'Pressing concern' to manage water in Middle East troublespot

04.01.2017

There is a "pressing concern" to manage Euphrates River water, a key resource for a "politically volatile" area of the Middle East, US officials said, in a face of another sub-par rice crop in Iraq.

Iraq, which until the mid-1970s relied on home-grown rice to cover most domestic demand, has seen buy-ins soar, becoming one of the top 10 biggest importers.

"Over the last 10 years, rice production has met only 8-21% of domestic consumption," US Department of Agriculture staff said in a report.

"Even though demand is high, limited area and inadequate water resources prevent increased production," the briefing said, flagging the country's reliance on Euphrates River flows, which have been sapped by both a dearth of rainfall and upstream exploitation of water.

'Politically volatile region'

In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2015 - years following drought in north eastern Turkey, the primary area for recharging the Euphrates - Iraq's rice crop "was less than 40% of the 10-year average", as farmers grappled with "low flow" in terms of river water.

However, the USDA flagged the drain on Euphrates water from industrial and agricultural usage too, including Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project, which supplies irrigation to more than 700,000 hectares of farmland, with plans to expand this to 1.0m hectares, an area the size of Lebanon.

"While Iraq rice consumption is dependent on imports, the recent low flow years and their economic effect in a politically volatile region makes management of Euphrates water resources between Turkey, Syria and Iraq a pressing concern.

"This needs to be addressed as demand for water will increase with the completion of upstream irrigation projects."

History of conflict

The comments come amid growing unease over the potential for water shortages - in the face of mounting needs for power and food - to fuel unrest, with some commentators seeing the squeeze on Euphrates resources as a factor provoking the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

"The Euphrates has attracted international attention since 2013 as combatants in Syria and Iraq have competed for control of its vital structures," according to think tank Chatham House.

In 1975, Syria and Iraq came to the brink of war in part of tensions caused by the construction of Syria's Tabqa Dam, at a time when Turkey was starting work on its Anatolia irrigation scheme, and when Iraq was suffering drought.

And in 1990, Turkey mobilised its armed forces when it tapped the Euphrates to fill the Atatьrk Dam, which Iraq threatened to blow up in retaliation for the reduced water flows caused by the project.

Rich history

In fact, management of the Euphrates – whose waters nurture a Mesopotamian plains area known as the cradle of civilisation – has been an issue for well over 3,000 years.

The Code of Hammurabi in 1790 BC, which governed Euphrates water, is seen as the first legal text in history to regulate irrigation rights.

More recently, water management was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, until its collapse and the creation of the sovereign states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey between 1918 and 1923.

"For the first time in centuries, control over the Euphrates River was divided among three national governments," Chatham House said.
 

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