Climate, politics under double threat and Tigris-Euphrates shrinking

DAWWAYAH, Iraq and ILISU DAM, Turkey (AP) – Next year, the water will come. The pipes were laid on Ata Yigit’s sprawling farm in southeastern Turkey, connecting it to a dam on the Euphrates River. A dream, which will soon become a reality, he says.

More than 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) downstream in southern Iraq, nothing grows more in Obeid Hafez’s wheat farm. The water stopped coming a year ago, said the 95-year-old.

Very different realities are unfolding along the Tigris-Euphrates basin, one of the most fragile in the world. River flows have decreased by 40% in the last four decades as countries far away – Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq – continue to develop rapid, one-sided use of the waters.

The fall is expected to worsen as temperatures rise due to climate change. Both Turkey and Iraq, the two biggest consumers, acknowledge that they must cooperate to preserve the river system. But a combination of political failures, mistrust and prejudices have conspired to prevent an agreement on the sharing of the rivers.

The Associated Press conducted more than a dozen interviews in both countries, from top water delegates and senior officials to local farmers, and exclusive visits to controversial dam projects. Internal reports and leaked data show the calculations driving disputes behind closed doors, from Iraq’s fear of a potential 20% drop in food production to Turkey’s struggle to balance Iraq’s needs with its own.

“I don’t see a solution,” said former Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

“Would Turkey sacrifice its own interests? Especially if that means that by giving us more (water), their farmers and their people will suffer?”

Turkey is exploiting the basin with a massive project to support agriculture and generate hydroelectricity, the Southeast Anatolia Project, or GAP by its Turkish acronym. It has built at least 19 dams on the Euphrates and Tigris, with several more planned for a total of 22. The aim is to develop southeast Turkey, a long economic backwater.

For the farmer, Yigit, the project will be transformative.

Until now, reliance on well water has allowed only half of his lands to be irrigated.

But now that the irrigation pipes in Mardin province have reached his farm, all 4,500 acres will be irrigated next year through the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates.

In contrast, Iraq – which depends on external sources for almost all of its water – is becoming more concerned with each drop diverted upstream.

In 2014, the Ministry of Water prepared a confidential report that warned that Iraq’s water supply would no longer meet demand in two years, and that the gap would be widening. The report, seen by the AP, said that by 2035, the water deficit would reduce food production by 20%.

The report shows that Iraqi officials knew how bleak the future would be without the proposed $180 billion in investment in water infrastructure and an agreement with its neighbors. Neither happened.

Years of talks have still left no common ground regarding water sharing.

Turkey approaches the water issue as if it were the beneficial owner of the basin, assessing needs and deciding how much to let flow. Iraq considers shared ownership and wants a more permanent arrangement with defined parts.

In a rare interview, Turkey’s envoy on water issues with Iraq, Veysel Eroglu, told the AP that Turkey cannot accept releasing a fixed amount of water because of the unpredictability of river flows in the age of climate change.

Eroglu said Turkey could agree to set a ratio for release – but only if Syria and Iraq provide detailed data on their water consumption.

“That is the only way to share water optimally and fairly,” Eroglu said.

Iraq refuses to provide its consumption data. That’s partly because it would show the widespread water waste in Iraq and the weakness of the government that makes it almost impossible to manage water.

The Government’s efforts to ration the dwindling water have fueled anger in southern Iraq. In August in southern Dhi Qar province, for example, tribal leader Sheikh Thamer Saeedi and dozens of protesters attempted to divert water from a tributary of the Tigris river to feed his barren lands when authorities failed to respond to their some pleas for water.

The attempted diversion almost sparked violence between local tribes before security forces intervened.

Iraq blames one Turkish infrastructure project in particular for these woes: the Ilusu Dam, on the Tigris.

Before Turkey began operating the dam in 2020, all the waters of the Tigris flowed into Iraq. Now how much water comes down depends on Ankara’s consideration of Iraq’s month-to-month requests for a minimum flow, weighed against Turkey’s own hydropower needs.

Turkey argues that it has been unfairly scapegoated. Turkey’s State Hydraulics Works, known by its Turkish acronym DSI, gave the AP an exclusive tour of the dam facility in October, and provided figures for the first time detailing flow rates and electricity production over two years.

Ten years ago, Iraq received an average flow of 625 cubic meters of water per second from the Tigris. Today, the average rate is only 36% of that, say Iraqi water ministry officials.

Data provided by DSI shows that Turkey respected a request by Iraq to release at least 300 cubic meters per second down the Tigris during the summer months when shortages are common.

But Iraqi officials say that relying on such ad hoc arrangements makes planning difficult.

“They can cut water, they can release water. We urgently need a water agreement to meet Iraq’s minimum needs,” said Hatem Hamid, head of the National Center for Water Resources Management.

For example, with real shortages expected in 2022, Hamid cut the state’s agricultural water plan in half and reduced freshwater flows to the Iraqi marsh, to minimize salinity. But Iran, which was under water stress, diverted flows from tributaries that fed the marshes. It resulted in an environmental emergency and hundreds of dead livestock.

Back in Obeid Hafez’s farm, the land is barren.

Portraits of Hafez’s ancestors hang in his spartan living room. With his family gone to look for work in the cities, there will be no one who works the land after him.

“Life is over here,” he said.

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