Written by Sierra Buehlman Barbeau


Iraq’s water supplies have been deteriorating for several decades, especially in the agriculture and domestic sectors.[1] This disaster drastically affects the Marsh Arabs, a community that relies on the marshes in Southern Iraq for survival. Many problems have contributed to this situation, including local and national mismanagement, the oil industry, violent domestic conflict, mismanagement by upstream nations Turkey and Iran, and climate-change-induced extreme heat and drought.[2] Though this situation significantly impacts all people in the marsh region of Iraq, it has extreme and disproportionate consequences for women. Considering Iraq’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the government of Iraq must pay special attention to the human rights of women when addressing the water crisis.[3]

This blog post begins by describing the historical background and particular challenges Iraqi Marsh Arab women face during this water crisis. Then, it outlines Iraq’s obligations to affected women under CEDAW. Lastly, this it recommends steps that the Iraqi government could take to alleviate the impact and burden of this water crisis on women.


The Iraqi Marsh Arabs have been living in Southern Iraq and following the traditions of their ancestors, the Sumerians, for thousands of years.[4] This community used to live off the wetland ecosystem, relying on fish, animals, and edible plants for their diet.[5] They traditionally used reeds and other plants to make homes, boats, and craft products for sale—knowledge passed down since the time of the Sumerians.[6] However, the changes in the marsh’s salinity, a rise in pollution, and decreasing water levels have killed many of the animals, plants, and reeds that used to sustain these people.[7] Additionally, the Marsh Arabs traditionally raised water buffalo in the wetlands for food, milk products, and trade.[8] However, in recent years, many herders have lost more than half of their animals due to the degrading habitat.[9] The buffalo die from drinking the salty water or get stuck in the mud and starve.[10] In many cases, many Marsh Arabs have had no choice but to give up their way of life and have become internally displaced.[11]

This community’s water-reliant way of life has been under threat in Iraq for several decades. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s government tried to drain the marshes as a counterinsurgency measure.[12] As oil production intensified in the region, the government prioritized the companies’ needs and ignored instances of misuse and overuse, resulting in increased salinity and pollution in the little remaining water.[13] Since the exacerbation of climate change and the intensification of its consequences, like extreme heat and drought, the problem has become unmanageable for many communities.[14]

With the Marsh Arabs’ traditional way of life becoming impossible, multiple researchers have called this situation an “ecological genocide.”[15] Not only are people unable to sustain their livelihoods in the region, but women who used to be active herders, fishers, farmers, and artisans now only work in the house, and as the population ages, knowledge of their ancient lifestyle and language fades.[16] While men have been able to find work in the cities, often with the same oil companies that play a role in destroying the marshes, women are left behind to support their families, but with diminishing access to clean water, food, and income.[17]


As a party to CEDAW, Iraq must fulfill certain duties to ensure that women who are affected by this disaster do not suffer from human rights violations.[18] To date, the government has not maintained its obligations. As a signatory to CEDAW, Iraq must implement the treaty in its national law, meaning that it must promulgate laws and policies to protect its women from human rights violations. It must also submit reports on its progress and receive feedback and recommendations from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“The Committee”).[19] However, because Iraq has not ratified CEDAW’s Optional Protocol, the committee cannot accept claims from individuals or launch investigations of extreme violations of women’s rights in Iraq, such as the water crisis.[20] However, this limitation does not affect Iraq’s duty to protect women’s rights under CEDAW.

Several articles in CEDAW address Iraq’s obligations. As an overarching obligation, Article 3 of CEDAW requires State Parties to take “all appropriate measures” in “all fields” to ensure that women can enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms in the same way as men.[21] Considering the disparate impact of the water crisis on Marsh Arab women, Iraq is violating this article. A 2017 study that interviewed women about how their lives and work had changed as the marsh became drier found that pre-desiccation, none of the 34 women interviewed described themselves as engaged in domestic work.[22] In the past, women worked in areas such as agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, handicrafts, and reed collection; however, after the crisis, available traditional work has decreased or gone solely to the men in the community.[23] Men who cannot find traditional work can go to the cities for jobs or work in oil production.[24] The situation of women is compounded by Iraq’s move towards conservative Islam and general safety concerns that require women to stay home—two areas that do not affect men as drastically.[25] To satisfy Iraq’s obligations under Article 3, the government also must satisfy their obligations under Article 5, where the government has a duty to address these issues by working to modify these social and cultural practices that perpetuate inequality.[26]

