Iraq’s thirst for water is not only due Turkey and Iran

June 7, 2018 at 4:22 pm

Ninewa, 2017, Mosul Dam is the fourth largest in the Middle East, now it needs renovation. Photo: Sina Muhammad, Metrography Agency

Ninewa, 2017, Mosul Dam is the fourth largest in the Middle East, now it needs renovation. Photo: Sina Muhammad, Metrography Agency

Yassen Taha

Yasin Taha

Yassen Taha

From one crisis to another, Iraqis once again go through a rough patch. Only months after announcing the final victory over the Islamic State (ISIS), conducted in massive battles with heavy prices regarding casualties and finance, the cities on the Tigris riverbank are shocked to see the decreased level of the water. The river, which has a historical tie to Iraq’s name, is in trouble due to the operation of Turkish Ilisu dam.

Furthermore, Qaladze residents were short of drinking water due to the alteration of the Lower Zap route through Iran, which constitutes an essential branch of Tigris.

The thirst, which Iraqi activists have been expressing it through the hashtag #IraqIsThirsty, accompanies the arrival of summer, with hints of a deadly drought for residents. During August, both heat and drought reach the apex and cause the eradication of orchards and gardens on vast swathes of Iraqi agricultural land.

 

The reason behind the crisis

Iraq needs 30-50 million cubic meters of drinking water annually, as the number is expected to double in the next 20 years. However, in recent decades the country was in need of much more for agriculture, while it suffers from the accumulated water issues. The major sources of water are outside Iraqi borders, controlled by Iran, Syria and Turkey. The water from such sources constitutes 70% of Iraq’s water resources, which have reduced by 50% due to building dams by those neighbours.

The country also suffers from withdrawal regarding rain, which has reduced by 30% in recent years, while it makes 30% of Iraq’s water resources.

Due to building new dams by the neighbouring countries, the level of water in Iraqi rivers, which constitute 70% of Iraq’s water resources, have decreased by 50%

 

Iran’s Water Policy

Iran has been attempting to alter the route of rivers which flow to Iraq through its borders, which is 1,425 km long. The attempts are part of the country’s policy called as ‘Iranian Inclusive Policy’ by the foreign minister of Iran, Abbas Iraqchi.

UNICEF and other international organisations provide 150 tankers of 30 thousand litres of water each day to the west side of Mosul. Photo: UNICEF Iraq/ Khuzale

UNICEF and other international organisations provide 150 tankers of 30 thousand litres of water each day to the west side of Mosul. Photo: UNICEF Iraq/ Khuzale

Iran also suffers from the shortage of water and drought, as the country announced the year 2018 to be the driest in 50 years.

Iran’s water policy prevents Iraq from its water portion and dries many rivers and water branches coming through the country, including Alwand River in Khanaqin, decrease in water level of Sirwan River through irrigation. Halting Lower Zap flow, with Karun, Karkha and Tarwij, have contributed to contaminate the water of Shatt al-Arab, and prevent the residents of Basra and other southern cities from their primary source of drinking water.

Iraq used to have 45 joint branches of water with Iran, now that number has decreased to 3-4, according to the remarks of the Water Resources ministry.

 

Turkish GAP Project

As with Iran, Iraq is entangled with the same water issue with Turkey with Ilisu dam becoming operational on Tigris. Ilisu is a part of the GAP project, which includes establishing 22 dams, 14 on the Euphrates, and eight on Tigres. The plan aims at reviving the Anatolia region and containing poverty and unemployment, along with the sense of anti-state phenomenon. Turkey uses the project as a political pressure card with Iraq as well, which constitutes a part of Ankara’s expansionist influence.

GAP translates Turkey’s thought process which considers both Tigris and Euphrates to be two national rivers and heritage of the country. After the idea of selling drinking water to some Gulf countries and Jordan, water may well stand on par with oil. The sentiment stands against Iraq’s historical memory, which is known to be the country between the two rivers, along with the international conventions, as the Helsinki convention of 1966, which sets the rules for the international rivers with shared countries and their respective rights to have a specific portion of them.

