|Dam disputes strain Turkey-Iraq ties
By Patrick Wrigley
ISTANBUL - Images of suburban Istanbul submerged by torrential floods have
adorned the front pages of Turkey's dailies over the past few weeks. The
fallout from pictures of cars as boats and roads as rivers, has drowned out a
potentially more pressing problem for the government in Ankara: the country's
growing water shortage problem.
The heaviest rainfall in Turkey for 80 years in early September has disguised
the fact that growing water consumption is placing greater pressure on natural
resources and straining Turkey's relations with its drought-ridden neighbor,
Iraq, to the south. Indeed, while footage of taupe-colored waters possessing
the streets of Turkey's largest city were broadcast on 24-hour news
channels, Iraq has been grabbing the headlines for its fourth consecutive year
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Iraq had its
worst cereal harvest in a decade in 2009, with yields falling to less than a
third of the average for the last ten years. The government in Baghdad has,
therefore, been pressing hard for its northern neighbor to release more water
from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which rise in Turkey's eastern mountains.
Although an interim agreement for water sharing was reached on September 19 at
a strategic cooperation council meeting in Istanbul, the issue continues to
strain bilateral relations.
Speaking at the conclusion of the meeting, Iraqi Minister of Water Resources
Latif Rashid, said, "The shortage of water in Iraq has affected the
environment, has affected drinking water, has affected agriculture and the
livelihood of the Iraqi people ... We had a very successful meeting because we
have promised to increase the flow in the Euphrates for a season ... That will
help us to [overcome] this critical situation and I hope in the following years
that we will be in a better position to make some permanent arrangement with
our partners in Syria and Turkey."
However, such a permanent agreement seems a long way off. Turkey has made it
clear that it does not believe in multilateral water sharing agreements but
rather that such issues should be resolved bilaterally. According to Serpil
Acikalin, a researcher on the Middle East at the Ankara-based International
Strategic Research Organization, "Turkey does not want to be bound by a
permanent agreement on the water issue."
The Turkish government has refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the
Law of the Non Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. While Turkey is
certainly not alone in this, with the UN not even half way to getting the 35
countries necessary to ratify the document as of 2008, it is still indicative
of Turkey's reluctance to enter into long-term binding international
agreements. An official in Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Asia Times
Online that the country's trans-boundry water policy remained a "very delicate
With 40% of Turkey's water potential coming from trans-boundary waters, the
country's future water security and its relations with its southern neighbors
rests on this very policy. The government continues to argue that this is an
opportunity for international cooperation rather than conflict. However,
according to Erkin Erdogan, project coordinator for ecological issues at the
Heinrich Boll Foundation in Istanbul, "As far as I can see, it [negotiation] is
not working. Conflict with the Kurdish government [of northern Iraq] is
ongoing. They say they have good relations but it is not the case. Several
times Iraq has made quite harsh press announcements. The possibility of solving
the problem is not that great. Turkey wants to use all its advantages."
This issue is certainly not new. In 1990, president Saddam Hussein demanded
that Turkey increase the water flow through to Iraq to 700 cubic meters per
second. The Turkish president, Yildirim Aktuna, declined the request, which led
to the suspension of a security protocol between the countries. However, the
issue has now taken on added urgency. Iraq has been afflicted by a crippling
drought at a time when water flows from Turkey are diminishing.
The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources told IRIN, the news agency of the UN
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, that the water flow from
the Euphrates stood at 360 cubic meters per second in mid-August, while the
flow from the Tigris stood at 100-160 cubic meters per second, both below the
500 cubic meters per second that the ministry said was required to meet
agricultural and industrial needs. Turkey says it is willing to work with Iraq,
and Syria, on water issues and has mooted plans to construct irrigation and
agricultural projects for both countries. However, so far these plans have been
rejected and while Syria is currently quiet on the water issue, Iraq continues
to make its disappointment known.
The water issue is, therefore, threatening to sour relations that had been
improving rapidly over recent years. "In the last two years a significant
improvement between the two sides has been observed. Mutual visits by
high-level officials and Turkey's contribution to the reconstruction of Iraq
increased the trust," says Acikalin. "Security concerns were replaced by
opportunities for cooperation ... Turkey is Iraq's largest export partner and
Iraq comes in as the fourth-largest partner for Turkey."
Neither side wants to jeopardize this. However, while interim diplomatic
solutions have been reached, the Tigris and Euphrates River basin remains
crucial for both Turkey and Iraq. Thirty-one percent of Turkey's water
potential comes from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, making them central to
development plans. Although Turkey has a higher water resource per capita than
either Iraq or Syria, the government is keen to point out that it is far from
Between 2003 and 2007, Turkey had an average renewable water resource of 2918
cubic meters per capita, according to Aquastat. This was above Iraq's level of
2618 cubic meters and Syria's of 1379 cubic meters, but placed it well below
the level of water-rich countries which have a minimum of 8,000-10,000 cubic
meters per capita. The Turkish government estimated that the available water
per capita in the country was 1586 cubic meters in 2009, less than the world
average. This is expected to decrease further sliding below 1000 cubic meters
per capita by 2023.
The government is, therefore, targeting a greater utilization of water
potential and has set its sights on a greater exploitation of the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers. Under the 37 billion Turkish lira [US$25 billion]
Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the government is looking to roll out 22
dams, 19 hydropower plants and irrigation systems. The government predicts that
1.8 million hectares of land will be brought under irrigation, and that energy
production in the underdeveloped region will reach 27.387 gigawatt-hours of
power. The project has become a key component of the ruling Justice and
Development Party's plans to quieten the restive, predominantly Kurdish,
southeast of the country.
However, these plans will strongly impact the lower riparian states of Iraq and
Syria. For example, plans for the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River have been met
with sharp criticism. In July 2008, an official in Iraq's Ministry of Water
Resources told the al-Sabah newspaper that the Ilisu dam would reduce the
waters of the Tigris River by 47% and deprive the northern Iraqi city of Mosul
of 50% of its summer water requirements.
Many analysts believe that the development of a series of dams on the Euphrates
and Tigris rivers would severely undermine Syria and Iraq's access to water.
According to Erdogan, "One of the main issues with the Ilisu dam is the issue
of hegemony. It will let the Turkish government control the Tigris River and
will have a bad affect on the other countries. This is a mechanism to control
the water in the region."
The Turkish government argues that it is constantly seeking solutions to
trans-boundary water issues. However, for Ankara, the Euphrates-Tigris basin is
seen as the key to the country's future energy needs and to the socio-economic
development of the southeast of the country. Meanwhile, for Iraq, the land
between the two rivers, a symbol of the country's abundant natural heritage is
slowly turning into a badge of want.
Patrick Wrigley is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He writes
extensively on Turkey and the Middle East.
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