DOHUK, Iraq — Iraq's minister of water resources says his country will face severe water shortages if agreements are not forged with neighboring Turkey over Ankara's irrigation and dam projects that have decreased river inflows to Iraq's parched plains.
Descending from the mountains of southeast Turkey and coursing through Syria and then Iraq before emptying out in the Persian Gulf, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are Iraq's main water source and essential to for agriculture. But tensions have mounted over the years as Turkey pressed ahead with dam projects to meet its domestic electricity demands.
In turn, this has directly impacted water flows into Iraq.
Measurements of inflows from the border with Turkey in northern Iraq were 50% below average this year, Iraq's Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rashid Al-Hamdani said in an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday. This year also saw a reduction in annual rainfall by 50% compared to last year, he said.
"We asked our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send an urgent message to Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to ask them what is the reason for the drop in our flow," he said.
Iraq is still waiting for a response, he added.
With the impacts of climate change, as well as future hydroelectric projects in Turkey, the ministry estimates Iraq will face a shortage of 10.5 billion cubic meters of water by 2035, according to an internal study, al-Hamdani said.
Ordinary Iraqis have yet to fill the effects of the drop, partly because of the reservoir at the Hadhitha dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq, which is compensating for the shortage, he said.
In Fishkhabour, along the border with Turkey, Ramadan Hamza, a senior expert on water strategy and policy at the University of Dohuk, eyed the drop in river flows with concern.
"The water level of the Tigris River was around 600 cubic meters per second," he said. After Turkey built the so-called Ilisu Dam, "it dropped to around 300-320."
The Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, part of a megaproject by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is at the heart of the dispute. The dam, which became operational in May after three years of delay, is to be one of 22 power dams in southeastern Turkey. Negotiations over water allocations resumed when Ankara began to make progress on plans to fill the Illisu reservoir last year but have since stalled.
Hezha Abdulwahed, the director of Dohuk's water department, said water levels had dropped by 8 billion cubic meters, compared to water flows in April 2019.
"Iraq needs to put pressure on Turkey to release its share of water," Hamza said.
A recent report by the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration found that water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates are decreasing at an "unprecedented rate," that could result in the forced displacement of entire Iraqi communities.
Water shortages, pollution and high levels of salinity lead to many Iraqis falling sick and prompted violent protests in the summer of 2018 across southern Iraq.
Many letters were sent to Ankara over its plans for the Ilisu dam, said al-Hamdani, but Turkey only responded with "many excuses."
"They say it's their right to build a dam and we argue that it is is harmful to our rights to water," he said.
The coronavirus pandemic postponed a face-to-face meeting with Turkish officials. The Iraqis have requested a video conference in the meantime to revive talks. Last year, an envoy of Erdogan came to Baghdad with an action plan to improve data sharing and management of water resources.
A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to journalists, said negotiations to ensure a certain amount of water allocations to Iraq are difficult because of climate change issues.
At one point, Iraq demanded Turkey ensure at least 500 cubic meters per second. "But inside Turkey, the Tigris sometimes doesn't go above 350 on average," he said. "It's hard to speak about certain limits of water — it's so unpredictable now."
In the absence of an international agreement, it also unclear what responsibilities Turkey has toward Iraq's water supply. But al-Hamdani said there are international laws Iraq could turn to if needed to pressure Ankara.
"Turkey's position will change," al-Hamdani said on a hopeful note.