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Turkey blamed for looming crop 'disaster' in Iraq

by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) May 20, 2009
Iraq faces an agricultural "disaster" this summer if Turkey continues to retain waters from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which have sustained Iraqi agriculture for millennia, experts say.

The controversy over the sharing of the mighty rivers at the root of Iraq's ancient name of Mesopotamia -- meaning "between the rivers" in Greek -- is almost as old as the country itself.

But for Baghdad, the current shortage demands an urgent response from Turkey.

The reserves of all Iraqi dams at the beginning of May totalled 11 billion cubic metres (388 billion cubic feet) of water, compared to over 40 billion three years ago, although rain has not been below normal levels this winter.

The Euphrates is the most worrying situation.

Reserves at Haditha dam in the country's west, the first on the river, amounted to just 1.5 billion cubic metres on May 1, compared to eight billion two years ago.

"If the water level in the Euphrates continues to decrease, there will be a disaster in July because it will not be possible to irrigate crops," warned Aoun Thiab Abdullah, director of the National Centre for Water Resources.

"The drought will cause displacement," he said, noting that Iraqi agriculture depends on river water for 90 percent of its irrigation.

The negative impact on farming is already being felt in some provinces, including Najaf in the south that has banned its farmers from planting rice because it requires heavy irrigation.

"We will focus this year on the provision of drinking water and irrigation for other crops demanding less water," the director of the Centre for Water Resources in Najaf, Modhar al-Bakaa, told AFP at a water seminar.

The situation worsens as one moves down the Euphrates, according to Karim al-Yakubi, chairman of the agriculture and water committee in Iraq's parliament.

Yakubi said he fears an environmental disaster in the marshes of Nasiriyah farther south and notes that the lower water quantities increase the salinity of the river.

Iraqi experts say the problem is the many dams Turkey has built over the past 30 years to irrigate its agricultural lands in the southeast. These dams allow Turkey to regulate the flow of rivers according to its needs.

The flow speed of the Euphrates, which runs from Turkey through Syria, is currently only 230 cubic metres (8,100 cubic feet) per second, down from the 2000 level of 950 cubic metres per second.

Iraqi authorities have repeatedly sent letters to Ankara requesting that Turkey allow the Euphrates to flow at 700 cubic metres a second, but apparently to little avail.

On the Tigris, the situation is not as serious but Turkey's gigantic Ilisu dam project which when finished will have a capacity greater than 10 billion cubic metres has Baghdad worried.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul promised in March to double the quota of water allocated to Iraq, during a historic visit to Baghdad, the first by a Turkish head of state in 33 years.

But the promise was not kept, according to Abdullah, who notes that the only bilateral treaty on water sharing came in 1946 when Iraq was hit by fears of flooding.

Under that agreement, Ankara had to inform its neighbour of any project likely to affect the flow of the rivers.

"Turkey no longer pays attention to us," said Abdullah.

To raise the profile of the water crisis, the Iraqi parliament last week passed a bill demanding that the issue of water now be included in all agreements with Ankara, parliament's Yakubi said.

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