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Trickle Down

Alice Fordham
In dusty Diyala province, north of Baghdad, Asad Muhammad Abbas and Ismail Abdelamir Jawad, elders from Shifta village, sit in grey dishdashes and complain bitterly about the disgraceful behaviour of a neighbouring…
16.06.2010  |  Diyala

"Every day I go to my farm early in the day - there are problems of water," says one, while the other chimes in, "a dam has been built further upriver...some people get as much water as they need."

Suspicious of their thirsty neighbours and worrying about their orchards and children, the two men are playing out a microcosmic version of a great battle for resources that crosses borders. Ultimately, as the results of squabbles between Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq have shown, the battle has so far been won by the powerful nations upstream of the region's two great rivers.

Iraq, once called Mesopotamia - the land between the rivers - used to have a thick green ribbon of fertility and farmland snaking through the middle of the country, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates. Now, drought and desertification plague the country, the levels in both rivers have fallen to historic lows, and the nation's leaders have turned angry eyes on their neighbours as the source of the problem.

"Negotiating is a very difficult issue," said Mohammad Amin Faris, a water official in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). "When you are negotiating with Turkey, they are upstream of the river and they are in control."

Turkey, he went on, is engaged in a huge irrigation and employment-creation scheme known as the GAP project, which involves the building of around 40 dams and power stations. "They have kept a lot of water for irrigation, reservoirs, hydro-electric powers, and Iraq has suffered from these projects because there is less and less in the river Euphrates," he said, adding that the volume of water flowing into Iraq from the Euphrates is less than half what it was ten years ago.

Syria, being downstream of Turkey, also suffers, said Francesca deChatel, author of Water Sheiks and Dam Builders: Stories of People andWater in the Middle East. But, she said, "Iraq is suffering the most.Syria and Turkey are having better and better relations," while Iraqis, "not even being consulted," while new water-sharing agreements arebeing created which leave the water coming to Iraq increasingly salineand decreasingly abundant.

Even in Iraq, the game is being played, and the power and water lyingin the hands of the upstream, well-run Kurdish area. In the KRG, whichhas been peaceful for nearly two decades, an eye on diminishing watersupplies has led to the building of large dams.

"In the Kurdish area we have not too much of a problem," said Faris.

Dams at the great Dokan and Derbendikahn lakes are among the factorskeeping the KRG green and the famers of Diyala, due south of theKurdish region, thirsty.

The impact of this struggle for diminishing water supplies, alsoaffected by years of low rainfall, can be seen allover Iraq. Agriculture was once the country's second industry, afteroil. But now as the sector struggles to get back on its feet,post-conflict, farmers have found their land too dry and their wateraccess too unreliable for irrigation. High salt and pollution levels -from fertiliser use in upstream areas - have also left the waterpoisonous for crops and people. Government estimates show that nearlya quarter of Iraqis do not have access to safe water.

The marshlands of southern Iraq, once home to the distinctive cultureof the Marsh Arabs, with their reed-buildings known as mudhifs, wereleft ravaged by draining schemes under Saddam Hussein's regime. Butdrought has left them all but beyond recovery, and the formerinhabitants now largely live in slums outside Basra. In Baghdad,people point out how high the Tigris used to run, and lament that itis lower, more sluggish and polluted every year.

American teams who have led reconstruction efforts have encouragedmore water-efficient forms of irrigation, and the use of wells whichdraw on groundwater, deep down in the soil. But, says, Tariq Karim ofSalahuddin University, a professor of soil physics and water, thesesupplies, once depleted, are gone forever.

"A bad consequence ofdrought is the extraction of groundwater," he said, "the groundwaterlevel has declined by more than ten metres."

Another worrying factor is that dried-out soil can simply blow away,leaving the land unusable in future, even if rains come or water flowsagain. The situation is likely to become worse still as oil extractionin Iraq, under ten contracts signed with international companies,begins in earnest; the industry uses a barrel of water for everybarrel of oil produced, and companies are likely to break promisesthat seawater rather than freshwater resources will be used.

According to Faris, "if there is no negotiation, of course there willbe fighting…it is possible that people will steal water." Otherregional observers also worry that tension over water management couldlead to unrest between Iraq and its neighbours.

Professor Rami Zurayk, an ecosystem management expert from theAmerican University of Beirut, however, says that conflict because ofwater is unlikely. "This is about power," he said. When Turkey takesthe lion's share of water, he said, "they say 'it is our land' andimpose their will because political power is in their favour in theMiddle East."

By contrast, in Egypt, which is downstream of Ethiopia and Sudan, themore powerful Egyptian government have been able to insist that itsupstream neighbours "cannot put any barrier to the flow of water fromthe Nile."

Arguing that water disputes arise because of regional power strugglesrather than vice versa, he said, "I do not think that water will be areason [for conflict]."

"There are many other reasons for which a conflict takes place…" hewent on. "Saying water is going to cause conflict is like saying thereis a peace today."

De Chatel, too, believes that, "Iraq is missing out because it ispolitically unstable, it is not where the focus is." But, she added,conflict would be an expensive and counter-productive way of solvingthe problems. "Water is cheaper than war. If we find a way ofco-operating, that is better."

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