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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Turkey dam sparks renewed water shortage panic in Iraq  

Water level in Iraq's rivers has gone down by at least 40 per cent 

The dried-up shore of an irrigation canal near the village of Sayyed Dakhil, to the east of Nasariyah city some 300 kilometres south of Baghdad. Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP  
The dried-up shore of an irrigation canal near the village of Sayyed Dakhil, to the east of Nasariyah city some 300 kilometres south of Baghdad. Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP  

Turkey's construction of a dam on the Tigris river triggered on Sunday an emergency session in Iraq's parliament amid increasing fears of major water shortages.

The building of water storage facilities by both Turkey and Iran along with irregular rainfall has reduced the water level in Iraq's main rivers by at least 40 per cent in recent decades, the country's Water Resource Ministry said.

“The ministry warned nine months ago of a shortage in water, it has called for necessary measures to be taken into place to combat this issue,” Hassan Al Janabi, the Minister of Water Resources said on Saturday.

In the 1950s Turkey proposed the building of the Ilisu Dam - a hydroelectric project - sparking an international outcry as many feared its construction would result in a dramatic reduction of the water level, prompting thousands of residents to resettle.

The crisis demands a strategic response which could only be reached through good planning, effective strategies, and diplomacy, Balsam Mustafa, a PhD candidate focusing on Iraq at the University of Birmingham told The National.

"The question is whether the Iraqi government could be capable of managing a water crisis which, in the first place, is an outcome of the failure of Iraqi politicians to properly tackle the water problem," she said.

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Mr Al Janabi urged residents to take precautions and store water supplies. Meanwhile Iraq's Parliamentary speaker, Salim Al Jubouri, called for an emergency session to discuss the problem.

"The parliamentary speaker will discuss ways to resolve this crisis today with the presence of Mr Hassan Al Janabi and other officials from the water resources ministry as well the Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari," Abdel Malik Al Husseini, spokesman for the speaker of parliament, told The National.

Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, leader of the recently victorious Sairoon bloc, has given the government a few days to begin solving the water crisis.

"If our [electoral] victory is the beginning of revenge for the citizens of Iraq, then I will not allow that to happen," Mr Al Sadr said in a statement, adding that his party will "work to restore the rights" of the public.

Turkey's ambassador to Iraq, Fatih Yildiz, said that Turkey had cooperated and communicated with Iraq in the past and had consulted Baghdad before going ahead with the construction of the dam.

Images and videos have circulated on social media showing people walking across the river in Baghdad, where the water is currently knee-level.

The level of water flowing into Iraq from Turkey has gone down by 50 per cent, the head of Mosul dam Riyadh Izz Al Din told reporters on Saturday.

"The shortage of water in the reservoir of the dam has been reduced by more than 3 billion cubic meters compared with its levels last year of more than 8 billion cubic meters," Mr Izz Al Din said.

For years experts had warned about Iraq's water problem.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers provide 98 per cent of Iraq's water and are pivotal to the country's identity and culture.

This is why some activists are calling to boycott Turkish products in Iraq in order to exert pressure not just on Ankara but on Baghdad to take the necessary measures in solving the crisis, Ms Mustafa said.

“With the current rate of decline, Iraq’s water supply will not be enough to avert a widespread humanitarian crisis…it has directly contributed to rising levels of food deprivation,” Omar Effendi, an Iraqi historian, tweeted.

Meanwhile in neighbouring Kurdistan, the regional government announced in a statement that Iran has "cut the water flow of a cross-border river of Little Zab" which is one of the five major tributaries of the Tigris river.

The move will impact the river's surrounding areas such as the city of Sulamaniyah in northern Iraq.