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Iraq Tussles With Neighbors Over Water

  • Antoine Blua

Iraq complains that not only are its upstream neighbors diverting water from the rivers that enter the country, they're not even letting as much as water through as they say they are.

Iraq complains that not only are its upstream neighbors diverting water from the rivers that enter the country, they're not even letting as much as water through as they say they are.

The territory of modern-day Iraq was once known as Mesopotamia -- literally, "the land between the two rivers."

Its abundant access to the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates significantly contributed to a early flourishing of civilization in today's Iraq.

But now, three years of drought have dramatically affected Iraq's supply of drinking water. Hydropower and agricultural production have also been hurt.

River levels have become so low that a farmer in the southern town of Amara says the water shortage has turned the local fields into a desert.

"The river water used to be 15 or 16 meters high," the man says. "Now [my fields] have turned into a playground for children to kick a ball around in."

As river levels dwindle, squabbling has erupted between Iraq and its neighbors over precious water resources.

Rivers Dammed, Diverted

Both the Euphrates and the Tigris originate in southeastern Turkey. The Euphrates runs through Syrian territory before reaching Iraq. The Tigris flows directly into Iraq before merging with the Euphrates.

Water traditionally could also be drawn from several smaller rivers originating in western Iran.

Iraqi officials acknowledge that the drought, coupled with population growth and the absence of an effective water-pricing policy, is responsible for the current water shortage. But they also accuse Turkey, Syria, and Iran of unfairly restricting the flow of water with dams and other infrastructure.

The disputes threaten to disrupt the newly warm relations between Iraq and its upstream neighbors, and are complicating efforts to bring stability to the region.

Iraqis say agriculture in many ares is harder and harder.
Nimrod Raphaeli, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, says the growing need for water in the neighboring countries makes the even distribution of the resource a potential source of conflict.

"This is really one of the most serious problems of the Middle East in the future: the risk of war because of shortage of water, because of drought, because of population growth," Raphaeli says.

"Turkey -- and to some degree Syria, and to a greater extent Iran -- have reduced the flow of water to Iraq. As a result, Iraq is not getting enough water."

Iraq estimates its water needs will grow by 50 percent by 2015, while the available flow is expected to continue dropping as more dams and diversion tunnels are built or planned under the Turkish Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP).

Completed in 1993, Turkey's Ataturk Dam has reportedly reduced the water flow in the Euphrates by one-fifth. And according to experts, Turkey's Aliso Dam, whose construction began on the Tigris River in 2006, will -- if completed -- deprive Iraq of a third of its arable land.

Syria has its own major dam on the Euphrates, the Tabaqah. And Iran has constructed a number of dams on rivers feeding into the Tigris. It has also diverted the Karun River, which used to flow into Iraq's Shatt Al-Arab waterway, at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

Rising Salinity

Amir Salman, the agriculture director for the southern Basra Province, says local farmers now face increasing difficulties as high levels of salinity make the water unusable for agriculture.

Salman says that not enough water is reaching the area from the Tigris and Euphrates, while Iran's diversion of the Karun River "has further compounded the crisis."

The Faw district now has sea water," Salman adds. "Farmers have stopped irrigating their crops and no longer breed cattle, as that water isn't good for consumption."

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on a visit to Baghdad on August 29 that Iranian and Iraqi officials would soon meet to discuss the water issue.

On September 3, Iraqi, Turkish, and Syrian ministers held a water meeting in Ankara, but Iraq failed in its bid to get more water from Turkey. Baghdad says Ankara is not allowing as much water to flow downstream as it says it is. Iraq has also hinted that Syria is not sending all of the water it should down to Iraq.

The parties, however, agreed to meet again in January 2010 in Baghdad. They also agreed to establish joint stations to measure water volume, monitor and exchange information about climate and drought, and create joint water education programs.

This is little consolation to Iraq's increasingly desperate farmers.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents Laith Ahmad and Rabi al-Basri contributed to this report
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