Iraq President meets Turkish envoy for talks on sharing water as drought continues

For decades, Iraq has pushed for a bigger share of water from its two major rivers flowing through Turkey and Iran

Water scarcity has been a long-standing concern for Iraq, affecting agricultural and other industries as well as communities. Reuters
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Iraq's President Abdul Latif Rashid has met a Turkish envoy in Baghdad for talks aimed at resolving disputes over the sharing of water.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate from Turkey and account for about 90 per cent of Iraq’s freshwater supply.

In recent decades, the rivers' flow into Iraq has been significantly reduced, with Turkey building a huge network of dams and Iran diverting tributaries that feed the Tigris.

On Wednesday, Mr Rashid met Veysel Eroglu, the Turkish President's special representative on water to Iraq.

The Iraqi President urged Turkey to increase co-operation on the issue of water.

Water scarcity has been a long-standing concern for Iraq, affecting agriculture, industries and communities.

For decades, Iraq has failed to convince Turkey and Iran to reach agreements to ensure what it considers a fair share of water.

Its neighbours say that they, too, suffer from droughts and water scarcity, and that Iraq follows outdated irrigation methods.

Historic drought

A years-long drought in Iraq, described as the worst since 1930, has forced authorities to appeal for emergency assistance from the international community.

On Wednesday, Iraq said it should be updated “with Turkey's operational plan regarding the water situation and the minimum share of water to be released to the Tigris and Euphrates”.

Mr Rashid “stressed on the necessity of sharing the technical information between the two sides in order to reach a final joint understanding”, his office said.

Baghdad is preparing recommendations for Turkey to reach a “doable deal on water shares”, the office added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the water situation was “not an intractable or insurmountable challenge to be resolved, but rather the two countries must make serious decisions that are in their best interests and work towards implementing them,” Mr Eroglu said.

The Turkish delegation included experts and consultants in the fields of water, dams, irrigation, agriculture, energy and environment.

Iraqi Minister of Water Resources, Aoun Diab Abdullah, and the Minister of Environment, Nizar Mohammed Saeed Amedi, attended the meeting.

Two years ago, the Water Resources Ministry said the Tigris and Euphrates could run dry by 2040 because of dwindling water levels and climate change.

Iraq is one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, partly because of its water insecurity. Baghdad signed up to the Paris Climate Accords last year.

Below-average rainfall, insufficient supply and mismanagement have left the war-torn country dry for years, wrecking expanses of arable land, affecting drinking water and increasing the frequency of dust storms.

Earlier this month, the UN's top human rights official, Volker Turk, warned of the potential broader regional consequences of Iraq's water crisis.

After visiting Iraq, Mr Turk said he witnessed the effects of climate change in the southern Iraqi region of Basra.

“Standing in searing heat in that scarred landscape, breathing air polluted by the many gas flares dotting the region, it was clear to me that the era of global boiling has indeed begun,” he told a news conference in Baghdad.

“This is a climate emergency. And it is high time it is treated like one. Not just for Iraq but for the world.”

Dwindling water resources

In a one-day conference organised by the National Security Advisory on Wednesday, government officials and experts discussed water scarcity, depicting a bleak picture of water resources.

National Security Adviser Qassim Al Araji warned that the water issue has become one of the “sensitive and important issues”.

“In the past, we exerted efforts to control the floods and now all government institutions are exerting efforts to control water shortages,” Mr Al Araji told the conference.

“Water is the life. If we lose it we will lose our life.”

The deputy water resources minister, Hussein Abdul Ameer, said the two rivers had received about 40 per cent of their normal flow from Turkey and Iran since last year.

Mr Abdul Ameer pointed out that Iraq needs to consider sustainable methods for irrigation, as the majority of farmers still rely on traditional irrigation systems, mainly flood irrigation, which are less efficient than modern methods.

Meanwhile, water pollution and other abuses of the rivers, mainly the construction of illegal inland fisheries and the use of large pumps, have deprived many areas of water, mainly those in southern Iraq, he added.

“If we will not be able to find solutions for our water problems, the next generations will curse us,” he warned. “This day is very close”.

The Environment Ministry’s expert Nadheer Aboud gave estimates for the losses caused by environmental degradation.

In 2020, losses were thought to stand at 2.25 trillion Iraqi dinars (about $1.47 billion) for agricultural areas, 1.5 trillion dinars (about $1 billion) in losses to municipal water quality and increased treatment requirements, and 16 billion dinars ($10 million) for losses to biodiversity. For palm trees alone, the estimated damage stood at12 billion dinars (about $7.8 million).

“These costs may have been increased two or three fold by now with the increase of drought,” Mr Aboud said.

Economic card

Ahead of potential negotiations over water sharing, Iraqi officials and experts demanded that the government use the economic leverage with Turkey to secure a fair share of water.

Turkey is one of Iraq's main regional trade partners, with the volume of trade seeing a significant surge last year, exceeding $24 billion.

Nearly 500 million barrels of Iraqi oil per year were exported to the international market through Turkey before they were halted nearly five months ago amid a legal battle between Baghdad and Ankara over unilateral oil exports from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

Iraq imports a wide range of goods from Turkey, while dozens of Turkish companies and investors have been working in different sectors in Iraq, mainly in the oil and gas and industry.

Baghdad is also keen to have Ankara invest in the $17 billion infrastructure project known as the Dry Canal or Development Road, which will run from southern Iraq to the border with Turkey. The network will then be connected to rail and road networks in Europe through Turkey.

The project involves the construction of 1,200 kilometres of rail networks and new motorways that expand outward from Al Faw Port on the Arabian Gulf in Basra province, which is currently under construction.

“The best way to deal with the neighbouring countries is using the balance of trade and their current and future investments, all these tools give me strength,” deputy agriculture minister Mahdi Al Qaisi said.

The Foreign Ministry’s Ahmed Mahdi, who took part in several meetings with the Turkish side, said Iraq needs to adopt a “new negotiation strategy based on a vision for the coming 50 years and to enter into a framework agreement, mainly with the Turks, for agreements in all fields including water share”.

Updated: August 30, 2023, 6:11 PM