Water crisis reaches the Tigris & Euphrates

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Euphrates River, Ataturk Dam, on the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey. Photo: © tella0303/Fotolia

A water war is not only raging in the Nile Basin but it has also reached the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to Turkey building more dams.

Last month, I wrote about the huge problem of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its devastating impact on the lives of the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples.

Today it’s time to discuss the water crisis in both Syria and Iraq as a result of the decline in water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the point of drought, a drop that has greatly impacted those living in the two Arab countries.

I visited Iraq twice, in 1985 and 1988, during the era of Saddam Hussein, and I visited Syria twice as well, in 1984 and 2000, during the Assad era (both father and the son).

It never occurred to me that the Tigris River, which overlooks the Iraqi capital Baghdad, would dry up to the point where it would be difficult to enjoy a meal of fresh fish that had just been caught from the waters of the Immortal River, as my wife and I had enjoyed during one of the previous visits.

It did not occur to me, either, that the Barada River, which passes through the heart of the Syrian capital Damascus (which famous Arab singer Fayrouz sang of in her most beautiful poems) could also dry up, as part of the dirty wars on water that have been imposed on many countries of the Middle East that are already suffering from several wars.

A few days ago, I watched a shocking television report broadcast by the British BBC, which included sad and tragic pictures of the Euphrates, the largest rivers in Syria and Iraq, after the water level in it had decreased to less than half.

The BBC, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that the level of the Euphrates River decreased by five meters for the first time in history. This came as a result of Turkey damming their side of the river's water, such that it does not exceed 200 cubic meters per second.

The British TV channel added that what Ankara has done constitutes a flagrant violation of the agreement signed between Syria and Turkey in 1987.

Turkey has committed to release at least 500 cubic meters per second, to be shared by Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian Observatory warned of an impending disaster threatening the lives and livelihoods of more than three million Syrians who depend on the river for drinking water, electricity and irrigation.

The Euphrates is an international river that originates from Turkey and crosses into Syrian and Iraqi lands, where it meets in the south with the Tigris River to form the Shatt al-Arab.

Turkey has built five giant dams on the Euphrates as part of the Al-Ghab project, which it began working on in the 1970s, and work is still underway on two other dams.

Among the dams built on the river is the giant Ataturk Dam, which was completed in 1990. The storage capacity of the dam lake is 48 billion cubic meters.

Turkish projects led to a decrease in Iraq's share of the two rivers by 80 percent even before the current crisis, while Syria's share decreased by 40 percent.

According to international law, the Euphrates is an international river because it crosses several countries.

Throughout history, the river has been a source of conflicts between Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

In 1987, a temporary agreement was concluded between Turkey and Syria under which Syria would receive at least 500 cubic meters per second.

This agreement held until 2012, when the Assad government lost control of the northeast of the country, at which point water cuts on the Syrian bank of the Euphrates became more frequent.

Syria signed an agreement with Iraq (the downstream country) in 1989, which stipulated that of the total Euprhates water received from Turkey, Syria would pass on 58 percent of it to Iraq at the Syrian-Iraqi border and keep 42 percent for itself.

However, with the decline in the amount of water flowing into Syria, the "Autonomous Administration" that governs the regions of northern and eastern Syria said that it had reduced the share of water entering Iraq.

The decline in the Euphrates’ water level has made large areas of agricultural land unusable, threatening the livelihoods of a large proportion of people in northern and eastern Syria who depend on agriculture.

Many pumping stations for drinking or irrigation have stopped in many areas due to the diversion of the riverbed.

Many towns attempted to raise the water level by filling the river’s path with large concrete blocks, so that the water could reach the pumps that feed the towns and cities located on the banks of the river.

The administration says that Turkey has begun to gradually reduce the water supply from the Euphrates River to Syria since the middle of last year, causing it to decrease to this level.

Syria faces a more severe water crisis than Iraq and Turkey.

The drought that began in 2006 has destroyed agriculture in Syria and has forced large numbers of rural people to flee to cities.

Some scholars have linked this to the social and political unrest that later led to the civil war in Syria.

Iraq’s total consumption of water, for all of its needs, is about 53 billion cubic meters annually, a rate that is decreasing annually due to the limited releases of water reaching Iraq.

According to the predictions of the Water Stress Index, Iraq will be a land without rivers by 2040, and the two great rivers will not reach the final estuary in the Arabian Gulf.

According to the same indicator, in 2025, features of severe drought will appear very clearly throughout Iraq. This will include the near total drying of the Euphrates towards the south, and the transformation of the Tigris River into a waterway with limited resources.

The water crisis in Iraq is due to the absence of any specific agreement between Baghdad and Ankara to divide water with the exception of joint understandings and protocols in some cases. This calls for the conclusion of a clear agreement. Especially after the completion of the Turkish Ilisu Dam, which will change the equation for the Tigris River and turn this portion of it into a canal.

It is flowing inside the Turkish border instead of a channel flowing outside the border.

The roots of the Iraqi-Turkish water crisis go back to the year 1920, with the signing of “tripartite and bilateral” agreements between Iraq, Turkey and Syria to divide the water that included a special provision related to the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

According to the text, none of these three countries has the right to build a dam or a reservoir or divert a river course without holding it. "A joint session with other countries and consulted to ensure that no party is harmed."

Water experts in Iraq are sounding the alarm about the dangers of Iraq not signing an agreement that guarantees its water share from the riparian countries given its impact on the Iraqi economy and food security. A decline in its share will negatively affect the size of cultivated areas, in turn increasing desertification, climate change and the decline of tourism, especially in the marshes.

A reduction in water will also cause a decline in fish stocks, a decrease in agricultural production, an increase in the volume of imports, and high rates of migration from the countryside to the city.

Kamal Gaballa, Former Managing Editor of Al-Ahram

  • Nile Basin
  • Tigris & Euphrates
  • Water crisis reaches the Tigris & Euphrates

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