Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters A view of a water canal running from the Euphrates river into the semi-desert region of eastern Syria November 11, 2010. 

Rivers of Babylon

Iraq's Water Crisis—And What Turkey Should Do

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In the early 1900s, the American journalist Alfred Henry Lewis famously wrote that there are only nine meals between men and revolution. As the water resources available for agricultural production decline precipitously across the Middle East, we ignore Lewis’ observation at our peril.

The Tigris-Euphrates river basin, which feeds Syria and Iraq, is rapidly drying up. This vast area already struggles to support at least ten million conflict-displaced people. And things could soon get worse; Iraq is reaching a crisis point.

An Iraqi girl herds water buffaloes in the Euphrates river in Najaf, south of Baghdad, March 6, 2014.

An Iraqi girl herds water buffaloes in the Euphrates river in Najaf, south of Baghdad, March 6, 2014.

To understand the consequences, look no further than Syria. Although water stress is certainly not the sole cause of the conflict there, it no doubt helped fuel the civil war. By 2011, drought-related crop failure had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; the displaced became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and al Qaeda. Testimonies gathered by reporters and activists in conflict zones suggest that the lack of government help during the drought was a central motivating factor in the antigovernment rebellion. Moreover, a 2011 study shows that today’s rebel strongholds of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.

In other words, drought changed the economic, social, and political landscape of Syria. Iraq, already reeling from ISIS and sectarian tension, could be next.

THIRSTY IN SYRIA

Prior to the outbreak of antigovernment protests in Syria in 2011, observers were aware of the serious implications that the crop failures could have. In 2006, a leaked U.S. State Department cable forecast that Syria’s “emerging water crisis carries the potential for severe economic volatility and even socio-political unrest.” This cable serves as a clear warning.

By 2011, wheat yields had fallen by over 50 percent. Much of the country’s livestock had died, affecting hundreds of thousands of fieldworkers and farmers. Despite losing 1.6 million tons of grain to ISIS and consuming 2.5 million tons more than it can produce, Iraq plans to become a grain exporter by 2017. This closely mirrors Syria’s ambition at the time of the 2006 cable; in those years, Damascus hoped to dramatically increase agricultural production as a part of an economic diversification plan. Syria had already doubled its irrigated land in the preceding 15 years, and its 2006 five-year plan projected further increases. In the cable, embassy officials note that agriculture experts believed that Syria’s growing water demand was outstripping water availability.

Syria’s agricultural expansion might have been manageable had it been able to implement efficient irrigation methods. To support the five-year plan, Syria had planned to rapidly increase drip irrigation and other more efficient methods, but that proved too ambitious. The State Department cable cited agricultural experts who warned that farmers would struggle to quickly adapt to the new technology. That proved correct. Even worse, as soon as the plans were implemented, Syria was hit by severe drought.

A member of 'Free Men of Syria' brigade, operating under the Free Syrian Army, cools himself in the Euphrates river in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, August 18, 2013.

A member of 'Free Men of Syria' brigade, operating under the Free Syrian Army, cools himself in the Euphrates river in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, August 18, 2013.

By 2011, wheat yields had fallen by over 50 percent. Much of the country’s livestock had died, affecting hundreds of thousands of fieldworkers and farmers. Emergency wheat stocks had run out, and for some, the only option left was to join the insurgents, as the journalist Tom Friedman reported.

If all that sounds alarming, consider that by 2025 the Tigris-Euphrates river basin could be under eight times more stress than in 2011. By 2040, these two mighty rivers may not even reach the sea. 

The situation would be concerning enough if it were simply the result of irreversible climate change, which is a major factor. But that isn’t the whole story. Another major cause is unilateral water acquisition by Turkey, which is home to the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates, at the expense of 60 million people downstream. The role that Turkey plays in Iraq and Syria’s water insecurity is concerning, but unlike climate change, it is at least a problem that can be addressed in the near term—and it must be, before the damage to Iraq’s agricultural and social fabric becomes irreversible.

