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International water issues
The water resources of Iraq depend largely on the surface water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and most of the natural renewable water resources of Iraq come from outside the country.
The protocol concerning the regulation of water use of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers dates back to 1946 when Turkey and Iraq agreed that the rivers’ control and management depended to a large extent on the regulation of flow in Turkish source areas. At that time, Turkey agreed to begin monitoring the two rivers and to share related data with Iraq. In 1980 Turkey and Iraq further specified the nature of the earlier protocol by establishing a Joint Technical Committee on Regional Waters. After a bilateral agreement in 1982, the Syrian Arab Republic joined the committee. Turkey has unilaterally guaranteed to allow 15.75 km3/year (500 m3/s) of water of the Euphrates across the border to the Syrian Arab Republic, but no formal agreement has been reached so far on the sharing of the Euphrates water. According to an agreement between the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq (1990), Syria agrees to share the Euphrates water with Iraq on a 58 percent (Iraq) and 42 percent (Syria) basis, which corresponds to a flow of 9 km3/year at the border with Iraq when using the figure of 15.75 km3/year from Turkey. Up to now, there has been no global agreement between the three countries concerning the Euphrates waters (FAO, 2004).
The construction of the Ataturk Dam, one of the projects of GAP completed in 1992, has been widely portrayed in the Arab media as a belligerent act, since Turkey began the process of filling the Ataturk Dam by shutting off the river flow for a month (Akanda et al, 2007). Both the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq accused Turkey of not informing them about the cut-off, thereby causing considerable harm. Iraq even threatened to bomb the Euphrates dams. Turkey countered that its co-riparians “had been informed in time that river flow would be interrupted for a period of one month, due to technical necessity” (Kaya, 1998). Turkey returned to previous flow-sharing agreements after the dam became operational, but the conflicts were never fully resolved as downstream demands had increased in the meantime (Akanda et al, 2007).
Turkey contributes about 90 percent of the total annual flow of the Euphrates, while the remaining part originates in the Syrian Arab Republic and very little is added in Iraq. Turkey also contributes 38 percent directly to the main Tigris River and another 11 percent to its tributaries, which join the main stream of the Tigris further downstream in Iraq. Most of the remainder comes from three tributaries originating in the Islamic Republic of Iran (FAO, 2004).
As shown, a number of crises have occurred in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin, partly due to lack of communication, conflicting approaches, unilateral development, and inefficient water management practices. The Arab countries have long accused Turkey of violating international water laws with regard to the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic consider these rivers to be international and thus claim a share of their waters. Turkey, in contrast, refuses to concede the international character of the two rivers and only speaks of the rational utilization of transboundary waters. According to Turkey, the Euphrates becomes an international river only after it joins the Tigris in lower Iraq to form the Shatt al-Arab, which then serves as the border between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran until it reaches the Gulf only 193 km further downstream. Furthermore, Turkey is the only country in the Euphrates Basin to have voted against the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. According to Turkey, if signed, the law would give the lower riparians “a veto right” over Turkey’s development plans. Consequently, Turkey maintains that the Convention does not apply to it and is therefore not legally binding (Akanda et al, 2007). Problems regarding sharing water might arise between Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, since according to different scenarios full irrigation development by the countries in the Euphrates-Tigris river basins would lead to water shortages and solutions will have to be found at basin level through regional cooperation.
In 2002, a bilateral agreement between the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq was signed concerning the installation of a Syrian pump station on the Tigris River for irrigation purposes. The quantity of water drawn annually from the Tigris River, when the flow of water is within the average, will be 1.25 km3 with a drainage capacity proportional to the projected surface of 150 000 ha (FAO, 2002).
In April 2008, Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq decided to cooperate on water issues by establishing a water institute consisting of 18 water experts from each country to work towards the solution of water-related problems among the three countries. The institute will conduct its studies at the facilities of the Atatürk Dam, the biggest dam in Turkey, and plans to develop projects for the fair and effective use of transboundary water resources (Yavuz, 2008).