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Climate, political dual threat as Tigris-Euphrates shrinks


DAWWAYAH, Iraq and ILISU DAM, Turkey — The water will come next year. Pipelines have been laid to Ata Yigit’s sprawling farm in southeastern Turkey, connecting it to a dam on the Euphrates River. A dream that will soon become reality, he says.

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

The vastly different realities play out along the Tigris-Euphrates basin, one of the most fragile in the world. River flow has decreased by 40% in the past four decades as countries along the river – Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq – pursue a rapid, unilateral development of the use of the water.

The decline is expected to worsen as temperatures rise due to 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, distrust and intransigence conspire to prevent an agreement 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 got exclusive visits to controversial dam projects. Internal reports and disclosed data illustrate the calculations that spark behind-closed-door disputes, from Iraq’s fears of a potential 20% drop in food production to Turkey’s struggle to balance Iraq’s needs and its own balance.

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

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

Turkey has exploited the basin with a large-scale project to boost agriculture and generate hydroelectricity, the Southeast Anatolia Project, or GAP by its Turkish acronym. It has built at least 19 dams in the Euphrates and Tigris, with several more planned for a total of 22. Its aim is to develop southeastern Turkey, which has long been an economically depressed area.

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

Until now, his dependence on spring water meant that only half of his land could be irrigated.

But now that irrigation pipes have reached his farm in Mardin province, his entire 4,500 hectares will be watered next year via the Ataturk Dam in the Euphrates.

Iraq, on the other hand, which relies on outside sources for almost all of its water, is more concerned with every drop diverted upstream.

In 2014, the Ministry of Water produced a confidential report warning that Iraq’s water supply would no longer meet demand in two years and that the gap would widen. The report, viewed by the AP, said that by 2035, water shortages would reduce food production by 20%.

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

Decades of talks have still failed to reach an agreement on water sharing.

Turkey is approaching the water problem as if it were the benevolent owner of the basin, assessing needs and deciding how much to flow downstream. Iraq views property as shared ownership and wants a more permanent arrangement with demarcated parts.

In a rare interview, Turkey’s envoy for water issues to Iraq, Veysel Eroglu, told the AP that Turkey cannot accept to release a fixed amount of water due to the unpredictability of river flows in the era of climate change.

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

“That’s the only way to share water in an optimal and fair way,” Eroglu said.

Iraq refuses to provide its consumption data. That’s partly because it would show the widespread water wastage in Iraq and the government’s weakness that makes managing water nearly impossible.

Government attempts to ration dwindling water are sparking outrage in southern Iraq. In August, for example, tribal leader Sheikh Thamer Saeedi and dozens of protesters in southern Dhi Qar province attempted to divert water from a Tigris tributary to feed his barren land after authorities failed to respond to his pleas for water.

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

Iraq blames one Turkish infrastructure project in particular for this misery: the Ilusu dam, on the Tigris.

Before Turkey started operating the dam in 2020, all waters of the Tigris flowed into Iraq. How much water comes down now depends on Ankara’s consideration of Iraq’s monthly requests for minimum flow, balanced against Turkey’s own hydropower needs.

Turkey argues that it is unfairly scapegoated. In October, the AP was given an exclusive tour of the Turkish State Hydraulics Works dam facility, known by its Turkish acronym DSI, and obtained its first two-year flow rate and electricity production figures.

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

DSI data shows that Turkey has respected a request from Iraq to allow at least 300 cubic meters per second to flow through the Tigris during the summer months, when shortages are common.

But Iraqi officials say relying 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 Center for Water Resources Management.

For example, in the face of severe shortages expected in 2022, Hamid has cut the state’s agricultural water plan in half and reduced freshwater flows to Iraq’s marshes to minimize salinity. But water-scarce Iran also diverted streams from tributaries that fed the swamps. The result was an environmental emergency and hundreds of dead animals.

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

Portraits of Hafez’s ancestors hang in his spartan living room. Now that his sons are looking for work in the cities, there will be no one after him to work the land.

“Life ended here,” he said.

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