WATER WAR?

Between 1975 and 1991, on three occasions, Syria and Iraq threatened Turkey with military action (and at one point threatened each other) over reduced river flows due to dams in Turkey. Negotiations stopped and started as relations between the nations fluctuated. Since then, climate change and population growth have put extreme pressure on regional freshwater, heightening the impact of the damming of the two rivers.

Before major dam construction in the 1970s, the average flow in the Euphrates was about 720 cubic meters per second. Now it is about 260 as it enters Iraq. Today, on the Euphrates, the Atatürk dam has reduced overall flows to Iraq by a third, and the soon-to-be completed Ilisu and Cizre dam projects may reduce flows of the Tigris by a further 50 percent. Following mounting criticism of the Ilisu project, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland blocked state export loan guarantees for the structure, but Ankara has nonetheless pressed ahead.

Full implementation of the ambitious Turkish GAP plan, which aims to exploit Turkey’s rivers for irrigation and power generation in southeastern Anatolia, could reduce the Euphrates’ flows to Iraq by 80 percent. Now, consider that Iraq relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for over 90 percent of its freshwater, and you can imagine the potential fallout of the GAP plan on Iraq’s agricultural production.

Whereas Saudi Arabia and Russia were able to mediate tensions among the three countries in the 1970s, the challenge today is that there are no international or regional powers that have been ready to force these countries to work together. According to the Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative, some 40 memoranda of understanding struck between Iraq and Turkey over water sharing at the height of the drought in 2009 have led to almost no concrete progress.

Although current agreements between Syria and Turkey provide for 500 cubic meters per second, 46 percent of which goes to Iraq, summer flows can be far less. According to Jasim al Asadi, a hydrologist with Nature Iraq, by the time the Euphrates reaches Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, a minimum of 90 cubic meters per second is required for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use. Sometimes, the flow can be as low as 18 cubic meters per second, so unsurprisingly the marshes are receding rapidly. Before major dam construction in the 1970s, the average flow in the Euphrates was about 720 cubic meters per second. Now it is about 260 as it enters Iraq.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters Shia women in Basra gather water from where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers converge, July 13, 2003.

In Karbala, Iraq, farmers are in despair and are reportedly considering abandoning their land. In Baghdad, the poorest neighborhoods rely on the Red Cross for drinking water. At times, the Red Cross has had to supply over 150,000 liters a day. Further south, Iraq’s central marshes, the Middle East’s largest wetlands, are disappearing again after being re-flooded after Saddam Hussein was ousted. In Chibayish, a town in the wetlands that one of the authors of this piece recently visited, buffalo and fish are dying. Currently, agriculture there supports at least 60,000 people. Those and hundreds of thousands more will face great hardship as water resources continue to decline.

Further north, instability, in part due to agricultural collapse, means that large segments of the Euphrates and several significant dams are now under ISIS control. Reduced water flows from dams and inefficient irrigation means that water resources are at catastrophic levels. And the reactivated conflict between the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish security forces, which is spilling over into Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, is putting the Euphrates and Tigris watersheds at further risk. The PKK is even threatening to strike Turkish dams.

If this situation continues, sustainable political resolution may be impossible.

DAMMED RIVERS

Turkey’s agriculture sector, like Iraq’s and Syria’s, has struggled with ongoing drought. In the 2013­–14 growing season, the country produced 3.35 million tons of wheat equivalent. That fell to 2.52 million in 2014–15. Heavier than expected rainfall this year translated into a projected increase of 130,000 tons in the 2015­–16 growing season to 2.62 million tons total. Much of that will be exported, bringing in approximately $1 billion to a $60 billion agriculture sector.

