity. fallow practices and the unstable political situation it is estimated that only 3 to 5 million ha are actually cultivated annually. In 1993, the area actually cultivated was estimated at about 3.73 million ha, of which 3.46 million ha consisted of annual crops and 0.27 million ha consisted of permanent crops.

The total population is about 20.4 million (1995), of which 25% is rural. Average population density is estimated at 47 inhabitants/km, but ranges from 5 inhabitants/km in the Anwar province, in the desert in the western part of the country, to more than 170 inhabitants/km in the Babylon province, in the centre of the country. The average population growth was estimated at 3.6% during 1980-90, but emigration of foreign workers and severe economic hardship have reduced this growth rate since 1990. In 1989, the agriculture sector contributed only 5% to GDP, which was dominated by oil (61%). About 20% of the labour force is engaged in agriculture.

TABLE 1 - Basic statistics and population

Physical areas:
Area of the country 1995 43 832 000 ha
Cultivable area 1984 11 480 000 ha
Cultivated area 1993 3 731 300 ha
- annual crops 1993 3 462 800 ha
- permanent crops 1993 268 500 ha
Total population 1995 20 449 000 inhabitants
Population density 1995 47 inhab./km
Rural population 1995 25 %
Water supply coverage:
Urban population 1990 100 %
Rural population 1990 54 %



The climate is mainly of the continental, subtropical semi-arid type, with the north and northeastern mountainous regions having a Mediterranean climate. Rainfall occurs from December to February (or November to April in the mountains) during cool to cold winters, with a day temperature of about 16C dropping at night to 2C with a possibility of frost. Summers are dry and hot to extremely hot, with a shade temperature of over 43C during July and August, yet dropping at night to 26C.

TABLE 2 - Water: sources and use

Renewable water resources:
Average precipitation   154 mm/yr
    67.7 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources   35.2 km/yr
Total (actual) renewable water resources 1995 75.42 km/yr
Dependency ratio 1995 53.3 %
Total (actual) renewable water resources per inhabitant 1995 3 688 m/yr
Total dam capacity 1990 50200 106 m
Water withdrawal:
- agricultural 1990 39380 106 m/yr
- domestic 1990 1 280 106 m/yr
- industrial 1990 2 140 106 m/yr
Total water withdrawal   42800 106 m/yr
per inhabitant 1990 2 367 m/yr
as % of total (actual) renewable water resources   56.7 %
Other water withdrawal 1975 1 790 106 m/yr
Average groundwater depletion   - 106 m/yr
Wastewater - Non-conventional water sources:
- produced wastewater   - 106 m/yr
- treated wastewater   - 106 m/yr
- reused treated wastewater   - 106 m/yr
Desalinated water   - 106 m/yr

Rainfall is very seasonal and occurs mainly between December and February, except in the north and north-east of the country where the rainy season is longer, from November to April. Average annual rainfall is estimated at 154 mm, but ranges from less than 100 mm over 60 % of the country in the south up to 1 200 mm in the north-east.

River basins

There is only one river basin in Iraq, the Shatt Al-Arab basin. The Shatt Al-Arab is the river formed by the confluence downstream of the Euphrates and the Tigris and flows into the Persian Gulf after a course of only 190 km,. Before their confluence, the Euphrates flows for about 1 000 km and the Tigris for about 1 300 km respectively within the Iraqi territory. Nevertheless, due to the importance of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the country is generally divided into three river basins: the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Shatt Al-Arab (referring to the part downstream of the confluence of the two rivers).

Surface water resources

Both the Tigris and the Euphrates are international rivers originating their source in Turkey. The Tigris river basin in Iraq has a total area of 253 000 km, or 54% of the total river basin area.

The average annual flow of the Euphrates as it enters Iraq is estimated at 30 km, with a fluctuating annual value ranging from 10 to 40 km. Unlike the Tigris, the Euphrates receives no tributaries during its passage in Iraq. About 10 km per year are drained into the Hawr al Harnmar (a marsh in the south of the country).

