Will Turkey’s thirst for dam building add an element of combustibility to a regional water crisis?

Iraq may have its own history of water mismanagement, but it is massively, and negatively, affected by Turkey’s push to build 22 new dams. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

As the Ilısu Dam, one of Turkey’s most controversial dam projects, gears up to begin producing energy this month, observers are describing it as yet another example of Turkey’s quietly expanding water programme – a policy that has deep repercussions for the region.

Turkey is attempting to wrest control of several transboundary natural waterways for use in domestic irrigation and hydropower. Over the last decade, Turkey has been strengthening the country’s control over the area’s rivers, causing anxiety over access to water among experts.

In particular, environmentalists and water activists are concerned over the spiralling effects Turkey’s ongoing Southeast Anatolian Project, known as GAP, will have on the region, especially as political instability and civil war has resulted in a serious depletion of Iraq and Syria’s reservoirs. The project includes 22 dams, 19 hydropower plants and a large irrigation network across the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin.

Turkish policy expert and water activist Akgün İlhan criticised the government’s water policy for focusing on “quantity not quality” even at home and says, “we have tap water, but you cannot drink it” due to lack of investment in domestic water infrastructure. İlhan tells Equal Times that the Turkish government is more interested in gaining control of waterways and exporting bottled water than ensuring access to potable water.

Focusing on GAP, she says the project is part of a long-running competition between Turkey, Syria and Iran over dams. Turkey is trying to create “a nation beyond its borders,” says İlhan. Control over water will only become more important as climate change reshapes the region and water becomes more expensive.

Water reserves are critical in times of crisis, and governments depend on reservoirs to release water when upstream flow declines. GAP is not yet completed, but the dams currently in operation, in addition to those that will eventually become part of the network, capture water that would otherwise flow downstream. The Tigris and Euphrates originate in Turkey but are indispensable sources of irrigation for the downstream countries of Syria and Iraq, making the project a top concern for environmental activists.

Iraq, which has its own history of water mismanagement, will have to deal with less water flowing from upstream Turkey thanks to GAP. One of the project’s largest dams, the Ilısu Dam, will affect close to 90 miles of the Tigris and 150 miles of its tributaries when it begins producing energy this month. The government began filling the Ilısu Dam in August 2019 despite years of protests over the project’s flooding of the historical town of Hasankeyf and the destruction of biodiversity. Once the nearby planned Cizre Dam comes into operation, it will exacerbate negative ecological impacts on the region.

In addition to the local displacement already experienced by Turks living near the projects, more dams on the Tigris means less viable water for farmers to use for irrigation. Also, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides by farmers in Turkey could result in downstream countries receiving contaminated water and land becoming less productive due to the chemicals.

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“Destructive consequences”

New upstream dams are also raising concerns among Iraqis as water scarcity plagues the country. Iraqi officials pointed to Turkish dams as intensifying past water crises. The Turkish government said the Ilısu Dam would not lead to polluted water entering Iraq or Syria because it will only be used for hydroelectric power, not irrigation. But, the proposed downstream Cizre Dam will be used for irrigation.

Iranian energy minister, Hamid Chitchian, claimed Turkish dam projects have caused a chain reaction of rivers drying out in the region. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, called two major dam projects on the Euphrates and Tigris “dangerous” and said they would have “destructive consequences.” But, Iranian dams and water projects have also affected water flow to Iraq, leaving the country squeezed between two dam-hungry countries. Iran’s extensive dam programme is having drastic side effects inside the country as well, possibly causing the drying up of rivers and lagoons.

Holding on to the water that manages to reach Syria and Iraq is another struggle. Both countries have felt the effects of war on their water reserves.

The Enabling Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) says Iraq is unable to regularly provide water to its approximately 38 million citizens because of a combination of prolonged drought, dams in neighbouring countries and conflict. As for Syria, researchers at Stanford University found that the reservoirs in Syria’s Yarmouk-Jordan River Basin were halved between 2012 and 2015 and that reservoirs under rebel control were damaged due to a lack of expertise and staff. Damaged infrastructure adds to water loss in storage and delivery.

Turkey’s military offensives in Syria have repeatedly resulted in water cuts. When Turkey invaded the Syrian city of Afrin in 2018, Turkish troops quickly seized the main dam and nearby water plant. The city’s water supply was then cut, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2019, again, a Turkish offensive in Syria left a water station damaged. The station served the city of Hasakah and affected 400,000 Syrians’ access to water.

Ercan Ayboga, a water activist and founding member of the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, considers Turkish water projects as an effective tool in the country’s regional diplomacy, which is increasingly focused on military intervention. Turkey’s three major military operations into Syria since 2016 mark a major shift from former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s touted “zero problems with neighbouring countries” policy. “Turkey’s policies are very hostile. They cut the water whenever they want,” says Ayboga.

Dursun Yıldız, a civil engineer and director of the Hydropolitics Association in Turkey, sees the situation differently. He says the dams are necessary for Turkey’s agricultural sector and provide an opportunity to responsibly manage water for the region. “Turkey is ready to share the water in a logical way,” he says.

“Strained dialogue”

But with two weak governments in Damascus and Baghdad, Ankara faces little external political opposition to its dam-building or future water cuts. Tehran seems to push back against Turkey’s water projects to a larger degree than the others, but, as a regional powerhouse with several Tigris tributaries originating in Iran, it is in a slightly different position.

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Ayșegül Kibaroğlu was an international relations advisor on GAP from 2001 to 2003. At that time, she tells Equal Times, there was more cooperation between the countries. “It was possible for bureaucrats and technocrats and academics like me to have a dialogue with our counterparts.” Now, when it comes to civil society and the stakeholders, “there is this strained dialogue, and it’s been like that for some time,” says Kibaroğlu.

Although Syria has seven water basins, “the water from the Euphrates makes up more than one-half of Syrian water resources,” Kibaroğlu says, adding that most of the land used for agriculture in Syria relies on the Euphrates.

Even if the Turkish government does not arbitrarily cut water supply to downstream countries, reducing the water flow to Iraq would have rippling consequences, says Iraqi water activist, Professor Ramadhan Hamza Mohammed. He predicts more drought and sandstorms.

Along with less water from Turkey, climate change will continue to contribute to a decrease in precipitation for the region, which also means an increased likelihood of drought. “Turkey doesn’t care more about the environmental assessment of the [Ilısu] dam because the whole project is constructed from a political point of view.”

According to state-sponsored news source TRT, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said last year that Turkey would increase the flow of water into Iraq to 90 cubic metres per second per the Iraqi government’s request. Despite his assurances, water was again a topic of concern when Cavusoglu met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim in January of this year. Water activist Mohammed says Iraq and its water will essentially be under the dams’ – and Turkey’s – control.

According to Barış Karapınar, a professor in climate change economics and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s technical committee, the region is in grave danger of severe water scarcity. GAP’s “old-fashioned” irrigation techniques, according to Karapınar, worsen the situation as water is lost through evaporation. Furthermore, because the agricultural season is similar for countries in the region “when [water] is most needed, everyone needs it”.

Karapınar adds that with more droughts, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people in the region, especially in rural areas, who stand to suffer the most. And with drought comes a decrease in crop productivity and an increase in migration to urban areas as water resources decline, putting additional pressures on already struggling populations.

On the issue of climate change, Karapınar does not see the Turkish government adopting policies to mediate its effects or regional water scarcity. Rather, he warns, that when it comes to dwindling water supplies, “whoever has the water is going to use it in a way that is bad for others”.

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