Given Turkey’s relatively better water health, it might be reasonable to think that it would stop building dams at the expense of its downstream neighbors. Instead, it has done the opposite, Like farmers everywhere, Turkish producers battle drought, disease, pestilence, and inefficient irrigation (which Ankara is trying to change, especially with the GAP project), and harvests can vary dramatically. As elsewhere in the region, some farmers have abandoned their land. But as parts of Iraq turn a sandy gray color in satellite imagery, areas of Turkey are becoming greener. Indeed, unlike the rest of the region, Turkey is not facing a national-level emergency.

Already, Turkish dams, of which there are over 140, have far more storage capacity than those downstream. And when the new Turkish dam projects are completed in the next few years, as much as 1.2 million additional hectares inside Turkey will be irrigated—an eightfold increase from today. This means that Turkey will press ahead with plans to almost triple agricultural exports.

According to the Pfister water stress index, Turkey is only moderately water stressed, rating a .779 out of one. Iraq, at .974, and Syria, at .999, are extremely stressed. According to 2011 data, Turkey is ranked 46th globally for freshwater availability—not a great standing, but better than Iraq’s 76th and Syria’s 126th. Similarly, according to World Bank data, Turkey has almost three times the per capita water availability of Iraq and ten times that of Syria. Turkey is also better placed to invest in greater water efficiency, having a GDP almost eight times that of Iraq.

Given Turkey’s relatively better water health, it might be reasonable to think that it would stop building dams at the expense of its downstream neighbors. Instead, it has done the opposite, planning to complete 1,700 new dams and weirs within its borders.

The town of Susuz (C) is seen on the northern shore of the Ataturk dam, November 10, 2014.

The town of Susuz (C) is seen on the northern shore of the Ataturk dam, November 10, 2014. 

When pressed, Turkish officials respond that the government’s plans are justifiable, given that Turkey also suffers droughts. They are quick to point out, moreover, that Iraq and Syria’s inefficient use of water is part of the problem. And it is true that Iraq wastes a lot of water. But that is mostly the result of broken infrastructure and inefficient irrigation—the legacy of decades of war and dictatorship. Meanwhile, oil infrastructure damaged by ISIS and decaying sewage treatment plants contaminate what little water there is, and the vast numbers of private wells dug during the last decade of war have hurt efforts at conservation.

In short, Iraq needs help, not to be chastised. Still, if it wants an equitable agreement with Turkey, it must also demonstrate a sustained commitment to efficient integrated water solutions.

WHAT TO DO

There is hope for resolving the water conflict between Turkey and Iraq and Syria. Previous negotiations offer some lessons. Jordan and Israel, for one, have been in secret (and now public) negotiations over the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers since the 1950s. These talks have been relatively successful for three reasons.

The first is the involvement of international mediators. In 1987, Jordan and Syria planned to dam the Yarmuk River, but Israel protested. Since it had already attacked a Syrian dam construction site in 1967, all sides knew that things could escalate quickly. Jordan and Israel called on the United States for help, and Richard Armitage, who was assistant secretary of defense, stepped in to mediate. The basis for further talks was created, and, eventually, the sides struck several agreements, the latest of which is the Red Sea–Dead Sea water arrangement, a pledge to build a canal that would provide potable water to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories; stabilize the Dead Sea water level; and generate electricity.

The lesson for Turkey, Iraq, and Syria is clear: the United States and EU need to be ready to step up. For example, the EU has put aside over $1 billion per year in "pre-accession” assistance for Turkey up to 2020, and the United States has long used security cooperation with Turkey to gain influence on broader policy. Meanwhile, the Abadi government in Iraq has repeatedly shown itself to be far more responsive to U.S. entreaties than the Maliki administration was, and both Turkey and Iraq have made diplomatic inroads over the ISIS crisis. There is room, therefore, for constructive influence.

