Turkey: Ilisu Dam and Iraqi Water Woes

Via Future Directions International, a report on Turkey and Iraq water cooperation and competition:

The Ilisu Dam is located on the Tigris River in Turkey, and, once filled, will be a source of both water and hydropower. In the past, Turkey has been criticised for withholding water behind other dams and reducing the flow into the Tigris River and neighbouring Iraq. With almost 70 per cent of Iraq’s water supply coming from rivers and wetlands outside its borders, it is heavily reliant on the flow of water from the Tigris River.


Iraq is currently experiencing a drought that is causing the country to become increasingly arid. Iraq’s water supplies have dropped so low that bans have recently been placed on rice planting, causing farmers to abandon their farms. Where the country was once self-sufficient in food production, desertification is becoming an increasing threat to its already limited agricultural land. In Basra province, there have been a number of street protests over the lack of clean drinking water.

Turkey initially started filling Ilisu Dam in June 2018, but following complaints from neighbouring Iraq, agreed to suspend the operation until 1 July. Speaking at a press conference on 10 October 2018, Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq, Fatih Yildiz noted that the need for stability in the region influenced the Turkish Government’s decision to release more water from the dam. The decision will assist Iraq with its current water crisis.

The drought that Iraqi farmers faced for almost 15 years is widely seen as a significant contributor to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. In the early days of IS, many young Iraqis experiencing desperate conditions were lured to the group with the prospect of generous wealth and status. Dry conditions not only reduce the income of farmers, but can also have a domino effect if low incomes and food insecurity spread throughout the country. If left unchecked, desperate conditions resulting from the current water shortage could create further radicalisation and instability in Iraq and the wider Middle East (though this is unlikely to be the only contributing factor).

Following the recent election of respected politician Barham Salih as President of Iraq, however, there is new hope emerging that stability may finally be achieved. President Salih designated Adel Abdul Mahdi as Prime Minister and, with both leaders having been chosen by consensus in the Iraqi Parliament, they are set to lead a secular government. With President Salih and Prime Minister Mahdi in place, the country can move away from the sect- and party-based system that has caused much turmoil since the American invasion in 2003. These leaders are expected to bring a conciliatory and stable approach to governing Iraq.

Concerning its water security, however, the country’s downstream position along the Tigris River means that most of its current water supply will continue to depend on how much water Turkey releases from Ilisu Dam.

There has been anger at the Iraqi Government in the past for its failure to diversify water storage facilities and build its own dams. Preventing the resurgence of IS is just one of many complicated challenges that Iraq’s new government must address. At its most basic level, the challenge lies in ensuring that the country does not remain too reliant on Turkey’s decisions about releases from dams. The new political era in Iraq brings with it hope for a new mode of governance, but overcoming Iraq’s water problems will be a much more difficult task.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 25th, 2018 at 2:46 am and is filed under Iraq, Tigris-Euphrates System, Turkey.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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