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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Cutting Iraq's water supply is a callous and uncivilised act

This embattled nation is trapped between two neighbours who have depleted its most storied and historic resource

The Tigris river, which flows through Baghdad, sits at the very foundation of civilisation. Reuters
The Tigris river, which flows through Baghdad, sits at the very foundation of civilisation. Reuters

Water is a basic requirement for life. For one nation to cut off supplies to another is an act of inhumanity that cannot be justified. Iraq, already facing an unprecedented water crisis, is utterly dependent upon the Euphrates-Tigris river system, and at the mercy of two of its neighbours. Both rivers rise in the highlands of eastern Turkey. The Tigris is also fed by five major tributaries originating in Iran. Dams in Turkey and Iran have caused water levels in the Tigris to fall to an all-time low. Recent footage of people walking knee-deep across the river in Baghdad went viral on social media.

Iraq now faces the prospect of supplies being further reduced by Iranian plans to divert billions more litres from the Tigris. Iran says it needs the water to boost agricultural production. But this despicable act by a country devoted to meddling in Iraq’s politics betrays a callousness that fits all too well with its reputation as a disruptive regional influence. Ankara has offered to help by increasing the flow into Iraq from Turkey, but this “generosity” smacks of hypocrisy. Since 1987 Turkey’s massive Southeastern Anatolia Project has been responsible for building numerous hydroelectric dams on the Euphrates and Tigris river systems. The latest is the massive Ileus dam, which caused the water level in the Tigris to drop so alarmingly in June.

Iraq’s politicians carry a share of the blame for the crisis. Vying for power and unable to coalesce into an effective government, they have lost sight of the basic needs of their people. The management of water provision is in chaos and thousands have fallen ill in Basra because of contaminated supplies. Iraqis are proud of their heritage as inheritors of the land known as the cradle of civilisation, where writing, agriculture and the first great cities were born. The emergence of Mesopotamia – “the land between the rivers” – was contingent entirely upon the life-giving waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. That the descendants of that ancient civilisation should be deprived of access to those waters is a shameful indictment of the state of modern Iraq, and of the uncivilised behaviour of its neighbours.