Iraq, already ravaged by decades of ethnic and sectarian warfare, has quietly suffered a water shortage over the past decade.
Including the Kurdistan region, Iraq relies on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for 98 percent for its drinking, irrigation and sanitation supplies. The majority of the country also lives along the two historic rivers, which originate in Turkey. Turkey has built 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants through its Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) in the region where the majority of its Kurdish population live.
Lacking hydrocarbon resources within Turkey, the government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has realized water is the ultimate weapon, not oil.
This all began as a national project by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, aiming to better “integrate eastern Anatolia into the rest of Turkey and generate economic development through the construction of irrigation projects.”
However, what we are witnessing is a devastating effect on Iraq’s population. Ankara attempted to increase the number projects in the southeast to provide a better quality of life for the impoverished people there who are suffering from the Turkish war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But “the government’s securitization of the Kurdish issue has created grounds for mistrust, prompting some to wonder whether Turkey is looking to its own grand political objectives – securing electricity supplies, boosting agricultural exports, assimilating the Kurdish population, etc. – rather than truly looking after its constituents’ needs, as it claims,” Ilektra Tsakalidou, an analyst on European energy security at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, wrote in 2013.
Mismanagement by the central Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region administration surely plays a role, but the root of the water shortage lies in Turkey. According to Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources, Hassan al-Janabi, water levels have dropped by 40 percent over the past few years, largely due to storage facilities in Turkey.
GAP has failed to bring stability to not only Turkey’s own Kurdish population but also towards its Kurdish and Arab neighbors too.
The most recent controversial project is Turkey’s Ilisu Dam, named after Ilisu village. The project began in 2006. Ilisu dam also threatens Hasankeyf, a historic city more than 12,000 years old which sits along the Tigris River.
Hasankeyf is considered to be one of the oldest inhabited settlement in the world. It is currently home to about 78,000 residents, and is on the brink of becoming a sunken treasure due to the Ilisu Dam. The destruction of the ancient town according to Turkey’s top constitutional court is at the “discretion of the state.”
When complete, the dam will increase the level of the Tigris at Hasankeyf by 60 metres, submerging 80 percent of the town as well as nearby villages.
The construction of the dam has also reduced water flow to southern Iraq’s marshlands, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016. During Saddam Hussein’s rule the government drained the same marshlands to drive out Shiite rebels sheltering among the local population.
Turkey’s recent actions have resulted in a similar outcome but one affecting the entire country. The marshes produce food and provide water for animals of local farmers. However, Ilisu Dam has the potential to reduce the water flow into Iraq by 56 percent, and is likely to affect neighboring Iran too.
It is highly unlikely that Iraq has the strength and ability to push back against Turkey. Like Iran, Turkey has undermined Iraqi sovereign territory. Ankara has built nearly 20 military bases in northern Iraq. Turkey has been working with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani, to target and eliminate its longtime enemy, the PKK, which is headquartered in Qandil mountain.
As Ahmed al Jabouri, the Iraqi foreign relations parliamentary committee member has stated, the “water shortage in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is the most dangerous historic problem that Iraq is confronting [because of] the dams Turkey is constructing.”
Turkey has taken advantage of the ongoing chaos in Iraq, instability which allows the Turkish government to maneuver as it wishes without being confronted by either the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Iraqi security forces.
Iraq has yet to recover from the 2003 war, let alone the fight against Islamic State. Demanding that Turkey behaves in an amenable manner is far beyond Baghdad’s reach, unless it convinces the United States to act against its NATO partner.
Most recently, Iraqi prime minister Haidar al Abadi stated, “Ankara deliberately chose the timing [of the completion of Ilisu dam] to exploit the issue for political and electoral purposes.” Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario would be another armed conflict, this time by the Popular Mobilization Units, factions of which are linked to Iran, against Turkish armed forces in Iraq, which would push Ankara to further reduce the water flow.
Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose Sairoon bloc won the recent Iraqi elections, has declared, “we give the government a few days to look into the issue of water and electricity or to allow us to regain our rights.” Sadr, known as a nationalist, may be forced to take matters into his own hands. One option could be to prevent oil from flowing from Kirkuk to Turkey.
As long as Baghdad is fractured, and is undermined by Iranian influence, Turkey will use its control over water to take advantage of Iraq’s weakened state.
This will allow Turkey to push back against Iran – its regional rival – while also fighting its nemesis, the PKK. Tehran has thrown its weight around, and gained influence over the Shiite-led government in Baghdad by dominating the military and political sectors since 2003. The Iranian presence increased after the Obama administration scaled down the number of U.S. forces in 2011.
Iraq has become a breeding ground for regional powers to bolster their influence beyond their borders. But in the end, as Fadel Al Zubi, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, has said, “the one that pays the price is always the country where the river ends – in this case Iraq.”
Originally published at The Defense Post on June 7, 2018.