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Analysis

Iraq’s Water Crisis: Will PM Al-Sudani Succumb to Turkish Ransom Seeking?

Wednesday 26 April 2023
Iraq’s Water Crisis: Will PM Al-Sudani Succumb to Turkish Ransom Seeking?

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Iraq, Future Threats Posed by Water Crisis

Alwaght- With back-to-back drought and shortage of surface water in Iraq, water and farming crisis is becoming a key home and foreign relations issue with neighbors, especially Turkey whose dam construction on Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the past years has practically left the lower riparian countries struggling with multiple challenges. 

On Monday, Iraqi parliament’s Committee of Agriculture, Water, and Marshes revealed Turkey preconditions to open gates of its dams and called for allocating several proposals in the 2023 budget for the agriculture sector. 

Rafigh al-Salehi, a member of the committee, told Almaloumah news website that Ankara foisted on Baghdad a set of conditions for opening its dam gates to allow water to reach Iraq. Among these conditions is expulsion of the PKK from northern Iraq, he said. Pointing to further Turkish demands for economic and political pacts with Iraq, al-Salehi criticized Ankara’s abuse of Iraq’s water crisis to achieve its interests. 

In recent years, Iraq has been suffering from a major water crisis, an important part of which is the result of a reduction in water intake from Turkey, something Iraqis call Turkey’s policy to make Iraq thirsty . A UN report published in 2015 found that Ankara’s control over water flows has caused “serious consequences” for Iraq, including high salinity levels downstream, leading to damage to water security, agriculture and regional ecosystem and forced migration of local residents. Fresh water in Iraq currently receives less than 30 percent of its natural flow. Iraqi environmental experts confirm that water salinity levels in the marshes alone, which used to be around 200 ppm (parts per million), now exceed 1,900 ppm. 

Turkey’s contentious dam construction policy 

Turkey has no hydrocarbons, but it has rich water resources despite being located in one of the world’s driest regions. 

These water resources are concentrated in the snow-covered mountains of eastern Anatolia. 

Annual average of fixed water per capita for Middle East is 300 cubic meters, while this figure in Turkey exceeds the per capita limit of 3,100 cubic meters per year, according to global data. 

Undoubtedly, Turkey’s water share of 10 times more than its southern neighbors is a long-term advantage for Ankara, since about 90 percent of the water that flows in the Euphrates River, in particular, originates in Anatolia mountains in Turkey, and in addition, 40 percent of Euphrates flows within Turkey. This means that the rivers that originate in Turkey water the regional breadbasket, especially that of Syria and Iraq. 

Over the past 20 years, Ankara has turned to increasingly economic and developmental use of the water of the two rivers using the latest technologies, something giving Ankara a considerable geopolitical advantage over its southern neighbors. 

Water challenge between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria emerged in 1984, the year Ankara started a project to expand the two rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, as well as Gobi Desert with an area of 74,000 kilometers. The goals set for Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) included establishing a grand agricultural irrigation network, constructing 21 power plants, and doubling the crops production in Turkey. 

The country has built about 600 dams on these two rivers since the 1960s, and plans another 600 for the next 40 years. Many of these dams are part of the GAP megaproject, which aims to boost economic activity in a region that has vast farming lands. 

Ilisu Dam is part of the GAP that is capable of annually producing 4.12 billion kilowatts power worth of about $250 million and watering 1.2 million hectares of farming lands. 

But the significance of the dams in Turkey is not limited to power and agriculture, and Ankara uses them for geopolitical influence. 

Before the construction of the Atatürk Dam, Turkey’s third largest dam, in 1990, Turkey agreed to release about 500 cubic meters of water per second to Syria, but it did not fulfill its commitment under climate change excuses, causing sharp drop in Syria and Iraq’s water intake from the Euphrates River. 

Turkish officials at the time had informed their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts of their plans, but Damascus and Baghdad reacted with anger. Turkey’s then President Turgut Ozal in response said: “We do not tell Arabs what to do with their oil, so, we do not take any proposal from them about what to do with our water.” 

What compounds the problems in this case is the absence of a formal agreement on water management among Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. 

PM al-Sudani’s initiatives 

For Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani water case is highly important, especially that he has designed a long-term strategy for water expansion for the next three decades. He started with persuading Turkey to allow more water flow to Iraq in the Euphrates and next step was laying plans to water storage increase, water wastage decrease, and regulation of water consumption. 

Although there have been good precipitations in Iraq in recent months, and according to spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources Khaled Shamal the strategic water reserve has increased by two billion cubic meters as a result of the addition of large amounts of rainwater in dams and lakes, which can play an effective role in revival of marshes and the prosperity of farming this year, there is still tangible water shortage due to water wastage because of failure to use modern irrigation technologies in farming lands. 

In his last week visit to Turkey, PM al-Sudani tried to strike strategic deals with Turkey on water by taking advantage of the $24 billion bilateral trade. 

Analysts maintain that Baghdad can instrumentalize the Iraqi exports from Turkey as a pressure card to wrest water and sovereignty privileges from Ankara, especially that Turkey is living critical economic conditions and Erdogan’s position is weak less than a month to the presidential elections. 

To encourage Turkey into further cooperation, al-Sudani proposed “development road” initiative that is 1,200 kilometers long and includes railways, highways, and pipelines, starting from Al-Faw Port in Basra in the south to Port of Mersin in Turkey. The railway is projected to move 3.5 million tons of goods in the first phase and 7.5 million tons in the second phase annually. The total cost of the project is expected to reach $20 billion and it stands as an alternative to the Suez Canal, connecting the Persian Gulf states, Jordan, and Iran to Europe. 

Meanwhile, in order to maintain the atmosphere of cooperation and avoid complication of the water-related differences, PM al-Sudani even resisted calls by the members of parliament and Iraqi groups, particularly those of resistance body, to take serious actions against the Turkish occupation of parts of the north. Still, it is certain that water stress in the future will make the key difference case of the two neighbors and overshadow their relations. 

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Iraq Turkey Drought Crisis Dam

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