August 3, 2008

Iraqi Writer Sounds “Alarm” Over Water Situation; Calls for Action

Text of report by Iraqi privately-owned newspaper Al-Zaman on 25 June

[Article by Ali Diya-al-Din: "Water: Ringing Alarm Bells; When Do We Work Seriously?"]

Is the word "Mesopotamia" soon to be void of any substance? Is the phrase "the land of the two rivers" turning into something of the past and losing all relevance to our present? This is what many fear, not out of clairvoyance or pessimistic melodrama, but out of their awareness of the dangerous developments that they have seen unfold over the past years in a manner threatening to touch the very core of the Iraqi people's existence.

Since the early 1980s, our Muslim neighbour, Turkey, has been pursuing a policy that neglects Iraq's interests and its right to claim its share of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, for it has built a series of huge dams, reservoirs, and irrigation projects, and has exploited water resources in a manner that not only violates international laws and the principles of neighbourliness, but that shows no appreciation for the historic and religious bonds shared by the people who have lived along the banks of these rivers for thousands of years, effectively exposing Iraq's interest to great risks. It seems the efforts of consecutive Iraqi governments to urge the countries involved to consider Iraq's interests have gone unnoticed, perhaps due to the weakness of their negotiating position after Iraq's power was drained by exhaustive regional conflicts.

The fact is that with the collapse of the Ottoman state and the birth of three new ones - Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan -the Euphrates ceased to be a national river and turned into an international one whose waters are governed by the interests of more than just one country, as stipulated by Article 109 of the 1923 Lozan Treaty. Part of what this means is that no single country has the right to exploit these waters according to its national interests without taking into consideration the interests of others and consulting with them. It is an established fact that the countries that are home to the river's upper and middle courses (Turkey and Syria) have admitted, on more than one occasion, the need to consider Iraq's inherent right to the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

In 1947, Iraq and turkey signed a treaty that listed in its first supplemental protocol the procedural rules governing the utilization of Tigris and Euphrates waters in accordance with the interests of both countries. However, serious underlying problems quickly rose to the surface after Turkey broke ground on its Keban Dam and decided to raise the dam's capacity from an initial 9.4 billion cubic meters of water to 30.5 billion cubic meters -an increase that naturally came at the expense of Iraq. In 1961, Syria built the Al-Tabaqah Dam with a capacity of 11.9 billion cubic meters of water, also at the expense of Iraq. The latter was unable to match the Turkish and Syrian moves since its downstream location means that its water supply depends on how much water Turkey lets flow from its dams, and how much Syria lets pass through once they have secured their strategic needs.

In recent years, Iraq has been receiving the equivalent of waste water, which, with its concentration of salt and industrial waste, threatens Iraq's agricultural and social security - threat that seems all too real once one learns that in the past year alone, Iraq's water reserves fell by 9.19 billion cubic meters, or a third of its yearly demand. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, Iraq is suffering from a severe shortage of water that could lead to a drought, all because of the water policies of its neighbouring countries. As one Iraq water expert explained, Iraq is doomed to lose 50 per cent or more of its water resources if neighbouring countries continue to build dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, which, when constructed without any concern for Iraq's right to an adequate water supply, threaten to deprive nearly 1 million hectares of agricultural land of irrigation water. Lately, our neighbour Iran joined in and is trying to stop the flow of the Al-Wand and Sirwan rivers from its lands into the Diyala Governorate, and if it succeeds, the Al-Wand will become a thing of the past.

Iraq needs to seriously reconsider its water policies and opt for a stronger negotiations strategy that centres on its right, under international law, to secure a share [of river water] commensurate with its civilian and agricultural demands, not to mention its right to adequate water reserves. Since international law alone cannot help a country like Iraq claim its rights, major countries - especially the United States, given its status as occupier and its concern for its future alliance with Iraq -are obligated to pressure the countries in which the rivers originate into meeting Iraq's water needs.

Originally published by Al-Zaman, Baghdad, in Arabic 25 Jun 08.

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