The situation of women’s employment also implicates rights under Article 11 of CEDAW. State Parties must eliminate employment discrimination by ensuring the right to work, the right to the same employment opportunities, the right to choose a profession and employment, and the right to job security.[27] The Marsh Arab women’s involuntary shift from income-generating activities outside the home to unpaid domestic labor violates their right to work and their right to the same employment opportunities. The water crisis has also affected these women’s right to “free choice of profession and employment” and job security because many want to continue in their traditional fields of work.[28]

Besides challenges related to work, the crisis impacts the Marsh Arab women even more because of their status as rural women. Article 14 of CEDAW addresses the special needs of rural women, including the duty of State Parties to ensure an adequate standard of living.[29] The Convention acknowledges women’s vital role in the “economic survival of their families.”[30] A UN Development Programme (UNDP) report on the impact of the problem reported that due to the decrease in available economic activities for both women and men, families do not have enough income to survive.[31] One woman that UNDP interviewed reported “sordid poverty and hunger.”[32]

Article 14’s definition of the right to an adequate standard of living specifically includes the right to sufficient water supply and sanitation.[33] Additionally, the UN’s resolution on the right to water and sanitation recalls CEDAW as a source of this right in its preamble.[34] The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights expressed concern about the Marsh Arabs’ lack of access to water and sanitation in its recent periodic review of Iraq, citing a more substantial rise in preventable disease among the Marsh Arabs than in other parts of the country.[35] A Human Rights Watch report described increased contamination and salinity in drinking water sources, while AP News reported families paying 26 dollars every two days to unofficial vendors for potable water.[36] As the water crisis worsens, the availability and accessibility of clean water for drinking, sanitation, and agriculture decreases.

CEDAW requires Iraq to guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms for women, but the worsening water crisis has deprived many women of these rights.[37] The next section of this paper explores how Iraq can implement the Committee’s General Recommendation No. 37 on Gender-Related Dimensions of Disaster Risk and Reduction in a Changing Climate (G.R. 37) to address this crisis.


State Parties to CEDAW, including Iraq, are obliged to ensure that women can exercise and enjoy rights under the Convention. However, climate change has created new challenges for women and necessitates a new, particularly focused and strong response from governments. The Committee calls on State Parties to immediately take steps to “prevent and mitigate” the impacts of climate change on human rights and women’s rights.[39] It issued G.R. 37 in 2018 to guide governments in this task.[40]

G.R. 37 is appropriate to apply to the situation of the Marsh Arab women for several reasons. It defines “disaster” broadly and recognizes that many present disasters can have multiple causes including or exacerbated by climate change.[41] Despite having many contributing factors, the water crisis in the Iraqi marshes is strongly linked to climate change—rising temperatures and drought have played an enormous role in the problem.[42] G.R. 37’s suggestions apply to all disasters— including those that are manmade and climate change-induced.[43]

Furthermore, G.R. 37 specifies that even if the disaster is “slow-onset,” the suggestions still apply.[44] Therefore, even though the crisis in Iraq’s marshes has been developing for decades, these propositions are still relevant. Iraq should scrutinize G.R. 37 and deliberately consider the suggestions in addressing the crisis, mitigating further harm, and helping communities adapt to a future with potentially less water in the marshes.

G.R. 37 addresses both general principles of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change and specific areas of concern. The following section of this paper address the general principles and recommendations for how Iraq can address these problems.

General Recommendation No. 37’s General Principles

Two of G.R. 37’s general human rights principles— “Equality and Non-discrimination” and “Participation and Empowerment”— will be critical as Iraq formulates its plan. Iraq can look to the practices and successes of other countries in the region facing water crises to incorporate these principles successfully.

G.R. 37’s first general principle is Equity and Non-discrimination, paying particular attention to rural women living in poverty.[45] As the environmental disasters worsen, Iraqi Marsh Arab women suffer from indirect discrimination because they have fewer opportunities to work outside the home as their traditional roles go to men or disappear completely. The Iraqi government must ensure that Marsh Arab women have the same opportunities as men to continue pursuing traditional work or find new forms of income and are not confined to the home.

