Tigris and Euphrates river levels plummet in Iraq

Iraq relies on the rivers for the majority of its freshwater supply

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Water levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq — the headwaters of which originate in Turkey — have plunged 30 per cent in recent days, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources.

Iraq has long accused Turkey of holding back water in a network of giant dams, built between the 1970s and the present day. Since then, flows from both rivers have declined by about 40 per cent, cutting off a significant percentage of Iraq’s freshwater, although climate change has also been blamed for declines.

One of the largest of the dams on the Tigris, the Ilisu dam, can hold more than 10 billion cubic metres of water, while the river has an annual flow of around 27 billion cubic metres, although this varies dramatically in times of drought.

On the Euphrates, Turkey’s Attaturk dam has an even larger capacity of 27 billion cubic metres, approaching the volume of the river’s annual flow.

Turkey releases water through both dams, powering hydroelectric power stations, and claims the dams are important to preserve and regulate Iraq’s water supply, the majority of which comes from the two great rivers.

But critics of the dams point out the sharp drop in water flows from both rivers over the decades. Turkey also says Iraq’s dilapidated water infrastructure and wasteful flood irrigation for agriculture leads to unnecessary water losses, something the Iraqi government has acknowledged, while noting that Iraq is recovering from decades of conflict.

Iraq has also accused Iran of building dams on the tributaries of the Tigris, including vital rivers such as the Diyala river, which is dammed in Iran by the Daryan Dam, and the Lower Zaab river, which is dammed in Iran at Sardasht.

Images on social media taken in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq showed sections of the Tigris’ river bed visible in Dhi Qar province as well as in Maysan province, near Iran.

The water ministry blamed the situation in some southern provinces on “the low quantity of water reaching Iraq from neighbouring Turkey”.

“This has triggered a sharp drop in the country's water reserves,” it said in a statement.

Water ministry spokesman Khaled Chamal said on Sunday that Iraq was getting only 30 per cent of the water it expected from the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Authorities will increase levels by releasing water from Iraqi dams in the northern areas of Mosul, Dukan and Darbandikhan, he added, AFP reported on Sunday.

“There should be positive results within the next two days,” he said.

Updated: February 26, 2023, 4:56 PM