Climate, political double threat as Tigris-Euphrates shrinks

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

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

Completely different realities play out along the entire length of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, one of the most vulnerable in the world. River flows have declined by 40 percent over the past four decades as countries along their length—Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq—pursue rapid, unilateral expansion of water use.

The decline is predicted to worsen as temperatures rise from climate change. Both Turkey and Iraq, the two largest consumers, recognize that they must work together to maintain the river system. But a combination of political failures, mistrust and intransigence conspire to prevent a deal on sharing the rivers.

The Associated Press conducted more than a dozen interviews in both countries, from top water envoys and senior officials to local farmers, and gained exclusive visits to controversial dam projects. Internal reports and declassified data illustrate the calculations driving the behind-closed-doors disagreements, from Iraq’s fears of a potential 20 percent drop in food production to Turkey’s struggles to balance Iraq’s needs with its own.

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

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

Turkey is exploiting the river basin with a massive project to boost agriculture and generate hydropower, the Southeast Anatolia Project, or GAP by its Turkish acronym. It has built at least 19 dams on the Euphrates and Tigris, with many more planned for a total of 22. The aim is to develop Turkey’s southeast, which has long been an economic backwater.

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

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

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

By contrast, Iraq — which relies on outside sources for nearly all of its water — is growing more concerned with every drop diverted upstream.

In 2014, his Ministry of Water prepared a confidential report warning that in two years, Iraq’s water supply would no longer meet demand and the gap would continue to widen. The report, seen by the AP, said that by 2035, water shortages would cause a 20 percent drop in food production.

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

Decades of talks have yet to find common ground on water sharing.

Turkey approaches the water issue as if it were the benevolent owner of the river basin, assessing needs and deciding how much to let flow downstream. Iraq considers ownership common and wants a more permanent arrangement with fixed portions.

In a rare interview, Turkey’s water envoy to Iraq, Veysel Eroglu, told the AP that Turkey cannot accept releasing a fixed amount of water because of the unpredictable flow of rivers in the age of climate change.

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

“This is the only way to share water optimally and fairly,” Eroglou said.

Iraq refuses to provide its consumption figures. This is partly because it would show the widespread wastage of water in Iraq and the weakness of the government that makes water management almost impossible.

Government efforts to supply dwindling water are causing outrage in southern Iraq. In August in the southern province of Di Kar, for example, tribal leader Sheikh Tamer Saidi and dozens of protesters tried to divert water from a Tigris tributary to nourish his barren lands after authorities failed to respond to his calls for water.

The diversion attempt 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 of the Tigris’ waters flowed into Iraq. Now how much water falls depends on Ankara’s consideration of Iraq’s monthly requests for a minimum flow, relative to Turkey’s own hydropower needs.

Turkey claims it is unfairly scapegoated. The AP was given a tour of the dam’s installation in October by Turkey’s state hydroelectric plant, known by its Turkish acronym DSI, and was given data for the first time detailing flow rates and electricity production over two years.

A decade ago, Iraq received an average flow of 625 cubic meters of water per second from the Tigris. Today, the figure averages only 36 percent, say officials at Iraq’s water ministry.

Figures provided by DSI show that Turkey respected Iraq’s request to release at least 300 cubic meters per second into the Tigris during the summer months, when shortages are common.

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

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

For example, with dire shortages expected in 2022, Hamid has halved the state’s agricultural water plan and cut freshwater flows to Iraq’s marshes to minimize salinity. However, water-stressed Iran also diverted flows from tributaries that feed the marshes. The result was an environmental emergency and hundreds of dead animals.

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

Portraits of Hafez’s ancestors hang in his spartan living room. As his sons have gone to seek work in the cities, there will be no one to cultivate the land after him.

“Life is over here,” he said.

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