The Land Between two Rivers: Iraq’s Water Crisis and Tensions with Turkey

Screen Shot 2022 12 01 at 3.02.43 PM

Amber rice, a staple crop of southern Iraq known for its strong aroma, has been noticeably missing last year. Along the tributaries of the Euphrates, the green stretches of rice fields are integral to the culture and economy of the southern provinces. In order for the crop to flourish, rice fields must remain submerged underwater from May to October. Rice output has been declining for years, but last season, the crop essentially vanished due to record low rainfall and extreme water shortages. Key staples of Iraqi culture and identity like amber rice are at risk as the Iraqi economy, agricultural system, and culture struggles to combat climate change after decades of tension over resource management, culminating in Iraq’s water shortage. Iraq’s river flows are contingent upon the cooperation of upstream countries, yet there are currently no official agreements or frameworks in place to support equitable sharing and sustainable management of water resources in the region. [1]

Understanding the geography of the Tigris and Euphrates is crucial to understanding the roots of Iraq’s current water crisis. Both rivers begin in the high mountains of Turkey and flow to the Shatt al-Arab basin in Southern Iraq. The tributaries of southern Iraq mainly branch off the Euphrates, with Turkey and Syria contributing 90% and 10% to its water flow respectively. [2] Iraq does not contribute to the flow of the Euphrates. The Tigris flows from Turkey to Iraq, with Turkey, Iraq and Iran contributing 40%, 51% and 9% of its flow respectively. The main riparian states of the Euphrates-Tigris river system are Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Water disputes initially emerged in the 1960s as the three countries moved towards unilateral large-scale development projects along the rivers, namely the construction of dams. 

 In the 1970s, Turkey began its Southeastern Anatolia project (GAP), which comprises the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on both the Tigris and the Euphrates. [3] The Turkish government advertised the entire project as a plan for hydropower generation to achieve greater energy independence, thereby enabling Turkey to limit its dependency on oil. [4] Iraq claims that Turkey’s dams and hydropower plants have reduced water flow to Iraq by 80 percent. [5] A key part of the project was the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates (completed in 1990) which reduced the historical flow of the Euphrates to Iraq by a third. [6]

In 2018, Turkey completed the controversial Ilisu Dam. The Iraqi Prime Minister at the time, Haidar al-Abadi, accused the Turkish government of abusing the Ilisu Dam for political purposes, and Iraqi officials noted that dams along dozens of tributaries have cut more than half the water that flowed to Iraq compared with 20 years ago. [7] Iraqi officials estimate that the Ilisu Dam will reduce the downstream flow of the Tigris by half. This will warrant salty water from the Persian Gulf to flood into the river and significantly increase salinity levels. In combination with the drought that has strained the region for the past decade, the impacts of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris is expected to strangle Iraqi agriculture. 

In its status as the origin country for both rivers, Turkey approaches the water crisis by assessing its own needs first and then accordingly deciding how much to let flow downstream. Turkey classifies the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as “water crossing the border” and proposes adhering to a formula of “just and according to needs.” Iraq and Syria are both downstream countries and prefer to use the term “international waters”; they desire shared ownership with a more precise arrangement and defined water flows. The three parties don’t have an international accord to rely on, as Turkey has not signed the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. [8] 

According to the Associated Press (AP), Turkey’s envoy on water issues with Iraq, Veysel Eroglu, stated that “Turkey cannot accept a fixed amount of water because of the unpredictability of river flows in the age of climate change.” [9] Eroglu said Turkey could agree to setting a ratio to release in the future — but only if Syria and Iraq reveal water consumption data. Iraq does not currently share the country’s water consumption data, electing to keep it confidential. [10] Turkey also argues that, if the rivers are indeed shared water, Iraq must be more responsible and introduce contemporary efficiency. [11]

This past July, the Iraqi government asked the Turkish government to release more water along the rivers to mitigate extreme drought conditions. [12] In response, Eroglu said that the drought had hit Turkey too. Accusing Iraq of “squandering” water resources, the Turkish ambassador called for “immediate measures to reduce the waste” including “the modernization of irrigation systems.” Iraq’s former Water Resources Minister, Mahdi Hamdani, responded that Ankara was assuming “the right to reduce Iraq’s water quota.” In an interview with the AP, Hamdani said, “Sometimes [Turkey] asks us why Iraq cultivates (water-intensive) rice, I ask them, why are you cultivating cotton? And they say it’s part of their history, civilization. And I tell them yes, we also have our history, our civilization.” [13]

For an economy looking to diversify from oil dependence amid an economic crisis, threats to the agricultural sector increase reliance on exports and oil revenue. The agriculture sector is the second largest contributor to Iraq’s economy after oil, accounting for five percent of GDP. [14] However, the water shortage has significantly reduced agricultural quotas after three successive years of drought. Agriculture currently employs about 20 percent of the country’s workforce, but the future for Iraqi farmers is bleak as the sector struggles to keep up with the droughts, energy shortages, rising price of inputs, and outdated technology. [15] Last year, Iraq’s agricultural sector contracted by 17.5 percent. [16] Communities residing in areas that have grown rice and wheat for centuries are now struggling to survive.

