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Water Conflict Threatens Regional Relations

Qassim Khidhir Hamad
Tensions between Iraq and its neighbours are growing over the issue of water.
5.05.2009  |  Erbil

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, both of which originate in Turkey, are the main sources of Iraqi water but in recent years new Turkish dams have blocked the flow of water to the country. Likewise, Iranian dams have cut down water supplies flowing into the country resulting in the loss of key farming and drinking water.

The Iraqi government has called for greater regional cooperation to end the water shortage and control competition over the crucial resource which is now more expensive that Iraqi oil. One litre of Turkish mineral water today costs US 50 cents in Iraq, while one litre of Iraqi oil costs less than US 25 cents.

A joint committee comprising Iraq, Turkey and Syria met in Istanbul in October 2008 to discuss the issue of shared water rights but it has not yet reached a settlement.

At a recent water conference in Suleimaniya Water Resources Minister Abdul-Latif Jamal Rasheed, affirmed the need for a regional agreement.

“The problem is that Iraq still does not have any pact with Turkey and Iran. Iraq needs agreements with these two countries,” said Rasheed.

Iraqi officials say they have asked the two countries to double the flow of water into the country.

However, a member of the Iraqi parliament who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue told Niqash that Turkey and Iran are using the water issue to exert pressure on Iraq in other areas.

“Turkey seeks to get oil in return for water and Iran doesn’t want Iraq to have a developed agricultural sector,” he said.

According to the MP there has been some limited cooperation from Iran.

When the Alwan River, which crosses from Iran through to Khanaqin, north of Diyala province, became completely dry last summer, Iranian authorities allowed extra water to flow into Iraq for a period of 20 days. The Iranian government blamed its own drought for the restrictions.

According to Muhammad Amin Fars, a member of the tri-nation committee and General-Director of Kurdistan’s Irrigation and Water department 696,000 hectors of Iraqi agricultural land are now facing drought because of Turkish dams.

“In the past 28 billion cubic meters used to come to Iraq from the Euphrates each year but now only 13 billion cubic meters come from Euphrates,” Fars told Niqash.

Water shortages also affect Iraq’s electricity supplies by slowing the country’s hydroelectric dams.

The Iraqi parliament’s committee of agriculture, water resources and marsh areas recently criticized the government for the lack of discussion on the issue during Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit to Iraq last month.

“Until the Iraqi share of water from the Euphrates and Tigris is emphasized, Iraq should not sign any kind of agreement with Turkey,” said a committee statement.

Dr. Azad Aslan, a lecturer at Salahadin University in Erbil warns that a solution to the issue is required to prevent tensions escalating to the point of war. “Water shortages, as the World Bank forecasts, indicate the inevitability of future water conflicts and possible water wars in the region,” he told Niqash.

According to Aslan, Iraq urgently needs to devise a long-term plan for the more efficient use of its water resources. In particular he said that the population must be better educated to prevent unnecessary water wastage.

As an example of the country’s misuse of water, Iraq’s Kurdish Region, which is the gateway for many of the rivers coming from Turkey and Iran and therefore a rich source of water for the country as a whole, has itself witnessed water shortages in recent years.

According to Fars the region accesses 45.8 billion cubic meters of water every year and only required 8.8 billion cubic meters for its own needs. But because of the lack of modern water management systems and poor public awareness, “we sometimes face a water crisis.”

Kawa Ahmed from Suleimaniya contributed to this report