Iraq might look to Jordan for one possible framework to achieve the goal of substantive employment equality for women. In Northern Jordan, the government partnered with the UNDP to create a program to support “water entrepreneurs,” or people in communities who have implemented innovative solutions to water management in a water-scarce region.[46] The support of the government and the UN has allowed people to form businesses that can grow to support their families and adjust regional farming practices.[47] It has also allowed entrepreneurs to hire other locals and Syrian refugees.[48] Though only 24% of the project’s beneficiaries are women, the project team has hired a Gender Expert to improve its ability to support women.[49] This project has helped Jordanian communities adapt to their new, water-scarce situation by creating opportunities for people to support themselves and thrive despite the disaster.

The Iraqi government could follow Jordan’s example by supporting entrepreneurs, especially women, by giving grants in the marsh regions for people to new businesses that will succeed in the changing environment. Such a program would be a positive step toward identifying and eliminating discrimination.[50] By providing funding for women to develop drought-resilient farms, eco-tourism businesses, and water management startups, the programs would create long-term, sustainable employment opportunities for women outside the home. The program would also create more local jobs as entrepreneurs hire workers, taking a positive step toward substantive equality.[51] Iraq could improve on Jordan’s practices by retaining a local Gender Expert from the beginning to address gender early on and ensure that its plans specifically consider Marsh Arab women’s needs. With this improvement, implementing a program like Jordan’s could help the Iraqi government ground its response to this crisis in a non-discriminatory way.

G.R. 37’s second general principle, Participation and Empowerment, will also be vital for Iraq to incorporate into its plans.[52] The government must ensure that Marsh Arab women can participate in planning and implementing solutions and are empowered to make suggestions, attend local and national meetings, and work in their communities. The success of a solution will depend on engagement with affected people, especially women.[53] As women lose the ability to work outside the home, they have fewer opportunities to participate in problem-solving and development meetings at both the local and national levels. Given this fragile situation, compounded by security risks to women leaving the home and the rise of conservative Islam, the Iraqi government must take steps to achieve this general principle.[54]

Some Central Asian countries have taken an important step to encourage women’s participation in water management: Water User Associations (WUAs).[55] With some positive changes to involve and support more women, Iraq could implement similar organizations to achieve higher participation and empowerment for women in the water sector. For example, Tajikistan promulgated laws that established, defined, and supported these organizations.[56] With this support, water users can share information, resources, and solutions to manage community water systems better.[57] These organizations facilitate problem-solving among community members and promote communication with the government.[58] Through this communication, Tajikistan was able to rebuild its water management system effectively after the collapse of the Soviet Union and better support woman-owned farms after the migration of Tajik men to Russia.[59]

Iraq could also support WUAs, especially in the marsh regions, to promote participation and empowerment of women in water management roles. Like Tajikistan, the Iraqi government could pass laws supporting these organizations and defining a constructive relationship between WUAs and the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources. Iraq can take its support one step further by providing funding for both the organizations and the women who contribute to them. Funding could not only enable women to participate but could also finance programs to build their leadership skills and allow them to travel to the capital and have a say in national policies.[60] The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources could partner with these organizations, listen to the problems the communities are facing, and provide support in implementing solutions.

Furthermore, supporting WUAs will help address the problem that much of the Marsh Arab women’s traditional knowledge is being lost as they lose their ability to participate in their traditional roles.[61] WUAs can give women a new opportunity to share their expertise on a local and national level and ensure community leaders and federal water authorities consider their deep understanding of the ecosystem and local farming practices when planning and implementing solutions.[62] Supporting and funding WUA in the marsh region will help enable women’s participation and empowerment in finding solutions to their problems.

Considering G.R. 37’s general principles is only the first step for Iraq in addressing the water crisis. The government must also focus on specific areas of concern, which are addressed in the next section of this paper.


Though the Marsh Arabs in Iraq have maintained their lifestyle for thousands of years, climate change has exacerbated threats to their home in a short amount of time. As a party to CEDAW, the government of Iraq has obligations to protect the human rights of women who are affected by this crisis. In consultation with local communities and informed by other countries’ practices, Iraq can use G.R. 37 to form and implement a plan to protect this community of women.


