Ilisu Dam crisis proves the failure of Iraq’s successive governments

Successive governments could have put in place a plan for conserving and managing rivers that run through Iraq.
Saturday 09/06/2018
More than a drop in the ocean. A general view of the construction site of the Ilisu Dam. (Reuters)
More than a drop in the ocean. A general view of the construction site of the Ilisu Dam. (Reuters)

The water crisis between Turkey and Iraq is on. On the Iraqi side, the crisis looked like a volcano eruption, so violent and so sudden but it is neither. The crisis of the Iraqis with their power-hungry representatives, along with the electricity, bread and services crises, were swept aside to make room for the water crisis when Turkey readied to put in service the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River near the Turkish-Iraqi border.

The Iraqi side would see its share of Tigris water drop to 9.7 billion cubic metres of water instead of the usual 21 billion cubic metres.

Loud protests by Iraqi parliamentarians were heard during an extraordinary session meant to discuss the electoral process. It was the fourth attempt by the Iraqi parliament to have this extraordinary session. Parliamentarians thought they would question the results of the recent elections and cast doubts on the process.

Their real objective, however, was to cover up their failure and revert to sectarian consensus in naming the next prime minister. They could not stomach the victory of Muqtada al-Sadr and his lists in the election and wanted to kill his movement’s daring attempt to return the power of decision to the people.

The victory of the Sadrist movement represents popular rejection of the previous government, which failed miserably in managing the country’s affairs and was far from meeting the basic requirement of defending Iraq’s interests and protecting its oil and water resources. It simply and systematically drove Iraq from weakness to weakness and finds itself incapable of reclaiming Iraq’s rights from its neighbours.

The June 3 extraordinary session of parliament reserved for the water crisis was a pathetic sight. Almost all the fiery speeches given were just school boys’ essays filled with sectarian motifs. The exception was the professional presentation by the minister of water resources, who explained the technical causes that pushed Turkey to say it would begin filling the Ilisu Dam on June 1, a move since pushed back to at least July 1.

The minister omitted to talk about the history of the dam and especially the ten years of preparations for it. He conveniently forgot to mention how all post-2003 Iraqi governments have failed, or even did not want, to put in place a strategy for preparing for the inevitable consequences of erecting dams on the tributaries of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

The governments could have put in place a plan for conserving and managing rivers that run through Iraq. They could have designed a better allocation system of irrigation water and could have stopped the lucrative uncontrolled fish-farming activities of well-connected people.

The minister gave a one-sided presentation of the issue. He focused on Turkey’s unilateral step of reducing by half at the beginning of the summer the volume of water flowing into Iraq. He conveniently omitted to tell everyone that Turkey was simply implementing a water resources strategy it had put in place quite some time ago.

Turkey plans 22 dams, eight on the tributaries of the Tigris and 14 on the tributaries of the Euphrates. The biggest dam on the Euphrates is Ataturk Dam, which went into service in 1992, causing a diplomatic crisis between Turkey on one side and Iraq and Syria on the other. Six dams have been completed on the Tigris, with Ilisu Dam the latest. Work on Silvan Dam is expected to be completed in 2019.

It might be worth mentioning the 1989 crisis regarding the Ilisu Dam. When construction of the dam began, the Iraqi government sent Tariq Aziz, minister of Foreign Affairs, to Ankara to persuade Turkish leaders to stop the project. Turkey refused, causing a serious diplomatic incident.

The Iraqi government warned Ankara that its move counts as a declaration of a hydraulic war on Iraq and recalled its ambassador to Turkey. The government proceeded with a troop buildup along the Iraqi-Turkish border and had missiles aimed at the Ilisu dam site. The Turkish government backed off and sent its foreign minister to negotiate.

Following the military and political disasters caused by the invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi government neglected the protection of Iraqi water resources as it became more obsessed with security concerns. The post-2003 governments did not do any better since they were busy dividing power and looting the country’s oil riches.

Those governments also did not deal equally fairly with Iran and Turkey, the countries sitting on the sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris. If they protested Turkey’s actions, the governments kept silent about Iran’s damming tributaries such as Alwand and Little Zab.

Frankly, the post-2003 regime was weak and not capable of defending Iraq’s rights or of shielding its people from dying of thirst, terrorism or hunger. Iran, on the other hand, loves to champion the cause of the Shias but has no qualms with pursuing its own interests at the expense of Iraq’s interests.

Commenting on the water crisis between Iraq and Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on June 4: “We warned Iraq ten years ago and told them to start storing water and building dams for your country and your people… Why should water be wasted in the [Arabian] Gulf without benefiting anyone? The rulers of Iraq did nothing and presented deaf ears.”

Erdogan said the “Ilisu Dam will turn south-eastern Turkey into the biggest farming, touristic and hydroelectric zones in Europe and it will attract investments.”

Also, Turkey knows the Iraqi government is weak, which explains why Turkey’s military forces roam free in northern Iraq.

Instead of a populist uprising serving the narrow interests of some politicians, this water crisis requires a high degree of political and diplomatic clout that the current government cannot muster. The sad story of Ilisu Dam is proof of the miserable failure of the sectarian regime in Iraq.