Iraq now faces another existential threat as it battles neighboring Iran and Turkey for access to an increasingly scarce flow of water to the once-flourishing Fertile Crescent running down the spine of the country.
Iraq is in the midst of an unprecedented drought, which has eclipsed previously notable low-rainfall years in 2009 and 2015.
Lower than average rainfalls, higher summer temperatures thought to be associated with climate change, and reduced river flows from upstream – as Turkey begins to fill a controversial dam – have combined to create a complex environmental and social crisis in the country’s south.
Once known as Mesopotamia, or “the land between the rivers”, Iraq is uniquely dependent on upstream neighbours for water. The headwaters of the country’s two main rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates – descend from the Armenian highlands of eastern Turkey.
“The decline is dramatic,” said Hassan Al-Jannabi, Iraqi minister of water resources. “Erratic rainfall and construction of dams in neighboring countries has led to a combined decrease of more than 40 percent in annual flow through the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin.”
One of the biggest impacts is from a major Turkish dam project on the Tigris, which flows southward through Iraq from sources in Iran and southern Turkey. Ankara is now filling the Ilisu Dam — a 440-foot-high, 6,000-foot-wide behemoth — about 70 miles north of the Iraqi border.
The Ilisu is projected to decrease Iraq’s share of the Tigris’ flow from some 738 billion cubic feet to just 343 billion cubic feet annually, said Rayan Thannon al-Abbasi, a water specialist at Mosul University’s Regional Studies Center.
“Iraq’s power plants will be affected by this decrease,” Mr. Thannon al-Abbasi said. “The supply of fish in the rivers will be depleted as well.”
Head of Supreme Commission of Agricultural Societies in Iraq Haider al-Abadi denied the access of large quantities of water from Iran to Iraq for nearly three years now.
Abbadi said he was surprised from the circulated news about Iran cutting water supplies to Iraq, which Tehran’s Deputy Ambassador to Iraq Moussa Tabatabai denied.
“Iran cannot cut that amount of border water from Iraq without an agreement with the authorities in this regard,” he said on Wednesday.
The continued cut of water supplies from Iran to Iraqi territory is exacerbating the problems of some cities, mainly Basra, in which thousands of people have been poisoned in the past few weeks due to pollution of the potable water there.
Since June, salinity has increased from the Arabian Gulf to the north of the Shatt al-Arab River, the only source of water for Basra.
Shatt al-Arab consists of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers north of Basra.
“An approximate seven billion cubic meters will be cut towards the western and northern borders of Iraq on the order of the Supreme Leader,” said Assistant to Iran’s Agriculture Minister Ali Murad Akbari.
He added that eight billion dollars will be allocated to the ministries of energy and agriculture to control the water movement.
He stressed that these quantities of water will be used in three major projects on an area of 550 thousand hectares in Khuzestan (southwest of the country), and 220 thousand hectares in Khuzestan also, and Ilam (West of the country).
He pointed to the impact of these projects on increasing the sustainability of agricultural production in the country, explaining that “the scarcity of water is one of the serious threats we have been facing and we are trying to solve and control it.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government said earlier that Iran “completely changed the course of the Karun River and set up three large dams on the river Karkh,” and that “these rivers are the main sources of water of the region and Iraq as a whole.”