Abadi reassures Iraqis over water shortages but crisis likely to re-emerge

There are few signs that serious Iraqi preparations were taking place in areas where water was ample.
Sunday 10/06/2018
Lower water levels are seen on the Tigris River in Baghdad, on June 5. (AP)
Under increasing threat. Lower water levels are seen on the Tigris River in Baghdad, on June 5. (AP)

LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sought to reassure a worried public about possible water shortages but such crises are likely to resurface if Iraq does not prepare for what is expected to be drier and hotter years to come.

“I would like to reassure our people that there are plans and sound procedures to safeguard water resources. We are taking internal and external measures for that. The issue has not reached the level of a crisis,” Abadi said.

“Water shortage is not new. It’s old, especially since there has been little rainfall this year… Drinking water is available to citizens and the government has plans to provide water for farming,” he added.

Water levels in Iraq’s rivers have been visibly lower the past two months but a decision by Turkey to fill its Ilisu Dam June 1 led some Iraqis to claim on social media that the shortage was caused by Ankara.

Abadi said there was an “organised and systematic” media campaign to create panic by claiming there is an acute water crisis. He warned that the “malicious campaign” sought “to take the country backward” by causing confusion via fake news.

Mismanagement in the Ministry of Electricity

The prime minister, however, acknowledged there had been a reduction of water levels, although it was because of mismanagement in the Ministry of Electricity, which he said had been resolved and those responsible dealt with.

Abadi warned provincial authorities against using more than their designated share of water for agriculture. “It is totally unacceptable for provinces to take more than their allocated share,” he said.

Abadi rejected suggestions that the country needed to build more dams, saying the rain shortage meant that existing reservoirs had not been refilled.

On the diplomatic front, Abadi vowed to have more talks with Turkey and Iran over dams that reduce the flow of water in Iraqi rivers. He said he understood that water scarcity means Ankara and Tehran would scramble to meet the needs of their citizens but that must not be at the expense of Iraq’s share.

Change in date

Abadi said he was surprised by Turkey’s decision to start filling its dam at the beginning of June because it had said it planned to do so at the end of the month. Turkey has since suspended filling the reservoir until July 1.

Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Hassan al-Janabi told Sharqiya TV that the initial Turkish plan was to begin reservoir filling work March 1 but Ankara postponed the plan to give Iraq time to increase water reserves.

Janabi also said if rainfall increased next year, Iraq would not face water shortages despite the Turkish and Iranian dams.

Turkish officials said they had informed Iraq of the new dam years ago but it appeared that Baghdad did not increase its water reserves.

Turkish assurances 

Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Fatih Yildiz tried to assure Iraqi officials that the dam “doesn’t mean the water supply will be cut off,” insisting that “much of the water will continue to go to Iraq.”

The dam is intended for electricity production, not irrigation, which means water won’t need to be replaced should the dam be filled. “Enough water will be collected at the reservoirs in a year to enable electricity generation,” he said.

Concern over water shortages prompted Mahmud Dhiyab al-Ahmad, who was a minister of irrigation during the rule of Saddam Hussein but is currently in self-exile in Sudan, to send an audio recording of how to deal with water shortages. “Use the reserves of Tharthar lake… it should have no less than 40 billion cubic centimetres,” he said.

The water problem is unlikely to be resolved with quick fixes.

“The Middle East and North Africa have little [water] to begin with and rainfall is expected to decline because of climate change,” warned the Economist. “Countries such as Iraq and Syria, where war has devastated infrastructure, will struggle to prepare for a hotter, drier future.”

Wasted water in Kurdistan region

There are few signs that serious preparations were taking place in areas where water was ample.

“There is the issue of water management, not water scarcity,” Akram Ahmed, the head of the Directorate for Dams and Reservoirs in the Kurdistan Regional Government, told Rudaw Media Network.

Despite heavy rains this spring in the Kurdistan region, authorities were unable to save some of that water because of lack of planning, he said.

Ahmed made the same complaint last year in the same media outlet. Little appears to have changed except that this year more blame is directed beyond Iraq’s borders.