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Iraq's Surface Waters Modeled for Future Planning

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, July 9, 2008 (ENS) – A working computer model of Iraq’s surface waters is the outcome of a year-long collaboration between scientists from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and Iraqi engineers and modelers. The model is intended to inform a national water and land planning effort by the Iraqi government.

The model includes transboundary river flows from Turkey, Syria, and Iran, along with agriculture, municipal and industrial uses, salinity, and restoration of the ecologically sensitive Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq.

“The Iraqis recognize very clearly that the long-term stability and security of their country depends on the availability of fresh water for agriculture and for municipal and industrial uses,” says Sandia researcher Howard Passell. “We are grateful to have the opportunity to help.”

The Euphrates River in central Iraq
(Photo by Jayel Aheram)

The project, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Iraq Transition Assistance Office, included three five-day workshops over the past year.

In June, all the project participants met in Istanbul for a demonstration of the model by the Iraqi engineers to three of their directors from the Iraq Ministry of Water Resources, MoWR.

The participants included the Sandia team of Passell, Jesse Roach, and Marissa Reno, four engineers from the MoWR, a State Department contractor from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and a water program manager from UNESCO.

Roach, the lead modeler in the project, says the best part of the project was watching the Iraqi engineers and modelers become engaged in the modeling process, an engagement that grew as the project unfolded.

“Our approach was to build the computer model in a collaborative fashion with the Iraqis,” Roach says. “We could have built it for them and then handed it over, but we wanted them to have ownership – to understand how the model went together and how it works.”

The first two workshops in the Iraq project took place in Amman, Jordan in November 2007 and February 2008. The initial workshops focused on helping the Iraqis learn to use the software and think about how the different systems associated with their resource issues are interdependent and interconnected.

By the time of the second workshop, the Sandians – with data and other information from the Iraqis – built a first draft of the model. The Iraqis used their growing skills to build part of that version of the model.

“At the end of the third workshop, our Iraqi colleagues presented the model to three high-level Iraqi Ministry of Water officials. They presented it entirely in Arabic, explained how it worked, and answered questions about everything from input data to the scenario runs they were demonstrating,” Roach said. “It was a powerful moment in a very successful capacity-building project.”

One of the critical drivers in the model is the flow of water from the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Turkey across the border to Iraq.

“Surface water in Iraq is affected by infrastructure development and water operations in upstream countries,” says Reno, who built the transboundary module in the model.

“Historically, Turkey and Syria were not major water users, but now both countries have developed the capacity to store and use more, and that is a major concern to Iraq,” she said.

As Iraq is at risk as the downstream user in the Tigris-Euphrates system, so are the Mesopotamian Marshes at risk as the downstream user in Iraq. They are a crucial freshwater wetland ecosystem in the Arabian Gulf region.

Populated by Marsh Arabs with their ancient culture, the southern marshes once covered about 8,000 square kilometers, but water uses upstream have gradually reduced the marsh area.

Marsh Arabs in the Mesopotamian
Marshes (Photo courtesy U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers)

Saddam Hussein partially drained them in the 1990s when his enemies hid there, and they are threatened by increasing upstream water use in the future. Now the marshes cover about 5,000 square kilometers.

“The marshes, which are culturally, historically, and economically rich and diverse, have started to dry out – partly by accident and partly by design,” says Geoff Klise, the Sandia team member who built the marsh module. “We modeled how they might be restored, looking at flows, reservoir operations, and changes to agriculture, to see how these might affect marshes downstream.”

The model was built in a commercially available system dynamics modeling platform called Studio Expert, produced by Powersim Inc. It features short run times, user-friendly interfaces, and real-time graphical output.

Passell says the Sandia Geohydrology Department staff have used the system dynamics platform for years in multistakeholder settings as a way of helping collaborators understand the complexities of their resource systems, identify data and information gaps, and evaluate competing resource management strategies.

They have engaged scientists and engineers from more than a dozen countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Japan, and four Central Asian republics.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Sandia officials say new funding for phase two of the Iraq surface water project is expected this month.

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