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Analysis: Iraq's pressing water needs

By
JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent

ISTANBUL, Turkey, March 18 (UPI) -- Iraq, whose power infrastructure was severely affected by the 2003 opening attacks of Operation Iraqi Freedom and six subsequent years of coalition military operations, is slowly and painfully reviving. While the world's attention remains largely focused on the country's oil industry and reserves, water remains even more important to Iraq's population and has been since the world's first known Neolithic agrarian societies developed in the great Mesopotamian "Fertile Crescent" alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers around 9,000 B.C.

Even then, the region suffered from violence related to water resources, as when two Sumerian city-states, Lagash and Umma, clashed over the draining of a freshwater canal in the southern portion of today's Iraq 4,500 years ago. Some issues never change.

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Quite aside from Baghdad trying to negotiate increased water flow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers from its upstream neighbors Syria and Turkey and maintaining good relations with Iran -- which is the source of several Tigris tributaries -- wars, sanctions, lack of maintenance and underinvestment in Iraq's energy-grid structures over several decades has severely affected the country's entire power-generation system. Iraq's hydropower infrastructure consists of eight major facilities -- the Aski Mosul, Dokan, Darbandikhan, Hemreen, Haditha, Hindiya, Kufa and Samarra dams and their attendant hydroelectric facilities.

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Coalition forces destroyed Iraq's water treatment plants during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm, affecting the water quality of the Tigris. Since then, the U.S. Agency for International Development has assisted in repairing and upgrading water and sewage treatment plants.

Since 2003 Iraq has been repairing and upgrading its hydroelectric facilities while simultaneously attempting to safeguard them against insurgent attacks. Given the unsettled nature of the country's political life, its hydroelectric infrastructure suffers from both domestic and international pressures that seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

The mothers of all water resources in Iraq are the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as important now as they were in antiquity. Within present-day Iraq, the Euphrates flows for about 620 miles and the Tigris for about 800 miles before combining their downstream flows into the Shatt Al-Arab basin, which meanders for another 120 miles before debouching into the northern Persian Gulf.

The average annual flow of the Euphrates as it enters Iraq is estimated at 30 cubic kilometers, but it suffers from a fluctuating annual value from 10 to 40 cubic kilometers and receives no tributaries during its passage in Iraq.

The estimated average annual runoff of the Tigris as it enters Iraq is 21.2 cubic kilometers. Unlike the Euphrates, the Tigris during its passage through Iraq is fed by a number of tributaries, including the Greater Zab, Lesser Zab, Al-Adhaim, Diyala, Nahr at Tib, Dewarege, Shehabi, and Al-Karkha rivers.

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Of these tributaries, the Greater Zab, rising in Turkey, is partly regulated by the still unfinished 1,500-megawatt Bakhma dam, the construction of which was interrupted by the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent sanctions.

The Lesser Zab, which originates in Iran, is equipped with the Dokan dam, located 185 miles north of Baghdad. The Diyala, which also has its origin in Iran, contains the Darbandikhan dam, 260 miles northeast of Baghdad.

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, many of the country's hydroelectric facilities have become potential hostages to interethnic conflict. The Dokan and Darbandikhan hydroelectric plants are the two largest power plants in Iraq's three-province Kurdistan Regional Government, while the 320-megawatt Mosul Dam, a hydroelectric facility formerly known as the Great Qadisia Saddam Dam that is the country's largest and the Middle East's fourth-largest dam, is 35 miles northwest of the contested Ninawa provincial capital Mosul and outside the KRG. Peshmerga forces under the joint control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan currently control the facility, which contains 12 billion cubic meters of water and provides electricity to Mosul's 1.7 million residents. It represents a valuable prize in the Kurds' ongoing struggle with Baghdad for increased autonomy.

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Baghdad is having some modest successes in reviving its dilapidated hydroelectric infrastructure, having in 2007 acquired a three-year, $40 million Dokan and Darbandikhan Emergency Hydropower Project loan from the World Bank.

On the issue of trans-boundary river flows through neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran, Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources continues to place its hopes in negotiations that began in the 1960s. In 1980 a joint Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish technical committee was established to reach a just division of the two rivers' water. The committee held 16 meetings, along with further meetings in 1992 in the aftermath of the Gulf War and subsequent international sanctions.

Besides regional agreements, Iraq has also placed its faith in international treaties covering water disputes, particularly the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1997 following 27 years of negotiation. The convention may prove only partially useful to Iraq, however, because Turkey was one of the three countries that voted against it. All is not necessarily lost, though, as Iraq has something valuable to barter with -- oil. Last June Turkey's Turkiye Petrolleri Anonim Ortakligi state oil concern was included among six state-owned companies granted the right to extract oil in Iraq, Oil Ministry official Asim Jihad said. As Turkey currently imports 90 percent of its energy needs, Baghdad is now without leverage.

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Non-governmental organizations also have a potential role to play. The Euphrates-Tigris Initiative for Cooperation includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. ETIC was founded at Kent State University in Ohio in May 2005 by Olcay Unver, former head of the Southeastern Anatolia Project, also known as GAP, and academics from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the United States.

But for the present, Iraq's water needs are still closed on the Euphrates-Tigris basins. Jean-Marc Faures, senior water-resources management officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, underlined this reality when he said, "Iraqi water resources are based mainly on two rivers originating outside the country. In view of the scarcity of water in Iraq and growing demand for food and energy, there is a pressing need for improved management of water, in particular in irrigated agriculture."

What Baghdad needs at this point is time and peace. Faures' comments identify a crucial area where the United States, with the most productive and efficient agriculture in the world, can assist its new friends in an area that every Iraqi can understand -- food, rather than political values and military security, Washington's priorities up to now. Dams can wait; food cannot.

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