TABLE 3 - Irrigation and drainage

Irrigation potential 1990 5 554 000 ha
1. Full or partial control irrigation: equipped area 1990 3 525 000 ha
- surface irrigation   - ha
- sprinkler irrigation   - ha
- micro-irrigation 1994 8 000 ha
% of area irrigated from groundwater 1990 6.2 %
% of area irrigated from surface water 1990 93.8 %
% of area irrigated from non-conventional sources 1990 0.0 %
% of equipped area actually irrigated 1993 54.9 %
2. Spate irrigation area   - ha
3. Equipped wetland and inland valley bottoms (i.v.b.)   - ha
Total irrigation (1+2+3) 1990 3 525 000 ha
- as % of cultivated area   94 %
4. Flood recession cropping area   - ha
Total water managed area 11+2+3+4) 1990 3 525 000 ha
- as % of cultivated area   94 %
- increase over last 10 years   - %
- power irrigated area as % of water managed area   - %
Full or partial control irrigation schemes: Criteria
Large-scale schemes > - ha   - ha
Medium-scale schemes   - ha
Small-scale schemes < - ha   - ha
Total number of households in irrigation      
Irrigated crops
Total irrigated grain production   - tons
as % of total grain production   - %
Harvested crops under irrigation (full or partial control)   - ha
- permanent crops: total   - ha
- annual crops: total   - ha
. wheat 1991 224 490 ha
. barley 1991 200 770 ha
rice 1991 34 370 ha
  - ha
other annual crops   - ha
Drainage - Environment:
Drained area   - ha
as % of cultivated area   - %
- drained areas in full or partial control irrigated areas   - ha
- drained areas in equipped wetland and i.v.b   - ha
- other drained areas   - ha
- total drained area with subsurface drains   - ha
- total drained area with surface drains   - ha
Flood-protected area   - ha
Area salinized by irrigation   - ha
Population affected by water-borne diseases   - inhabitants

For the Tigris, average annual runoff as it enters Iraq is estimated at 21.2 km. All the Tigris tributaries are on its left bank. From upstream to downstream:

The Karun river, originating in Iran flows with its mean annual flow of 24.7 km into the Shatt AlArab. It brings a large amount of fresh water into the Shatt Al-Arab, just before it reaches the sea.

The Euphrates and the Tigris are subject to large and possibly disastrous floods. The level of water in the Tigris can rise at the rate of over 30 cm/hour. In the southern part of the country, immense areas are regularly inundated, levees often collapse, and villages and roads must be built on high embankments. The Tharthar reservoir was planned inter alia in the 1950s to protect Baghdad from the ravages of the periodic flooding of the Tigris by storing extra water discharge upstream of the Samarra barrage.

International agreements

In 1980, a Joint Technical Committee on Regional Waters was created by Turkey and Iraq, on the basis of a former protocol (1946) concerning the control and management of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Syria joined the committee afterwards.

The Euphrates represents the most critical issue for Iraq's water strategy as more than 90% of its water comes from outside the country (against only 50% for the Tigris). According to an agreement between Syria and Iraq (1990), Iraq shares the Euphrates' waters with Syria on a 58% (Iraq) and 42% (Syria) basis, based on the flow received by Syria at its border with Turkey. Since Turkey has unilaterally promised to secure a minimum flow of 15.8 km/year at its border, this agreement would de facto represent 9 km/year for Iraq. Up to now, there has been no global agreement between the three countries concerning the Euphrates' waters.

Groundwater resources

Good quality subterranean water has been found in the foothills of the mountains in the northeast of the country and in the area along the right bank of the Euphrates:

In other areas of the country, groundwater is also found, but always with a salinity level higher than 1 mg/l.


