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Iran and Turkey divert Iraq’s river waters, leaving it on the brink of catastrophe

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
web posted September 10, 2018

 Global attention has been focused on the strained Ethiopian-Egyptian relations due to the construction of the Renaissance Dam by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, whose reservoir – once filled – will probably lower the level of the Nile by one to two meters, delivering a severe blow to Egyptian life along the Nile river. But little attention has been given to the brewing conflict over the Tigris (Dajla in Arabic) and Euphrates (Furat in Arabic) waters, both iconic rivers on which Iraq’s existence in both ancient and modern times has always depended.

Deadly riots in Iraq’s southern city of Basra erupted following protests waged by the local population that have been going on since early July 2018. The turmoil worsened after the governor of Basra ordered troops to use live bullets against the protesters. Rioters stormed the provincial government building on September 4, 2018, and set it ablaze.

The cause of discontent is the crumbling and obsolete state of the local infrastructures. Today, the blame is directed mainly against the failing water infrastructure, which is causing plague-like conditions in the local population: according to the news from Basra between 500 to 600 individuals are admitted to emergency rooms daily because of water poisoning accompanied by skin diseases. Some 17,000 intestinal infection cases due to water contamination were recorded, according to Basra health authorities. Hospitals are unable to cope with the flow of the sick, nor do the authorities know how to deal with the spreading diseases and the threat of cholera.

Photos taken in Basra lately tell the whole story: the Tigris River, which crosses the city and used to be the main source of drinking water and agriculture, is almost dry, and one can cross the river on foot. A few years ago, one needed to cross on bridges over the river or take a boat because of the depth of the river.

Dry Iraqi river bed today
Dry Iraqi river bed today

Because of mismanagement, the local authorities did not meet the needs of the population living in the area, nor did they plan for developing alternative water sources. Instead, the Basra water authorities relied on the water pumped from the Shatt al-Arab marshes nearby.  The marshes are now going dry.

Beyond Basra’s Nonfeasance – Willful Diversion

However, the main factors which contributed to this humanitarian catastrophe are the six-year-long ongoing drought, characterized by erratic rainfall and, more importantly, by the fact that both Turkey and Iran are diverting water away from Iraq’s rivers.

The two countries have constructed dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris to reroute the tributaries to internal lakes and rivers, preventing the waters from entering Iraq and reducing the flow of water into Iraq by more than 40 percent of the annual flow to the Euphrates-Tigris River basin.

According to Iraqi sources, at least 42 rivers and springs of water from Iran have been diverted by the Iranians, causing a migration of Iraqis from the water-stricken areas. The Turks, for their part, have built five big dams on the Tigris and several minor ones (part of a grand design of building 22 dams – 14 on the Euphrates and eight on the Tigris) with the Ilisu Dam being the biggest with a reservoir of 300 square kilometers!


The water flow through the Ilisu dam in Turkey

Iraq has been particularly hit by Iranian water projects which have diverted the course of the Sirwan River, a tributary of the Tigris. Nearly 30 percent of the Tigris’ waters originate in Iran where the Daryan Dam was completed and opened in 2018. It is assessed that the water supply through the Sirwan would be reduced by as much as 60 percent, leaving central and southern Iraq without adequate water supplies.

The situation in Basra is more severe, since it is situated at the end of the course of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers where the flow is almost nil and because of the two additional Iranian dams on the Karoun and the Kerkhe rivers, which used to be two main tributaries of the Tigris River north of Basra.  The Tigris, fed by the Karound and Kerkhe Rivers, once provided Basra with sufficient flow to provide fresh water for the local population and agriculture and to dilute pollutants poured into the river by chemical and industrial waste produced by the petroleum industry. The drop in the flow of the waters from the Tigris has led to the intrusion of saline water from the Persian Gulf up to 140 kilometers upstream of the Shatt al-Arab where the open sewage network of Basra also finds its spillway.

As a result of the Turkish and Iranian water projects, Iraq has found itself with a loss of more than 50 percent of its water, which means that nearly 3 to 4 million square miles of agricultural land will turn to desert. Right now the government has ordered farmers to stop the cultivation of water-thirsty crops such as rice, corn, and cereals, forcing the government to purchase wheat from the United States and Canada.

Moreover, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq used to generate power from 12 hydroelectric stations. Reduced water flow from Turkey and Iran coupled with the drought and the war with the Islamic State have left Iraq’s major cities with intermittent supply of electricity (two hours on and two hours off).

Iraq’s neighbors, both Iran and Turkey, initiated their dam projects at the peak of the Iraqi central government malfeasance. In 1990, when Turkey began filling the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates, Iraq threatened to bomb the dam and the Turks reduced the process of filling the dam’s reservoir.

Today, however, the feeble Iraqi government is facing multi-faceted challenges: it is recovering from a four-year war with ISIS; it is undermined by an internal Shiite dispute between two opposing camps (one is pro-Iran and the other pro-Iraq);  Iran tries by all means at its disposal to pull Iraq into its sphere of influence; the Turkish military has a presence inside Iraqi sovereign territory; and Iraq faces a perennial Kurdish problem. Iraq is in no position to negotiate from a firm stance with its neighbors to solve its water problem.

While the Turks seem inclined to sympathize with the Iraqis and slow the pace of filling the reservoir of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, the Iranians have shown no compassion at all. Iran may even have an interest in creating a crisis in Iraq to put pressure on the Iraqi politicians to align themselves with Tehran’s political agenda. Only with Iraq ensnared in the Iranian sphere, might Iran be amenable to compromise on the water distribution between the two countries.

The irony of the matter is the fact that the once the occupying power in Iraq, the United States, probably the only regional factor that could have brokered a deal for Iraq, finds itself in open conflict with Iran and with problematic relations with Turkey’s Erdogan. ESR

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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