The world is seeing images of people walking across the much-diminished Tigris River in Iraq. Dead fish abound. Some disaster scenarios even predict the Euphrates and Tigris rivers could dry up by 2040 if effective water-management measures are not taken.
It's no wonder the decades-old water dispute between Iraq and Turkey has erupted anew.
Turkey completed construction of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris earlier this year and began filling a reservoir behind the damn in early June, but because of increasing objections, the countries have since agreed that Turkey will allow the river's natural flow to continue until Nov. 1. Delegations from Ankara and Baghdad are to meet Nov. 2 for further discussions.
Related developments were reported in detail by Mustafa Saadoun in Al-Monitor on June 13.
That article noted Iraq’s water reserves will be reduced to 30 billion cubic meters (24.3 million acre-feet) by the end of 2018, which will be lowest level since 1931. Current reserves are enough to irrigate 50% of the agricultural land this summer. Agriculture requires 25 billion cubic meters of water per year, but this year only 17 billion cubic meters will be available. At this rate, Iraq stands to lose 50,000 hectares (almost 124,000 acres) of agricultural land.
According to the Turkish side, the dimensions of the crisis are not being debated honestly. Iraq’s own Ministry of Water Resources Management has said the crisis isn't because of Ilisu, but because there's a lack of sufficient water at Iraq's Mosul Dam. Yet that statement seems to be ignored when it's convenient.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed that Turkey had begun holding water at Ilisu to win the votes of its farmers in the June 24 elections. But Ilisu is designed to generate power; there is nothing there to benefit farmers. After filling the dam to operate the generator turbines, Turkey will have to release the water anyway. Nevertheless, Ankara preferred not to challenge Abadi to avoid raising political sensitivity in Iraq.
Turkish sources told Al-Monitor that Ankara has been reasonable about releasing water to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers so as not to make life difficult for Iraq and Syria. According to a protocol signed with Syria in 1987, Turkey has to release 500 cubic meters (0.4 acre-foot) per second to the Euphrates. If that amount can't be provided during one month because of drought, then it is made up the next month. Although there is no such arrangement with Iraq for the Tigris, Turkey nevertheless informs Baghdad of the amount released to the Euphrates. Baghdad then compares the water it gets with the amount Syria receives and demands the same.
Ankara also points out that in the dry summer months, the water level falls, but this very basic fact is often ignored. According to a 2013 NASA report, between 2003 and 2010, "Parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre-feet of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea."
Also, Baghdad claims Turkey’s massive Southeast Anatolia Project (which includes the Ilisu Dam) has caused an 80% reduction in water flow to Iraq. About three-fourths of that entire project is complete, with 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power stations and irrigation of 1.8 million hectares. However, more than half the Tigris' flow is fed by waters in Iraq. The river carries on average 52 billion cubic meters of water every year, with 40% coming from Turkish sources and 9% from Iran; the remaining 51% is from Iraq’s own sources.
Thus, Iraq's poor water management seems to emerge as the true culprit:
- Iraq still uses soil water canals from the days of the Sumerians, which is the main cause of its water loss. Iraq hasn't invested in irrigation systems, reservoirs and water conservation for 25 years. Two of Iraq's dams can't be used to retain water for periods of drought. The Mosul Dam was damaged during the war against the Islamic State, and the Darbandikhan Dam on the Iranian border was damaged by an earthquake.
- There is no effective coordination in Iraq among the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Agriculture and local authorities.
- Iran diverted some of the streams feeding the Tigris for its dam and irrigation projects. This seriously affects Sulaimaniyah and Diyala in northern Iraq, reducing electricity production and changing the ecological balance. However, because of Baghdad's internal politics, it doesn't raise the subject with Iran.
- One factor affecting agriculture is salinization. Sewer discharges into rivers, the absence of purification systems and the misuse of water all increase water salinity. Water in Qurna, Kut and Amara in southern Iraq has twice the salinity of Mosul's water. One study found that the Euphrates' salinization increased 2.5 times between 1980 and 2009.
A leading expert on the issue, professor Aysegul Kibaroglu of MEF University, believes the problem in Iraq is not linked to the Ilisu Dam. “Iraq’s water crises are because of wars, embargos and [Saddam Hussein's] unjust water management of the past 40 years. Climate change, global warming and decline in snowfall also contribute to it,” Kibaroglu told Al-Monitor.
Turkey has several ideas designed to ease the water shortage. It proposes installing water meters on both sides of the border to determine how much water is released to the Euphrates and Tigris. Turkey has offered to pay for the meters. Ankara also proposes joint projects to improve and develop irrigation systems and setting up joint mechanisms for water management. But one basic problem is what constitutes a "fair" share.
Turkey classifies the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as “water crossing the border” and proposes sharing according to a formula of "just and according to needs." Iraq and Syria prefer to use the classification “international waters,” and they want equal shares. The three parties don’t have an international accord they can rely on, as Turkey has not signed the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses.