Alwaght- On May 20, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started the first turbine at the Ilısu Dam on the Tigris River in the southeastern Mardin province. Pointing to the dam projects started by Turkey over the past years, Erdogan said that in 2002, the year he took the power in the country, Turkey had 276 dams. Under his government, 585 other dams were built, he said, adding that the country plans to open 403 more projects in the dam industry in 2020.
Although Ilısu Dam is the continuation of the dam industry of Turkey over the past years, it seems to have a considerable influence on the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, with the biggest loser meanwhile being Iraq and consequently Syria. Over the past decades, Ankara used water as a tool to put pressure on other countries. The Ilisu Dam is the ultimate instrument in Erdogan’s hand to exploit politically the dam building policy and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Ilisu Dam, a tool for political and geostrategic pressure
Ilisu Dam is part of the Great Anatolia Project (GAP) which eyes building 22 dams and reservoirs (14 dams on Euphrates and 8 on Tigris.) The project targets building 19 hydroelectricity plants in 9 provinces in an area of 75,358 square kilometers.
Although Turkey has only 45,145 square kilometers (24.5 percent) of the Tigris drainage basin and 400 kilometers (22 percent) of its length and provides 25.24 billion square meters (52 percent) of the annual flow of Tigris water, its Tigris dams’ water storage capacity is 17.6 billion square meters, while the average water flow of the river near the Iraqi-Turkish border is 16.8 billion square meters. This means that Turkey has the capacity to store behind its dams all of the water of Tigris.
Also, the country has 125,000 square kilometers (28.2 percent) of the Euphrates drainage basin and 1,230 kilometers (41 percent) of its length and provides 31.58 billion square meters (89 percent) of its annual water flow. But its Euphrates dams’ storage capacity is announced to be 95-100 billion square meters. Only the capacity of the two dams of Ataturk and Keban is said to be 79.6 billion square meters. That is while the average water flow in the basin is only 30 billion square meters. The whole storage capacity of the Turkish dams over Tigris and Euphrates rivers is 1.5 times more than the flowing water, however.
Moreover, from the 23 million residents of the Euphrates basin, only 31 percent live in Turkey. 44 percent of the rest live in Iraq and 25 percent live in Syria. From the 23.5 million people living along the Tigris basin, only 15 percent live in Turkey. 79 percent live in Iraq and 6 percent live in Syria. The Ilisu Dam will have annually 2.8 billion Turkish lira in added value for Turkey’s economy.
Iraq severely concerned about Ilisu Dam inauguration
The opening of the Ilisu Dam has certainly concerned Iraq more than any other country. According to Aoun Diab, an Iraqi environment expert, the recent years’ precipitation cause Iraq at least currently not feel the consequences of water shortage. The studies show, he said, that the Ilisu Dam as the second-largest Turkish dam will cut the Iraqi water reception from Tigris to 10 billion square meters from the current 21 billion square meters. This will deprive 700,000 acres of Iraq’s farmlands of irrigation and will displace about 80,000 more of the residents of the region.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 100,000 Iraqis since 2005 were displaced by water shortage. In 2009, a report said that 70 percent of the qanats of the Iraqi region dried up, putting 36,000 Iraqis face to face with a risk of displacement.
Ilisu Dam has been the reason for increasing desertification, land erosion, and drainage of lagoons, especially Hor Al-Howaiza lagoon in Iraq, turning it into one of the main origins of dust storms in Iran. Actually, the Turkish dam is three times as capacious as Iran’s biggest dam Karkheh. This means that water cannot flow to Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the Iraqi side should it start filling, causing environment and humanitarian damages.
The Iraqi officials are now more than any other time worried about the inauguration of the Turkish dam. In the summer of 2018, while Turkey experimentally filled the Ilisu Dam reservoir for a week, Iraq filed a complaint against Turkey as its Tigris water share dramatically fell. Turkey then halted filling the dam.
Baghdad argues that filling Ilisu Dam will leave Iraq feeling a severe water crisis because Tigris is one of the two main origins of water supply across Iraq. The Iraqi government can once again file a suit with International organizations against Turkish resumption of filling the new dam as it unavoidably will face a water shortage crisis should Turkey go ahead with the filling operation.