In 1977, the on-river dams, all of which are located in the Tigris river basin, had a total capacity of 13.7 km. There was an important programme of dam construction in Iraq in the 1980s. The programme consisted of the construction of the Saddam dam on the Tigris (11.1 km), the Kadisiyya (Qadisia) multipurpose dam on the Euphrates (8.2 km), the Bakhma dam on the upper Zab, one of the Tigris tributaries (17.1 km), the Badush dam on the Tigris river (0.5 km ), and several other desert dams totalling about 0.5 km. The total on-river storage capacities for the Tigris will thus amount to 42 km, and 8.2 km for the Euphrates river, i.e. a total of 50.2 km. However, the Bakhma dam was completely destroyed. At present, the Al-Adom dam on the Tigris river, with a capacity of 3.8 km, is under construction.

Two off-river storage lakes have been created with the construction of the Tharthar dam (85 km) in the Tigris river basin, filled with the Wadi Tharthar waters and, since 1985, with Euphrates waters, and the Habbaniya dam (3.3 km), which can be filled from upstream Euphrates waters and which drains into the Euphrates downstream.

New watercourses

In order to increase water transport efficiency, minimise losses and waterlogging, and improve water quality, a number of new watercourses were constructed, especially in the southern part of the country. The Saddam river (or Third river) functions as a main out-fall drain collecting drainage waters of more than 1.5 million hectares of agricultural land from north of Baghdad to the Gulf, between the two main rivers (the Euphrates and the Tigris). The length of the watercourse, completed in December 1992, is 565 km, with a total discharge of 210 m/s. Other watercourses were also constructed to reclaim new lands or to reduce waterlogging.

Water withdrawal

Total water withdrawal is estimated at 42.8 km in 1990, of which 92% for agricultural purposes (Figure 1). According to the most recent estimates, 85 % of river water withdrawal is used for agricultural purposes.

Water supply

In 1991 safe water supplies reached 100% of urban areas but only 54% of rural areas. The situation has deteriorated as a result of the Gulf war as regards the water supply and sanitation sector, due inter alia to shortages in chlorine imports for water treatment.

Figure 1 - Water withdrawal (total: 42.8 km in 1990)


The history of irrigation started 7500 years ago in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates when the Sumerians built a canal to irrigate wheat and barley.

Irrigation potential was estimated in 1990 at over 5.5 million ha, of which 63% in the Tigris basin, 35% in the Euphrates basin, and 2% in the Shatt Al-Arab basin. Considering the soil resources, it is estimated that about 6 million hectares are classified as excellent, good or moderately suitable for flood irrigation. With the development of water storage facilities, the regulated flow has increased and changed the irrigation potential significantly, since it was estimated at 4.25 million hectares only in 1976. However, irrigation development depends to a large extent on the volume of water released by the upstream countries.

Irrigated areas

The total water managed area was estimated at 3.5 million ha in 1990, all of it being equipped for full or partial control irrigation.

The areas irrigated by surface water are estimated at 3 305 000 ha, of which 105 000 ha (3 %) in the Shatt Al-Arab river basin, 2 200 000 ha (67%) in the Tigris river basin, and 1 000 000 ha (30%) in the Euphrates river basin (Figure 2). However, it should be noted that all these areas are not actually irrigated, since a large part has been abandoned due to waterlogging and salinity. Only 1 936 000 ha were estimated to be actually irrigated in 1993.

Figure 2 - Areas equipped for f/p control irrigation from surface water, by river basin (total 3305000 ha in 1990)

The areas irrigated from groundwater were estimated at 220 000 ha in 1990, with some 18 000 wells (Figure 3). About 8 000 ha were reported equipped for micro-irrigation, but these techniques were not used.

Figure 3 - Origin of irrigation water f/p (total: 3525000 ha in 1990)


Salinity has always been a major issue in this area and it was already recorded as a cause of crop yield reductions some 3800 years ago.

It is estimated that in 1970 half the irrigated areas in central and southern Iraq were degraded due to waterlogging and salinity. The absence of drainage facilities and, to a lesser extent, the irrigation practices used (flooding) were the major causes of these problems. In 1978, a land rehabilitation programme was undertaken, comprising concrete lining for irrigation canals, installation of field drains and collector drains. By 1989, a total of 700 000 ha had been reclaimed at a cost of around $US 2 000/ha.

