Iraq and Turkey: Broken diplomacy on the Tigris

Salah Nasrawi, Saturday 23 Jun 2018

A Turkish dam on the River Tigris is raising fears of a water crisis in Iraq amid disturbing breakdown in Baghdad’s diplomacy

Tigris River
Significantly lower water levels are seen on the Tigris River, Iraq (Photo: Reuters)

For those familiar with Iraq’s water crisis the news on 7 June was hopeful. Turkey had agreed to temporarily stop filling a huge dam it has been building on the River Tigris after the eruption of popular anger in neighbouring Iraq.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, it seemed more likely that the Turkish move was a smokescreen designed to stave off further furious reactions and to provide cover for Turkey’s increasing involvement in Iraq.

Moreover, the water crisis has underlined the abysmal failure of Iraq’s leadership to stand up for the country’s interests and its national security by mismanaging its water strategies and relevant foreign policy.

Turkey’s minister of forests and water management said Ankara would resume filling the Ilisu Dam in July in order to allow sufficient water to flow into Iraq. He said the move had come upon the order of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to allow enough water for Iraqis during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Earlier, Erdogan had blamed the water crisis on Iraqi officials, whom he accused of ignoring Turkey’s repeated warnings that Iraq should be prepared for water shortages on the dam’s completion in 2018.

The Turkish statements seemed to signal attempts to ease the tensions over water shortages in Iraq. However, they may end up confirming Ankara’s determination to control the flow of the River Tigris instead.

As a downstream largely desert nation, Iraq says the Turkish dam will disrupt the flow of the River Tigris to its population of almost 40 million people, potentially crippling its agricultural sector and industries.

Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, Iraq decided last week to ban farmers from planting rice and other water-intensive crops in the face of increasing water shortages because of drought and shrinking river flows.

Turkey started the last stage of filling the Ilisu Dam, more than 20 years in the making, on 1 June, after it had delayed the planned start by three months at the request of Iraq.

Located in the headwaters of the River Tigris and planned to produce 1,200 megawatts (MW) of electricity, the $2 billion dam will be one of Turkey’s largest hydroelectric power plants and will boost the economic growth of south-eastern Turkey.

The massive dam is one of more than a dozen built by Ankara on both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as part of its south-eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), one of the biggest irrigation and electrical power schemes in the world.

Combined, the 22-dam project aims to make Turkey into an agricultural power by irrigating approximately 1.7 million hectares of land. It is also expected to generate some 27 billion KW/h of hydroelectric power on an annual basis.

Critics say the project does not meet international standards on equitable, sustainable and efficient water-sharing, however, prompting deep concerns over water shortages in Iraq and Syria.

With Iraqis waking up at the beginning of a scorching summer to an escalating water crisis, two key questions concerned what Turkey’s main geopolitical objectives were behind the dam and whether Iraq was prepared to meet the daunting challenges of water scarcity caused by the Turkish projects.

Turkey’s policy of building huge reservoirs on the two rivers has been described as “aggressive.” Turkey claims that it enjoys “absolute sovereignty” over the rivers and that downstream countries do not have rights of co-sovereignty.

Ankara has also refused to give the rivers the status of “international waters,” which according to international conventions would require co-riparian countries to share their waters equally.

Instead, Turkey considers the two rivers to be “trans-boundary watercourses,” thus giving it “absolute sovereignty” over them. This entails that co-riparian states have the right to use the water of a trans-boundary watercourse flowing within their territory without being accountable to their neighbours.

Based on this position, Turkey has refused to sign international conventions establishing international principles. Ankara has also ignored several agreements, protocols and understandings reached with Baghdad after Iraq’s independence from the former Ottoman Empire following the First World War.

While Turkey takes a large share of the blame for water shortages in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Iraqi authorities are also partly responsible for the crisis. Iraq has no national water strategy to tackle the dramatic shortage that affects up to 90 per cent of the country.

Iraq’s water strategy, if such there is, remains mired in confusion and disarray, potentially acquiescing to Turkey’s aggressive water policy.

After water levels in the River Tigris decreased significantly in June prompting public outrage in Iraq, Iraqi Premier Haidar Al-Abadi sought to downplay the looming crisis and blamed it on bad publicity.

“There is a campaign aimed at scaring people about water scarcity, and false reports have been made about the Tigris. This is not innocent. It is orchestrated,” Al-Abadi said.

He stressed that Iraq had no problems when it came to drinking water, adding that his government was in constant liaison with Turkey and Iran to settle the issue of water quotas.

Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources Hassan Al-Janabi, said that “our situation is not catastrophic and is similar to [water] crises elsewhere.” However, he acknowledged that his ministry expected water flows from Turkey to be cut by 70 per cent by the end of the year.

The Iraqi parliament failed to meet to discuss the crisis when about 50 MPs of the 329-member assembly showed up for a special session called to debate response to the Turkish moves.

Water strategies usually include water-management, irrigation solutions and environmental policies to be applied within the context of national water challenges on the appropriate scale.

Other problems including socio-economic issues that should be tackled by water policies include population strains and migration caused by desertification and the scarcity of arable land.

Effective diplomacy with trusted mechanisms for negotiations should be applied to seek solutions on how the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers will be shared once the Turkish dams are completed.

In general, water diplomacy focuses on establishing novel solutions founded on realistic and mutually beneficial bases and sensitive to national constraints on a wide range of water problems.

Yet, as the recent crisis has unfolded in Iraq the country has appeared to be lacking a coherent and workable national water strategy that could manage the crisis, let alone find solutions to emerging problems.

For years, successive Iraqi governments have failed to build new water, irrigation and drainage projects or to modernise and maintain existing water networks.

On the diplomatic front, the Iraqi government has failed to engage effectively with Turkey in order to reach a reasonable agreement that would ensure Iraq’s fair share of water.

It has also failed to engage international and regional organisations in efforts to find solutions based on international law and international conventions on fair water-sharing between riparian countries.

The tragic story of how Iraq has got to this bottleneck that threatens life and agriculture in the country and puts it nearer to the brink shows just how far the country’s political elite has failed to defend Iraq’s interests and respond to the Turkish challenge.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Broken diplomacy on the Tigris 

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