A part of the fertile crescent, Iraq is one of five countries facing the biggest risk of climate change effects and desertification. [17] As Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid told the COP 27 climate summit in Egypt last November, “Desertification now threatens almost 40% of the area of our country – a country that was once one of the most fertile and productive in the region.” [18]

The current water levels flowing into the Tigris and the Euphrates are around a third of the average over the past century, yet riparian countries continue to pursue independent development. [19] Water levels are further expected to decrease as temperatures rise, and government reports warn that the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in Iraq could completely dry up by 2040. [20] Iraq’s rivers are the crux of its rich history. An agreement between the Iraq and Turkey is imperative to address the future of the rivers, and it will take multinational collaboration to sustain a steady supply of water into Iraq. As the impacts of climate change continue to increase in severity, communities that rely heavily on agriculture will suffer the greatest consequences. 


References 

[1]    Hassan, Kawa, Camilla Born, Pernilla Nordqvist, “Iraq, Climate-related security risk assessment” EastWest Institute, (2018). https://www.eastwest.ngo/sites/default/files/iraq-climate-related-security-risk-assessment.pdf  

[2] Kibaroglu, Aysegül, Ramazan Caner Sayan, “Water and ‘imperfect peace’ in the Euphrates-Tigris river basin,”  International Affairs, (2021): 97(1), 139-155. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiaa161

[3]  Arda Bilgen. “The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) Revisited: The Evolution of Gap over Forty Years: New Perspectives on Turkey.” Cambridge University Press. (May 25, 2018). https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/new-perspectives-on-turkey/article/southeastern-anatolia-project-gap-revisited-the-evolution-of-gap-over-forty-years/5E172C3BC9DB8EDEF07F9897EF9BAE92. 

[4] “Turkey, Syria and Iraq: Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris.” Climate Diplomacy. https://climate-diplomacy.org/case-studies/turkey-syria-and-iraq-conflict-over-euphrates-tigris

[5] Paul Hockenos. “Turkey’s Dam-Building Spree Continues, at Steep Ecological Cost.” Yale E360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/turkeys-dam-building-spree-continues-at-steep-ecological-cost

[6]  Jippe Hoogeveen. “Turkey,” AQUASTAT – Food and Agriculture Organization.   https://web.archive.org/web/20080227001844/http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/countries/turkey/index.stm

[7]  Hamza Mustafa. “Iraqi Pm Accuses Turkey of Exploiting Ilisu Dam for Political Purposes.” Awsat. https://english.aawsat.com//home/article/1291761/iraqi-pm-accuses-turkey-exploiting-ilisu-dam-political-purposes

[8] Peter Debaere.“Q&A With Julia Harte on Ilisu Dam.” Global Water Blog. https://blogs.darden.virginia.edu/globalwater/2018/01/03/qa-with-julia-harte/

[9]  Ibid. 

[10] “Turkey, Iraq Trade Blame as Concern Rises over Low Water.” Al-Monitor.  https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2018/06/turkey-iraq-ilisu-dam-water-crisis.html

[11]  Kullab, Samya. “Politics, Climate Conspire as Tigris and Euphrates Dwindle.” Associated Press. (Nov 18, 2022). https://apnews.com/article/iran-middle-east-business-world-news-syria-3b8569a74d798b9923e2a8b812fa1fca

[12]  “Iraq Asks Turkey to Release More Water along Tigris, Euphrates Rivers.” Global Times. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202207/1270708.shtml

[13]  Kullab, Samya. “Politics, Climate Conspire as Tigris and Euphrates Dwindle.” Associated Press. (Nov 18 2022). https://apnews.com/article/iran-middle-east-business-world-news-syria-3b8569a74d798b9923e2a8b812fa1fca

[14]  “Agricultural value chain study in Iraq – Dates, grapes, tomatoes and wheat.”  Food and Agriculture Organization. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb2132en 

[15]  “Employment in Agriculture (% of Total Employment) (Modeled ILO Estimate) – Iraq.” World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?locations=IQ 

[16] “Iraq’s Economic Update – April 2022.” World Bank. (April 14 2022).  https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/iraq/publication/economic-update-april-2022 

[17] “Migration, Environment, and Climate Change in Iraq.” United Nations. https://iraq.un.org/en/194355-migration-environment-and-climate-change-iraq

[18] Ismail, Amina, and Maha El Dahan. “Middle East’s Fertile Crescent Dries up as Rains Fail.” Reuters. (Nov 10 2022),  https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/climate-un-mideast-water/

[19] “Iraq Asks Turkey to Release More Water along Tigris, Euphrates.” Jordan Times. (July 16 2022). http://jordantimes.com/news/region/iraq%C2%A0asks-turkey-release-more-water-along-tigris-euphrates

[20]  Aldroubi, Mina. “Iraq Could Have No Rivers by 2040, Government Report Warns.” The National.  (Dec 3 2021). https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/2021/12/02/iraq-could-have-no-rivers-by-2040-government-report-warns/

Author

Noor.kareem@yale.edu