Works Cited:

[1] Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 1, Al Jazeera (Sept. 20. 2023), https://www.aljazeera.com/program/people-power/2023/9/20/iraqs-water-wars-part-1; Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Iraq Water Crisis Could have Regional Consequences, UN Human Rights Chief Warns, AP News (Aug. 9, 2023), https://apnews.com/article/iraq-human-rights-un-climate-change-b2c4cc51bcd8d4aa0a741aa06cfe1b2c.

[2] Bahrooz Jaafar, The Water Shortage Crisis in Iraq, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (Aug. 31, 2021), https://besacenter.org/the-water-shortage-crisis-in-iraq/; Basra is Thirsty, Human Rights Watch (July 2019), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/iraq0719_web.pdf; SDG-Climate Facility Project: Climate Action for Human Security, Interim Progress Report: Resilience Grants, UN Development Programme (Oct. 2022), https://www.undp.org/arab-states/publications/sdg-climate-facility-project-climate-action-human-security.

[3] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, General Recommendation No. 37 on the Gender-Related Dimensions of Disaster Risk Reduction in the Context of Climate Change, ⁋ 2, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37 (Mar. 13, 2018).

[4] Nadia Al-Mudaffar Fawzi et al., Effects of Mesopotamian Marsh (Iraq) Desiccation on the Cultural Knowledge and Livelihood of Marsh Arab Women, 2 Ecosystem Health and Sustainability (2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.; Alison Mize, Ecological Collapse Circumscribes Traditional Women’s Work in the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq, The Ecological Society of America (Mar. 24, 2016), https://www.esa.org/blog/2016/03/mesopotamian-marsh-women/.

[7] Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4; Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 2, Al Jazeera (Sept. 27, 2023), https://www.aljazeera.com/program/people-power/2023/9/27/iraqs-water-wars-part2.

[8] Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 2, surpa note 7.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.; Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Concluding Observations on the Fourth Periodic Report of Iraq, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/IRQ/CO/4 (Oct. 27, 2015).

[11] Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4; Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 2, supra note 7; Concluding Observations on the Fourth Periodic Report of Iraq, supra note 9; Cara Priestley, “We Won’t Survive in the City. The Marshes Are Our Life”: An Analysis of the Ecologically Induced Genocide in the Iraqi Marshes, 23 J. of Genocide Research 279, (2021).

[12] Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4; Abdul-Zahra, supra note 1; Basra is Thirsty, supra note 2.

[13] Basra is Thirsty, supra note 2.

[14] Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 1, supra note 1; Priestley, surpa note 10.

[15] Priestley, surpa note 10; see Aaron Schwabach, Ecocide and Genocide in Iraq: International Law, the Marsh Arabs, and Environmental Damage in Non-International Conflicts, 27 Colo. J. of Int’l Env’t L. & Pol’y (2003); Sayyed Nadeem A Kazmi, The Marshlands of Southern Iraq: A Very Humanitarian Dilemma, Ill Jornades de Merio Oriente (2000).

[16] Id.; Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4.

[17] Ahwari Women, The Beating Heart of the Iraqi Marshlands, U.N. Development Programme (March 8, 2021), https://www.undp.org/iraq/stories/ahwari-women-beating-heart-iraqi-marshes; Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 2, surpa note 7.

[18] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women art. 2, Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13(hereinafter: CEDAW); International Law, Selected Document 497 (Allen S. Weiner, Duncan B. Hollis, and Barry E. Carter, eds, 7th ed. 2019); G.A. Res. 64/292, The Human Right to Water and Sanitation, at 1-3 (Aug 3, 2010); Basra is Thirsty, supra note 2.

[19] Introduction to the Committee, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, https://www.ohchr.org/en/treaty-bodies/cedaw/introduction-committee (last visited Nov. 21, 2023).

[20] Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, https://indicators.ohchr.org/ (last visited Nov. 21, 2023).

[21] CEDAW art. 3, supra note 17.

[22] Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4.

[23] Id.

[24] Iraq’s Water Wars—Part 1, supra note 1.

[25] Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4.

