Is a water crisis looming between Turkey and Iran?

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A dispute over transboundary waters simmers between Turkey and Iran, adding to recent tensions over the formation of a new government in Iraq and control of Iraq’s Sinjar region. Angered by Turkey’s construction of dams on the Aras and Tigris rivers, Tehran has come to publicly blame Ankara and fuel a dispute that has so far been largely confined to diplomatic channels.

Speech in Parliament on May 10, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian Slammed Turkey’s dam projects as “unacceptable” measures that threaten to reduce water flows and cause environmental damage to both Iran and Iraq. Tehran must “pursue the case through dialogue and bilateral negotiations” as Turkey is not a signatory to the 1997 New York Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary Waters, which prevents Tehran from suing Ankara internationally, the minister said. “We should not allow countries like Turkey to use the current lack of an international mechanism to change the environmental conditions in Iran or Iraq,” he added.

Amir-Abdollahian said he had raised the issue with his Turkish counterpart at least three times in recent months – at two meetings in New York and Tehran and during a phone call – and suggested forming a joint commission to address the issue. A team of experts from Iran’s foreign and energy ministries held talks in Turkey earlier this year, and a Turkish delegation will visit Iran soon, he said.

Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said Iran is looking at the issue from a national security perspective.

The Aras originates in eastern Turkey and flows eastward forming sections of border between several countries namely Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Armenia before emptying into the Kura River in Azerbaijan. The Tigris also originates in eastern Turkey and flows south to form border sections between Turkey and Syria and between Syria and Iraq before joining the Euphrates River in Iraq to form the Shatt al-Arab. Iraq contributes 51% to the Tigris water flow, while Turkey contributes 40% and Iran 9%. according to Turkish statistics.

Tehran claims that Turkey’s Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, inaugurated last yearposes environmental risks not only for Iraq but also for Iran. Iranian officials have also blamed Turkey sandstorms as a result of drought, which they attribute to reduced water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates.

Turkey is no stranger to allegations about water, which have been made by Iraq and Syria in particular for decades. Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic retaliated on May 12 that Iran’s claims are “far from scientific,” noting that Africa and the Middle East are the real origins of dust and sand storms caused by drought, land degradation, deforestation and desertification as a result of climate change would have increased. And on the issue of transboundary waters, Turkey is open to any “rational and scientific cooperation” with Iran, he said.

A Turkish hydroelectric power station and dam are already in operation on the Aras, another dam is currently being filled and a third is under construction. Turkey is also helping to build a dam on a tributary of the Aras 25% of the reservoir earmarked for drinking water needs and the rest for irrigation.

For its part, Iran has built joint dams on the Aras with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Turkish officials blame Iran’s water shortages on mismanagement of water resources and see Tehran’s allegations as red herrings to quell its people’s growing water grievances. They argue that thanks to the dams on the Aras and Tigris, Turkey has been able to increase water flows to above-normal levels in times of drought, and stress that charges undermine bilateral cooperation.

In 2017, Turkey formed five working groups with Iraq to address various aspects of the water issue, including the prospect of shared border dams, water quality, desertification, dust and sand storms, measurement methods and water management training. Also, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed a special envoy to promote water cooperation with Iraq.

Tehran may speak for Baghdad in its criticism of Turkey, but its own water policy has angered the Iraqis so much that they plan to take Iran to the International Court of Justice.

Sources familiar with Turkey’s water diplomacy told Al-Monitor that Turkish and Iranian officials meet every three months to jointly measure the flow of water from Turkey to Iran at three separate stations — a procedure that dates back to a 1955 signed protocol based Iran and Iraq during the filling of the Ilisu Dam in 2019 and Iraq received water from the Tigris River in the process, they said. In 2021, which was marked by drought, the amount of water that was able to drain from the dam was twice that of the Tigris, according to sources.

They argue that Iran has failed to show a similar concern for its neighbors, pointing, for example, to a significant decline in the Karkheh River into Iraq that has been attributed to upstream Iranian dams linked to a levee carrying the Marshland bisected at the border.

Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which borders Iran, accuse Iran of diverting tributaries of the Tigris at Iraq’s expense. Iran has tried to revive its dying Lake Urmia by diverting water from the Little Zab while diverting the water of the Sirwan River. On the Iraqi side, the water levels in the Little Zab have dropped by 80% and in the Sirwan by 85%. In 2020, KRG authorities reported that the Little Zab River, which feeds the Dukan Dam and from which 100,000 people depend for water, was completely disrupted. Tehran argues that its water activities are legitimate since both rivers originate from Iran.

The number of dams in Iran grew 647 in 2018 from 316 in 2012. In 2019, Tehran announced a plan build another 109 dams in two years with the aim of transporting water to drought-affected cities. The number of dams on the Sirwan reached 18 in 2020.

Arif Keskin, a Turkish researcher specializing in Iran, claims that the water issue underlies many problems between Ankara and Tehran, including “Iran’s facilitation” of Afghan refugees illegally transiting to Turkey.

“Iranian officials are trying to portray Turkey’s dam projects as the main reason for the drought not only in Iran but also in Iraq and Syria. Some have even blamed Turkey for the insurgency in Syria, underpinned by the drought factor. Hence, they make a connection between Turkey’s dams and Iran’s national security,” Keskin told Al-Monitor.

“Iran feels entitled to change even the Aras river bed, but claims that Turkey is not entitled to build so many dams. They also present this as a conspiracy against Iran,” he added.

According to Keskin, Iran has made serious mistakes in managing its water resources and is now trying to cover it up by redirecting popular anger towards Turkey. “They don’t have agricultural planning and crop selection based on water resources. They do not use viable irrigation techniques and do not conduct environmental impact assessments of dams. The Revolutionary Guards control the projects,” he said.

Turkey and Iran have clashed over myriad issues in recent years, from influence wars in Syria and Iraq to refugees and the fight against terrorism. However, the water problem is unlike any other. It has the potential to escalate and further strain bilateral relations.

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