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Iraq Demands More Water from its Neighbours

Kholoud Ramzi
At a time when Turkish cities have been flooded with rain water, Iraq has faced a sharp and unprecedented decrease in the water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, pushing the country towards drought.
14.10.2009  |  Baghdad

The crisis "threatens Iraq’s food security and risks exposing the country to an environmental disaster,” one government official told Niqash.

According to Iraqi officials, a decrease in rainfall this year by about 40 percent and Turkish policies of constructing dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have led to a significant decrease - as much as 50 percent – of the water levels of the country’s two main rivers. The Tigris currently supplies about 60 percent of the country’s water needs and the Euphrates 40 percent.

Kareem al-Yacoubi, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s water committee, described the current water conditions as "catastrophic," telling Niqash that he “expects Iraq to face a water disaster if the issue remains unresolved with neighbouring countries.”

According to Abdel Latif Rasheed, the country’s water resources minister, "Iraq has now been suffering from water problems for more than three years.”

Rasheed believes that there are two major causes for the current problem. “Firstly, for decades Iraq has remained isolated from its neighbours, who put their own operational plans into practice and deprived Iraq of its share of water…. The main factor affecting the water levels in Iraq is the behaviour of neighbouring countries and the operational plans of Turkey, Syria and Iran.”

The second reason, according to Rasheed, is “related to climate and nature and to the greenhouse effect in the country.” The minister says that 2009 has seen a decrease in rain and snow of 50 percent compared to previous years.

The Iraqi parliament is now refusing to approve an economic partnership agreement with Turkey until the water issue is resolved.

The parliament returned the proposed treaty to the council of ministers recently, demanding the inclusion of a clause guaranteeing Iraq a fair share of water. The move complies with ‘Iraq’s water share of the Tigris and Euphrates’ law of May 2009 which requires the government to include clauses guaranteeing the country’s water rights in all deals signed with neighbouring countries.

According to al-Yacoubi, the MP, this commitment has to be secured form all of Iraq’s neighbours and not just Turkey.

Rasheed, the water resources minister, supports this decision. "Fresh water was flowing from the Turkish mountains through Syria and from the Iranian mountains and there were no barriers or dams in the past. In the early 1970s, these countries create dams and irrigation projects and are still implementing such projects without taking into consideration the decrease in water supply into Iraq,” he said.

Rasheed directly accuses Turkey, which has built 22 dams in the two rivers as part of the GAP action plan to develop the Anatolia region, as well as Syria and Iran of deliberately blocking the flow of water in Iraq as a result of dams and irrigation projects.

Government reports indicate that the current quantity of water flowing into the Euphrates is 42 percent of its average while the Tigris water flow stands at 55 percent of its average.

Iraqi MPs say that old protocols signed with the country’s neighbours are now obsolete and that new agreements need to be reached.

The last water protocol signed with Turkey was in 1980, to which Syria became a party in 1983. The protocol stipulated the formation of a joint technical committee with the mission of studying territorial water issues. However, the committee was never able to coordinate its efforts and both Syria and Iraq still accuse the Turks of blocking the water flaw into their lands. For their part the Turkish government refuses to increase the water flow levels.

On the Syrian side, the last agreement signed with Iraq occurred in 1989 when the two parties agreed to share the Euphrates waters with 58 percent going to Iraq and 42 percent to Syria. But Iraq says that Syria, like Turkey, is not abiding by the agreement.

While Iraq signed a water agreement with Iran in 1975, it was abrogated at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

On the sidelines of a meeting between Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian officials held in Ankara on September 3, the issue of water sharing was discussed. Turkey’s minister of energy and natural resources, Taner Yildiz, said that while his country acknowledges "Syria and Iraq’s need for water, it does not have enough and cannot increase the current level by much.”

However, Turkey did agree to increase the Euphrates water flow to an average of 550 cubic meters per second, but only on a temporary basis for one month in order to assist Iraq through its current drought crisis.

According to Jamal al-Batikh, a member of parliament’s water committee, the Iraqi and Turkish government have held extensive talks on the issue but Turkey, he says, is trying to leverage cheap Iraqi oil out of the water issue.

The Iraqi government has now called for the establishment of a joint committee comprising all the relevant countries in order to review and ensure compliance with regional water agreements.

Al-Batikh says that the Iraqi government should exploit economic agreements with neighbouring countries in order to secure water rights.