 

Ilisu Dam

Located on Tigris river in southeast Turkey, working on it started in 2006, with a capacity of 10.4 billion cubic meters of reservoir according to the Turkish sources. The dam was completed under the guise of the country’s need to new sources of energy, while Turkey had ignored water as a source of energy for a long time.

The dam could well reduce the water flow of Tigris to Iraq by 60%, through decreasing 20 billion cubic reservoirs to only 9 billion, according to a recent research paper issued by a British house named “The Sphere of Thirst”.

Turkey uses the dams as a political pressure card with Iraq, which represents a part of Ankara’s historical expansionist influence

Ilisu dam may well make a series of severe changes to the lives of Iraqi residents to the level of affecting their health, due to the heightened level of contamination in the river flow and the consequences of the incoming drought expected to happen when the project is in operation.  

The centre of 5 provinces, 13 districts, and 21 towns will be impacted, which may trigger an internal migration to major cities, along with the decrease of agriculture and farms in those residencies. The project costs Iraq a third of its agricultural land in the coming quarter of the century, which means millions of future jobs.

 

Mismanagement of water resources

Natural hazards and neighbouring countries aside, mismanagement emerges as a major reason behind the water issue in Iraq. Experts cite the outdated and ineffective system of water management in the country, which dates back to as old as of the Sumerian times, as a reason behind wasting water resources of the country.

Others criticise the act of farming rice, which requires a vast quantity of water.

Ninewa, 2017, Mosul Dam was under the control of ISIS for two years and a half, with tens of confrontations between the militant group and the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces in the area. Photo: Sina Muhammad, Metrography Agency

Ninewa, 2017, Mosul Dam was under the control of ISIS for two years and a half, with tens of confrontations between the militant group and the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces in the area. Photo: Sina Muhammad, Metrography Agency

Contrary to the optimism of some people concerning the registering of Iraqi marshlands in UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list, some note that the quantity of water needed to revive them, while countries are striving to reach more drinking water. The former governor of Ninewa, Atheel al-Nujaifi said the required evaporation of water in one of the marshes surpasses what is needed to water the Jazeera area in Ninewa, which is 1,4 million dunams of land.

Other experts suggest using new methods to manage water through the use of new technology, which reduces the usage by 20% of its current level.

 

Solution through dams

Iraqi authorities built seven dams during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and another two in the later decade. However, such projects were halted after 2003 due to lack of plans, corruption, and the absence of an allocated budget. Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbours compete on building larger dams with a massive budget. Currently, Iraq is only busy repairing and mending the old dams, of which some could be considered as ‘dangerous’ like Mosul Dam, on the forefront of the most dangerous in the world, according to the Engineering Team report of the US in 2007.

Ignoring such projects, Iraqi authorities have not had a single large irrigation project for years, while millions of dollars have been spent on failed military projects or other superfluous projects, according to the local and international reports.

 

Negotiation with Turkey

Politicians and experts agree on one thing that Iraq has lost its negotiation cards with its neighbours, due to wars and a weak political foundation in Baghdad. No definitive agreement exists concerning Iraq’s portion of Tigris river, which leaves Turkey free to exploit the situation.

Ilisu Dam impacts the centre of five provinces, 13 districts and 21 towns in Iraq

Although Iraq has sought refuge to the international community, experts believe that the international response favours stronger players, and leaves Iraq without an answer, a situation where Iraq needs to respond through unconventional solutions, according to the head of the Environment Organization in Iraq Azzam Alwash.

Alwash recommends to rent Turkish dams through decreasing the exported oil and gas price for the country, to connect the electricity system of Iraq and Turkey, until the time comes where the two countries reach a joint administration of Tigris and Euphrates. He also suggests taking extra steps to protect the water resources.

The immediate step aims to stop wasting 10 billion cubic meters of water to Iraq, along with the waste of water through evaporation and leakage of Iraqi dams created in the last century, as the dams of Tharthar, Habbaniya, Razaza, Mosul, Haditha, Dukan and Darbandikhan.

 

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