Water infrastructure in the Middle East


Duration:5 years

Cost:£1.25m (£75m today)

Country: Kut City, Iraq

What did this project achieve?

Irrigate new areas of land to encourage agricultural production

The Middle East is one of the most arid parts of the world. As water is in such short supply its use and control are major issues in the region.

Historically, people in the region lived where water was available. Ancient Egypt relied on the river Nile to flood twice a year – irrigating crops to feed its people. Towns and cities grew up close to the river as a result.

A combination of growing populations and an increase in industry by the 19th and early 20th century meant governments needed to take greater control of water supplies to ensure their countries' economic future.

The Kut barrage on the river Tigris in Iraq is one example of an early 20th century engineering project designed to create a water infrastructure in the Middle East. It was the first of 5 barrages constructed across the river.

The 1,693ft (516m) long x 34ft (10.5m) high structure was designed by irrigation engineer William Willcocks. It was built across the Tigris near what is now Kut City between 1934 and 1939.

The barrage was designed to keep water levels in the Tigris high enough to feed water to the Gharraf river. This allowed the river to irrigate about 320,000 hectares of land used for farming. Before the structure was built the Gharraf only flowed during floods.

William Willcocks also designed the first Aswan dam – sometimes known as the Lower Aswan dam – across the river Nile in 1902.

Difference a consistent water supply makes

The Kut barrage irrigated new areas of land making them available for growing crops. Agricultural production increased as a result.

More reliable sources of food helped authorities maintain economic and social stability.

The structure also generated hydroelectricity for Kut and the surrounding areas.

How the work was done

The project team faced major challenges constructing the Kut barrage. Not least was the remote location.

Support facilities for the scheme had to be built from scratch – including a camp for workers to live in and a hospital to treat anyone who fell ill.

Engineers from the UK were employed to build the structure and train around 2,500 locally-hired workers. Paying workers was initially difficult as there weren't enough coins in Kut – cash had to brought in from Baghdad, about 160km away.

The scheme saw engineers construct a 516m barrage across the Tigris. The structure was 10.5m high and had 56 gates, each 6m wide.

The team also built an 80m wide passage through the barrage.

The project used about 300,000m³ of concrete as well as gravel and sand delivered by barge from Wadi on the Iranian border. The scheme also saw the excavation and removal of around 1.2m cubic metres of earth.

Engineers built a single lane road along the top of the barrage which was used as a bridge.

The structure was extended and widened in 1967. An extra lane was added along the top to allow for two-way traffic.


The Middle East and North Africa has become a hotspot of unsustainable water use with more than half of current water withdrawals in some countries exceeding the amount naturally available.

Claudia W Sadoff

International Water Management Institute, writing on the World Bank's water blog, November 2017.

Fascinating facts

Other major water infrastructure projects in the Middle East include the Lower Aswan dam (1902) and the Upper Aswan dam (1970). Both dams are on the river Nile in Egypt.

William Willcocks also designed the Hindiya barrage – a water infrastructure scheme on the river Euphrates. The structure, near the town of Musayyib in Iraq, was completed in 1913.

A 10m gallon-per-day water distillation plant built in Kuwait has been credited with transforming the country from a small fishing port into a modern city. Although this may be true, Kuwait's massive reserves of oil probably had something to do with it as well.

People who made it happen

  • Designer: William Willcocks
  • Contractors: Balfour Beatty
  • Contractors for 1967 extensions: Al-Burhan Group

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