IRQRivers18BAGHDAD – A year after Iraq pushed back the onslaught of Islamic State extremists, the country faces a new existential challenge: Iran and Turkey want its water.

“The decline is dramatic,” said Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Hassan Al-Jannabi. “Erratic rainfall and construction of dams in neighboring countries has led to a combined decrease of more than 40 percent in annual flow through the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin.”

Ankara is now filling the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris. The 440-foot high, 6000-foot wide project is around 70 miles from the Iraqi border.

The Ilisu Dam will decrease Iraq’s share of the Tigris from 20.9 billion cubic meters to 9.7 billion cubic meters annually, said Rayan Thannon al-Abbasi, a water expert at Mosul University’s Regional Studies Center.

“Iraq’s power plants will be affected by this decrease and the supply of fish in the rivers will be depleted as well” said Thannon al-Abbasi.

Aiming to boost power generation and expand agriculture in southeastern Turkey, the Ilisu Dam has been launched in parallel with an Iranian diversion of the Sirwan River, a tributary of the Tigris, further reducing downstream flow. Nearly 30 percent of the Tigris’ annual flow originates in Iran.

Iran’s Daryan Dam is slated to be completed this year. Iraqi hydrologists have estimated that it would reduce the water flow through the Sirwan by as much as 60 per cent, leaving much of central and southern Iraq without adequate water supplies.

“There is no agreement among the countries on sharing the water resources of the two rivers,” said Fadel Al Zubi, head of the UN’s UN Food and Agriculture Organization office in Iraq. “Each neighboring country controls the water flow into Iraq according to its interests, needs and circumstances without adhering to any quota or consideration.”

Iraq’s neighbors initiated these projects at the height of the weakness of the central government in Baghdad.

In contrast, in the 1990s, Turkey diverted the Euphrates River to fill the reservoir for the Atatürk Dam in the 1990s. A stronger Iraq in 1990 threatened to bomb the Atatürk Dam, leading Turkey to slow down its diversion.

Today, Iraqi government officials are scrambling for solutions to the shortage of water for agriculture and drinking.

“Iraq has two diplomatic choices to deal with the crisis,” Botani said, adding that Turkey took a one-month pause in filling the Ilisu Dam after bilateral talks in June. “I hope Iraq can work with the Turks to sign a long-term water sharing agreement and that other countries will help pay for conservation and irrigation programs. If that doesn’t work, it can go to the UN Security Council to issue a binding decision that warns of the dangers of possible water wars.”

The free-for-all jeopardizes Iraq’s food security, an irony given how much of Iraq is within the fertile crescent, where humanity first developed agriculture.

“With a loss of more than 50 percent of Iraq’s water, nearly three million square miles [6,960 square kilometers] of agricultural land in Iraq will be turned into desert,” said Hussam Botany, an analyst at the Son'i El-Siyasat Policy-Making Center, an Istanbul think tank.

The Tigris Euphrates basin historically enjoyed an average combined annual flow of 82 billion cubic meters. Before the US invasion in 2003, Iraqis derived about 20 percent of their electricity from 12 hydropower stations. But reduced river flows from Turkish and Iranian dams upstream and climate change coupled with poor maintenance caused by the decline in oil revenue and the three-year war with Islamic State have left Iraqis with a spotty power supply.

“Now, we have power in alternating cycles – two hours on, two hours off. This is really tiring,” said Zahraa Al-Hasnawi, a dentist in Hillah, a city of 400,000 people around 60 miles south of Baghdad. “The government doesn’t do basic tasks like dredging the rivers or teaching farmers smart irrigation measures like you see in Jordan.”

The water crisis has led the officials in the capital to order famers to halt cultivation of rice, corn and cereals. That decision was an intensification of the reduction of areas allocated for rice production last year, when some southern provinces were ordered to cut cultivation of the staple by half.

“Cereal crops can no longer be grown without our authorization,” said agriculture ministry spokesman Hamid al-Nayef. “The quantities of water needed are not available.”

Following the announcement, the government tendered to purchase 50,000 tons of wheat from the US, Canada and Australia. Now citizens are openly accusing the Baghdad administration neglecting Iraq’s strategic water interests.

“Why is it that only a few months ago, we hear that this drought comes because the dam built by Turkey,” said Ayoub Thannon, a 26-year-old pharmacist in Mosul. “The tap water is getting darker in color and not suitable for drinking. The Iraqi government has to do something to save the water.”

Photo: Screeshot of a promotional video for Ilisu Dam by DSİ Genel Müdürlüğü (Turkey's State Hydraulic Works). The dam is still under construction, and will decrease Iraq’s share of the Tigris from 20.9 billion cubic meters to 9.7 billion cubic meters annually, said Rayan Thannon al-Abbasi, a water expert at Mosul University’s Regional Studies Center.
Credit: Courtesy of the DSİ Genel Müdürlüğü official YouTube channel.

Story/photo publish date: 08/19/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

You are here: Home Newsroom Featured stories FEATURED: Middle East/North Africa Crisis after crisis: post-Islamic State Iraq deals with water crisis