Turkey’s decision to start filling the Ilisu dam earlier than promised, took Iraq by surprise. Iraq is currently suffering from a water crisis, as drought and the dams built by Turkey slow the flow of the Tigris to a trickle.
The Ilisu dam is located on the Tigris River, which begins in Eastern Turkey and flows through Syria before entering Iraq. Tributaries from the Zagros Mountains in Iran contribute to its flow, making it a crucial water source. The Tigris-Euphrates Basin supplies Iraq with 98 per cent of its surface water
Iraq is heavily reliant on the benevolence of the Turkish government, as decreasing rainfall and poor water management make the Tigris-Euphrates Basin the only reliable source of water for irrigation and hydroelectricity production.
Iraq’s reliance on the Tigris-Euphrates Basin is due to the low volume of rainfall, with the country averaging 216mm per year, combined with the absence of alternative water sources. Turkey’s decision to hold back water to fill up the Ilisu dam has aroused fears of severe water shortages, which would have wide ranging implications, especially for food production. Iraqi officials claim that water reserves are large enough to supply drinking water, but have admitted that they can only supply half of the water needed for irrigation over the summer. With reduced water flow in the Tigris, Iraqi farmers may have little option but to draw water from already strained aquifers.
Demand for water continues to increase as Iraq’s population grows. The Iraqi population is expected to increase from 37 million in 2016 to 44 million by 2030, putting further strain on already scarce water resources.
Water has become an increasingly contentious issue between Iraq, Turkey and the Kurds. The filling of the dam is likely to increase tensions between them. In the past, the filling of Turkish dams has reduced water flow in Iraq by 80 per cent. Increased tensions over water resources have led to military confrontations on two separate occasions. The first was in 1975, when the construction of the Keban dam in Turkey and the Tahba dam in Syria, combined with a drought, resulted in severe water shortages in Iraq. The second, in 1990, occurred when Turkey filled the Ataturk dam reservoir by holding back water from the Euphrates, reducing the water flow entering Iraq and Syria by 75 per cent. In retaliation, Iraq threatened to bomb the dam and Turkey responded by threatening to stop the water flow to Iraq and Syria completely.
The underlying cause of this tension is the differing views held by Iraq and Turkey over how the water should be shared. As the majority of Iraq’s water originates in Turkey, the Turkish government believes it has the power to determine water distribution. Iraq, however, argues that it has historical rights to a certain share of water from the Tigris. That difference of perspective makes it difficult for Iraq and Turkey to co-operate on water management.
While a military confrontation is unlikely to occur between Iraq and Turkey, due to other pressing domestic concerns, Turkey’s actions could lead to increased conflict with the Kurds if its hard-line attitude to them extends to its polices on water distribution. In 1987 Turkey signed an agreement with Syria, under which Turkey guarantees a minimum annual flow of 500 cubic metres per second from the Euphrates to Syria, in return for a promise from Syria to crackdown on support of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) within its borders.
Turkey’s decision to begin filling the Ilisu dam at the start of June, rather than at the end of the month as promised, was probably prompted by concerns over the upcoming Turkish general elections for the president and parliament, which will be held on 24 June. That is the view of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has stated that he believes the early filling of the Ilisu dam is an attempt by the Turkish government to obtain the support of farmers in the approaching election.
The formation of Iraq’s new government is also likely to be affected by the filling of the Ilisu dam. Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sayirun alliance won the most seats in Iraq’s parliamentary elections on 12 May, has demanded that the government take action to address the worsening water crisis. As Sadr is currently holding talks with various Iraqi and Kurdish political leaders to form the next government, he is able to apply considerable pressure on the interim leaders, who all want a place in a future cabinet, to adopt his proposals.
Those proposals include: convening a meeting with countries that share the Tigris-Euphrates Basin to discuss Iraq’s water crisis and forming a permanent committee tasked with finding the causes of the water crisis and finding solutions to it. The current water crisis has become a political issue that is likely to have a considerable impact on the formation of Iraq’s new government.
The Turkish decision to fill the Ilisu dam ahead of the agreed upon date raised concerns among Iraqis about their reliance on the Tigris River and Turkey’s control over its source. It seems that Ankara is aware of those concerns and is acting to alleviate them, as it has postponed the filling of the dam until July.