Iraq: New dam threatens agriculture and marshland

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

BAGHDAD, 29 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - Alarm bells rang last August at Khalifa Shawkat al-Yass' house as news spread of the construction of a massive dam on the Tigris River in Turkey. As a farmer depending on the Tigris, fear of losing his livelihood has been a constant worry on his mind ever since.

"We call upon the government to find the appropriate solution to protect our livelihood because we have no other sources, just this land and cattle," said al-Yass, 50, a father of 15 children.

"I have no other choice. I can't leave my land and take all my family to live in another place. This will be hard for us," he added.

The 1,800km-long Tigris flows from eastern Turkey to southern Iraq, where it joins the Euphrates River and eventually empties into the Gulf. The Ilisu Dam will be one of the largest dams in Turkey and is scheduled to be completed by 2013. The dam's main functions will be to produce hydro-electric power and bring better irrigation for local agriculture.

However, it will reduce the amount of Tigris water entering Iraqi territories by nearly 50 percent.

"The normal annual amount of Tigris water at the Iraqi-Turkish borders is 20.93 billion cubic metres and this amount will be reduced to 9.7 billion cubic metres per year with the completion of this dam," said Ali Nasser, an expert at the Ministry of Water Resources.

"And that will deprive at least 696,000 hectares of agricultural land from fresh water. And, of course, this will have negative affects in the fields of agricultural production, potable water and electricity," Nasser added.

Nasser warned that this will expand desertification in Iraq and force the farmers who depend on Tigris to abandon their lands and head to cities unless an agreement is reached with the Turkish government.

Last August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led a ground-breaking ceremony for the controversial dam project that supporters say will bring vital water supplies to parts of the overwhelmingly Kurdish south-east of Turkey but which critics say will drown the area's archaeological heritage.

Progress on the dam has been repeatedly delayed as human rights and environmental groups have pressured international contracting firms to withdraw from the project. They say that the dam will flood dozens of towns and destroy archaeological treasures including the medieval fortress city of Hasankeyf, which overlooks the Tigris.

The Turkish government is anxious, however, to see the dam completed. "We have lost enough time, we don't have any more time to wait," Erdogan said at the ceremony, promising supporters that the dam would transform the Tigris River into the "Ilisu Sea" - turning the brown landscape green and attracting tourism to the impoverished region.

Iraqi farmer Arif Moussa Mohammed, 60, fears the reverse will happen for him. He has dug three wells to ensure he has enough water for his 250 hectares of land, which lie on the banks of the Tigris in one of Mosul's villages in northern Iraq, some 400km north of the capital, Baghdad. Already, he has water problems of a different nature.

"The problem we face is that we have briny water due to the effect of some chemical materials deep inside the soil and that is not good for our olive trees, which need just fresh water," Mohammed said. "This means more trouble for our already devastated life as we will not be able to use this water for our land or for our cattle in case of any future shortages."

Marshlands at risk

The impact of a reduced flow of water in the Tigris will be felt far beyond farmland in northern Iraq. In the southern city of Basra, about 550km south of Baghdad, Abdullah Ramadan, an official with the Marshlands Revival Centre, depicted a grim picture for the newly revived marshlands with the construction of the dam.

"The marshlands are at risk of losing about 3 million cubic metres of water per year and this will endanger the life there," Ramadan said.

Iraq's fabled marshlands have been at the centre of water-related controversy for some time. Following the first Gulf war in 1991, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein revived a programme to divert the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers away from the marshes in retribution for a failed Shi'ite uprising.

Hussein's plan transformed these wetlands into desert, forcing some 300,000 inhabitants out, according to Ramadan. Of the almost 3,600 square miles of marshes in 1970, the area shrank by 90 percent to 300 square miles in 2002.

However, since the start of the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, efforts to restore the marshes have gradually revived the area as water is restored to the former desert. Ramadan said that about one-third of those forced to leave the area after the marshes were drained have now returned.

"We were happy to get rid of Saddam, but now we got another enemy - Ilisu," Ramadan said.