Any Iraqi plan to increase efficiency will require sustained investment in the latest technology, from drip irrigation to high-resolution terrain mapping and water harvesting. The second factor is efficiency. Both the Israeli and Jordanian governments invested in and encouraged more efficient use of water, reducing tensions between the two nations when severe drought struck, as it did in 1999. In the case of the Euphrates-Tigris river system, all three major nations along the river basin are engaged in highly inefficient agricultural practices and are making insufficient attempts to improve things. Given the conflict in Syria, it is unrealistic to expect any improvements there, but Turkey has managed to increase drip irrigation and Iraq should do the same.

Any Iraqi plan to increase efficiency will require sustained investment in the latest technology, from drip irrigation to high-resolution terrain mapping and water harvesting. Desalination, while theoretically coming online for 400,000 of Basra’s residents in 2017, is currently only widespread in countries that have GDPs that are many times the size of Iraq’s (Australia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States). The exception is Jordan, although the forthcoming desalination project is a joint Israeli-Jordanian-international venture.

Third, establishing Joint Water Committees, with expert representation from each concerned nation, is essential for resolving water-sharing issues. In the case of Jordan and Israel, these committees approached compromise by meeting on the ground at the Yarmuk River in sessions known as the "picnic table talks," which paved the way for higher-level negotiations in Washington in the early 1990s. The final 1994 peace treaty between the two nations explicitly calls for international cooperation in overseeing water resource sharing.

Already, Iraq and Syria have a joint committee. Syria and Turkey have one, too. But they are insufficiently empowered by their national governments, and the Syrian civil war and the seizure of extensive water resources by ISIS have complicated their task. Nonetheless, the joint water committees are a potentially effective platform for local, national, and international cooperation, and for working with academic and research institutions, the business community, and NGOs in water governance processes.

Because of the situation in Syria, it is imperative that Turkey and Iraq take the lead in reviving the joint water committee structure. Even though Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris-Euphrates river system as Iraq teeters on the edge of extreme water crisis, political relations between the two countries are arguably less sour now than they were over the past decade, and the growing water crisis creates some impetus for reinvigorating the tripartite meetings of the 1980s and 1990s. Those meetings culminated in the Syria–Turkey Adana treaty of 1998, which guaranteed 500 cubic meters of water per second.

The country’s long-term economic viability depends on reducing agricultural imports and reviving industry, and it needs water for both. In a new round of negotiations, Iraq—perhaps helped by foreign subsidies—could agree to buy some of its hydroelectricity from Turkey, in exchange for more water from Turkey. In the past, Iraq and Turkey have exchanged gas for electricity, so such a plan has some precedent. An energy-water cooperation scheme would require high-level external mediation and international coordination.

The United Nations could put some pressure on the parties. Last year, the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses came into force, with its 35th ratifying signatory. Disappointingly, some nations in the world’s most water-stressed regions have not signed, including Turkey. However, Turkey is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates that countries must not restrict a child’s right to food and water (Article 24). It is also a signatory of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. This treaty enshrines the human right to water. The international community should remind Turkey of those responsibilities, even as it pressures Iraq to use water as efficiently as possible. In particular, it is worth getting Iraq to phase out flood irrigation. That will require immense focus, campaigning, and investment in new technology.

WATER RACE

For Iraq, this is a race against time. The country’s long-term economic viability depends on reducing agricultural imports and reviving industry, and it needs water for both. It also needs water for its people; according to the World Bank, 15 percent lack access to an improved water source. And more than anything, it needs peace—something that water stress is undermining. Last year, the province of Dhi Qar quarreled with neighboring Basra over water use. More recently, the Kurdish Regional Government has also been accused of holding water back from the Tigris as a result of the budget dispute with Baghdad.

Now is the time to for the international community to bring Turkey and Iraq together to help to build a framework for water cooperation that will enable the development of sustainable agriculture before Iraq’s water resources completely collapse under the weight of Turkey’s hoarding and Iraq’s inefficiencies. To ignore the imminent Iraqi water crisis is to ignore another major fault line in the Middle East and to condemn Iraq and its neighbors to decades’ more conflict.

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