Recent estimations have nevertheless shown that 4% of the irrigated areas were severely saline, 50% medium saline and 20% slightly saline, i.e. a total of 74% of the irrigated areas suffered from some degree of salinity. The Ministry of Irrigation estimated at 17 million tons the amount of salt transported to the Gulf by the Saddam river in 1995. Irrigation with highly saline waters (more than 1500 ppm) has been practiced for date palm trees since 1977. The use of brackish groundwater is also reported for tomato irrigation in the south of the country.


In 1991, there were 224 490 ha of irrigated wheat, with an average yield of 2.7 tons/ha, while the rainfed wheat area was estimated at 508 620 ha, with an average yield of 1.7 tons/ha. There were 200 770 ha of irrigated barley, with an average yield of 1.8 tons/ha, while the rainfed barley area was estimated at 323 730 ha, with an average yield of 1.3 tons/ha. The other main irrigated crops are rice, maize, vegetables, but also date trees which are important for the economy of the southern part of the country.


The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for organising the ownership of agricultural lands, contracts with farmers, cooperatives and agricultural companies in addition to enhancing agricultural investment activities. In particular, the Ministry is responsible for providing agricultural inputs to all farmers, and for marketing the agricultural commodities.

The Ministry of Irrigation is in charge of water resources development, irrigation and drainage development, as well as its operation and maintenance. Its major functions are to assess water requirements and resources, control running water, reservoirs, wetland and marshes, underground water, the construction of dams, canals and drainage systems, soil conservation, classification, land evaluation and use, and research and studies on land and water. The Ministry is executing most of the water resources development projects with the assistance of a number of State companies.

The State company for Water Wells Drilling (SCWWD) has launched a programme of welldrilling, mainly for irrigation purposes.


Two main sprinkler irrigation projects were planned in 1990: the Saddam irrigation project, supplied by waters from the Third river, was designed for a total area of 250 000 ha, and the ElJazira irrigation project which should cover an area of 325 000 ha. The Um Almaarik river in the south west region has recently been excavated in order to irrigate 20 000 ha upon completion.

However, the development of irrigation as it is planned in the upstream countries, particularly the South-east Anatolian (GAP) project in Turkey, and the irrigation projects in Syria will reduce Iraqi irrigation potential unless an agreement is reached on the sharing of waters between the riparian countries. Since water shortages are forecast to occur with the development of irrigation, solutions have to be found for an integrated basin-level planning of water resources development.

Another main issue in water resources management is protection of water quality. The level of salinity in the Euphrates river is high and is expected to increase with the development of irrigation in the basin and, as a consequence, the diminution of the water flow, particularly in the dry' season.

Treatment of municipal and industrial wastewater is considered as one way to preserve river water quality. Reuse of treated wastewater for irrigation was also envisaged before 1990. Some industries are already obliged to desalinate the Euphrates waters before using it.

Other measures which could be undertaken would need regional cooperation, for a better management of the flood waters and the dams. But the regulation capacities on the Euphrates river are already greater than the entire average flow, because of the lack of coordination between the riparian countries.


Badry M. M., Mehdi M. S. and Khawar J. M., 1979. Water resources in Iraq. In: Irrigation and agricultural development, a joint publication of ECWA, FAO and the Foundation for Scientific Research of Iraq, edited by S.S. Johl. Pergamon Press.

ECWA. FAO. 1984. Agricultural resources management and desertification control in Iraq. Report EIECWAIAGR/83/8. Baghdad, Iraq.

ESCWA. 1992. Water resources database in the ECSWA region. Report E/ECSWA/ENR/1992/6.

FAO. 1994. Country information brief, Iraq. FAO-Representation in Iraq.

Fisher W. 1994. Iraq: Physical and social geography in the Middle East and North Africa". Europe publications limited.

UNDTCD. 1990. Progress in the implementation of the Mar del Plata Action plan in the region of Near east and North Africa. Report prepared by Minther J. Haddadin. Amman, Jordan.

minimppv.gif (940 bytes)minimtoc.gif (878 bytes)minimpnx.gif (858 bytes)