Water crisis in Iraq: Declining water levels after filling Tigris dam

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SHAFAQNA – Reduction levels of Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, as the main sources of water in Iraq, after filling of a large dam on the Tigris River by Turkey lead to water crisis in Iraq.

According to The Times, Iraq’s survival is commonly held to depend on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which gave rise to Mesopotamian civilisation thousands of years ago.

At least 70 percent of Iraq’s water comes from rivers and marshes shared with its neighbours, especially the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers – both of which run through Turkey.

Experts say the amount of water flowing through Iraq’s rivers has fallen by at least 40 percent in recent decades. On June 3, the Iraqi parliament called an emergency session to discuss the country’s low water levels, Al Jazeera reported.

Some disaster scenarios even predict the Euphrates and Tigris rivers could dry up by 2040 if effective water-management measures are not taken.

It’s no wonder the decades-old water dispute between Iraq and Turkey has erupted anew, al-monitor reported.

The abrupt shrinking of flows has been blamed on Turkey and its new Ilisu Dam, which lies upstream and began filling this year.

Turkey completed construction of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris earlier this year and began filling a reservoir behind the damn in early June, but because of increasing objections, the countries have since agreed that Turkey will allow the river’s natural flow to continue until Nov. 1. Delegations from Ankara and Baghdad are to meet Nov. 2 for further discussions.

A prolonged reduction of water levels in the rivers flowing through Iraq will reduce electricity generation from hydroelectric dams and affect the water supply for agriculture, forcing the country to import more food.

The shortages could also affect Iraq’s southern marshes, which were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016.

Despite agreeing to the construction of the dam, Baghdad fears that the volume of water being withheld will impact farming.

“Drinking water will not be affected by the dam, but when it comes to agricultural needs, we are worried,” Ahmed Mahjoub, spokesman for the Iraqi foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey promised its dam will not harm Iraq [and its] agricultural needs in central and southern provinces, but we think the volume of water released should increase. We are trying to negotiate a better deal,” added Mahjoub.

That article noted Iraq’s water reserves will be reduced to 30 billion cubic meters (24.3 million acre-feet) by the end of 2018, which will be lowest level since 1931. Current reserves are enough to irrigate 50% of the agricultural land this summer. Agriculture requires 25 billion cubic meters of water per year, but this year only 17 billion cubic meters will be available. At this rate, Iraq stands to lose 50,000 hectares (almost 124,000 acres) of agricultural land.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed that Turkey had begun holding water at Ilisu to win the votes of its farmers in the June 24 elections. But Ilisu is designed to generate power; there is nothing there to benefit farmers. After filling the dam to operate the generator turbines, Turkey will have to release the water anyway. Nevertheless, Ankara preferred not to challenge Abadi to avoid raising political sensitivity in Iraq.

Turkish sources told Al-Monitor that Ankara has been reasonable about releasing water to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers so as not to make life difficult for Iraq and Syria.

According to a 2013 NASA report, between 2003 and 2010, “Parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre-feet of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea.”

Also, Baghdad claims Turkey’s massive Southeast Anatolia Project (which includes the Ilisu Dam) has caused an 80% reduction in water flow to Iraq. About three-fourths of that entire project is complete, with 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power stations and irrigation of 1.8 million hectares. However, more than half the Tigris’ flow is fed by waters in Iraq. The river carries on average 52 billion cubic meters of water every year, with 40% coming from Turkish sources and 9% from Iran; the remaining 51% is from Iraq’s own sources.

Before completed construction of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris earlier this year Tigris flows south from the mountains of southeastern Turkey through Iraq. Before flowing into the Persian Gulf, the river joins the Euphrates to form the Arvandroud (aka Shatt-al-Arab) whose water stream along with that of Karkheh River in Khuzestan Province feed Hour al-Azim Wetland on the Iran-Iraq border.

Hamid Jalalvandi, director for environmental impact assessment at DOE, explained in 2017 Before construction of the Ilisu Dam , that once IIisu Dam is built over the river, Hour al-Azim Wetland that has already been struggling with drought conditions for years will eventually dry up, triggering a major environmental catastrophe in Iran, Mehr News Agency reported.

“The dam will not only pose environmental threat to southern Iran, but will also affect the northern and northwestern regions,” he said, Financial Tribune reported.

Also, Iraq’s poor water management maybe cause to its water loss .

Iraq still uses soil water canals from the days of the Sumerians, which is the main cause of its water loss. Iraq hasn’t invested in irrigation systems, reservoirs and water conservation for 25 years. Two of Iraq’s dams can’t be used to retain water for periods of drought. The Mosul Dam was damaged during the war against the Islamic State, and the Darbandikhan Dam on the Iranian border was damaged by an earthquake.

Turkey classifies the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as “water crossing the border” and proposes sharing according to a formula of “just and according to needs.” Iraq and Syria prefer to use the classification “international waters,” and they want equal shares.

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