[26] Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4; CEDAW art. 5, supra note 17. (“State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women… with the view to achieve the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”)

[27] CEDAW art. 10, supra note 17.

[28] Nora Isayan, Gender Roles and Challenges in Al Hawizeh Marshes of Iraq, UN Development Programme (March 8, 2022), https://www.undp.org/arab-states/blog/gender-roles-and-challenges-al-hawizeh-marshes-iraq.

[29] CEDAW art. 14, supra note 17.

[30] Isayan, supra note 26.

[31] Id.

[32] Ahwari Women, The Beating Heart of the Iraqi Marshlands, supra note 16.

[33] CEDAW art. 14, supra note 17; G.A. Res. 64/292, supra note 17; Margaret L. Satterthwaite, Assessing the Rights to Water and Sanitation: Between Institutionalization and Radicalization, 52 Geo. J Int’l L. 315, 343-44 (2021).

[34] G.A. Res. 64/292, supra note 17.

[35] Concluding Observations of the Fourth Periodic Report of Iraq, supra note 9.

[36] Basra is Thirsty, supra note 2; Sinan Salaheddin, Water Crisis Salts the Earth in Iraq’s Long-Neglected South, AP News (Aug. 2, 2018), https://apnews.com/article/42e6009d17da4e4bbed8e8c6a67813b6.

[37] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 9, 14.

[38] This paper will only address Iraq’s obligations under CEDAW. Because Iraq’s water crisis is a transboundary problem, meaning that it is partially caused by Turkey and Iran’s damming practices on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, Turkey also probably has obligations to the Marsh Arabs under CEDAW. Iran is not a party to the convention. General Recommendation No. 37 requires State Parties to “take effective steps to equitably manage shared resources.” Turkey should ensure that its water usage does not violate the human rights of women in Iraq, a downstream country.

[39] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 9, 14.

[40] Id.; Scoping Study on the Use of CEDAW General Recommendation No. 37 on Gender-Related Dimensions of Disaster Risk Reduction in a Changing Climate, U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction 4 (2023), https://www.undrr.org/media/90871/download?startDownload=true.

[41] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 9, 14.

[42] Jaafar, supra note 1.

[43] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 13.

[44] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 13.

[45] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 26(a).

[46] SDG-Climate Facility Project: Climate Action for Human Security, Interim Progress Report: Resilience grants, UN Development Programme (Oct. 2022), https://www.undp.org/arab-states/publications/sdg-climate-facility-project-climate-action-human-security; Scaling Up Innovation in Water Management for Climate Security in Northern Jordan Project Launched, UN Development Programme (June 16, 2021), https://www.undp.org/jordan/press-releases/scaling-innovation-water-management-climate-security-northern-jordan-project-launched-0.

[47] SDG-Climate Facility Project, supra note 44.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 31(a).

[51] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 31.

[52] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 26(b).

[53] Climate, Peace and Security Programming in the Arab States, U.N. Development Programme, 5 (Sept. 2023), https://www.undp.org/arab-states/publications/climate-peace-and-security-programming-arab-states-considerations-integrated-programming-jordan-yemen-iraq-and-somalia.

[54] UNDP & UN Women Reaffirm their Commitment Toward Increasing Women’s Political Participation in Iraq, UN Development Programme, (Nov. 2, 2022), https://www.undp.org/arab-states/press-releases/undp-un-women-reaffirm-their-commitment-toward-increasing-womens-political-participation-iraq.

[55] Minura Begishbek Kyzy, Women in Water User Associations of Central Asia, in Practical Outlook on Gender Issues in the Water Resources Sector (Andery Vladimirovich Mitusov, ed., 2020).

[56] Ted Horbulyk and Soumya Balasubramanya, Impact of Water Users Associations on Water and Land Productivity, Equity, and Food Security in Tajikistan, U.S. Agency for International Development, (Sept. 2018) https://www.globalwaters.org/sites/default/files/impact-water-user-associations-tajikistan.pdf.

[57] Id.; Beghishbek Kyzy, supra note 52.

[58] Horbulyk, supra note 53.

[59] Beghishbek Kyzy, supra note 52.


[60] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋⁋ 36(c), (e).

[61] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 33; Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, supra note 4.

[62] U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, supra note 3 at ⁋ 36(b).

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