With Turkey and Iran upstream, Iraq and its rivers soon to dry up?

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DIWANIYAH | Iraq, the “land between the two rivers”, may soon be totally dry. Each year, its Turkish and Iranian neighbors build new dams upstream of the Tigris, Euphrates and their tributaries whose courses have lost their legendary luxuriance since antiquity.

It is surely in Basra, the country’s only coastal province, that the situation is most worrying. There, because the waves of the two rivers which meet are no longer powerful enough, the salt water of the Shatt al-Arab rises from the Gulf, flooding the crops.

“The salinity has increased in recent years and it is killing agricultural land,” said Abou Chaker, 70, of whom almost as many years spent pampering his palm trees.

If the salt water suddenly began to rise from the sea to the land, it is because Iran has bristled its Karoun river with dams in recent years, diverting many tributaries from the Tigris.

As a result, Abu Chaker and the surrounding farmers left, abandoning their salt-soaked land with rotting dead palm trees.

“Everything is dead”

“Before, our dates were sold in the Gulf and as far as the United States, but today everything is dead”, laments this Iraqi who now cultivates a small plot of land a little further north, with water. from the tap, unfit for human consumption because it is so salty.

The Minister of Water Resources, Mehdi al-Hamdani, estimates at 50% the reduction in the quantity of water arriving in Iraq since the construction of the Turkish and Iranian dams.

His ministry assures AFP that he has “a strategic plan to guarantee Iraq’s water security until 2035, with the worst-case scenario of being able to guarantee only drinking water in sufficient quantity for the whole country”.

He even envisages the construction in Makhoul, north of Baghdad, of a huge dam, “the biggest project since 2003” and the fall of Saddam Hussein during the American invasion, explains Mr. Hamdani.

But as with all major projects in Iraq, the war effort against the jihadists in 2014 and then the recent drop in oil prices reduced the funds available for infrastructure.

Basra, where during the summer of 2018 a poisoning of the water by the salty tongue rising from the Chatt al-Arab had sent more than 100,000 people to the hospital, will have to wait a little longer.

“Oil for water”

Many in Iraq are wondering whether the country, which in the 1990s found a parade against the embargo with the “oil for food” program, should not embark on a new “oil for water”.

Negotiations on this subject with Ankara, suspended for two years, resumed with the government of Mustafa al-Kazimi appointed in May. And even if Mr. Hamdani assures that this has no impact on the discussions, Turkey is currently carrying out a bombing campaign in northern Iraq.

What to reduce the chances of Baghdad to put pressure on its neighbor which must soon fill its very last hydroelectric dam, Ilisu, and could transform the Iraqi Tiger into a thin trickle of water.

On the Iranian side, the flow upstream of the Doukan and Darbandikhan dams in Iraqi Kurdistan has been drastically reduced “from 45 cubic meters per second to seven cubic meters and even to two cubic meters in some places”, according to the ministry.

Faced with its two influential regional powers Iraq, Baghdad is powerless, accuses Mohammed al-Chlehaoui, boss of agricultural cooperatives in Diwaniyah (south).

“Water war”

“Turkey can launch the water war at any time, when it suits her and without warning Iraq,” he asserts.

The worst is between 2025-2030, he says: “at that time, the Tigris and Euphrates could dry up and deprive the country of its crops and even of drinking water”.

“Iraq has only one solution: play the economic pressure against Turkey”, the leading exporter in Iraq, with nearly 16 billion dollars of goods and services sold in 2019, he recommends.

Because time is running out. Once all Turkish and Iranian hydro projects are completed in 2035, this amount could be reduced to 51 cubic kilometers per year (51 billion cubic meters).

However, the water needs of 40 million Iraqis already amount to 71 cubic kilometers. And by 2035, experts say, the population will exceed 50 million.

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