June 5, 2018 / 3:22 PM / 17 days ago

Turkish dam project deepens anxiety in Iraq over water shortages

ISTANBUL/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Turkey has started holding back water behind its Ilisu dam, a step that has alarmed neighbouring Iraq, a major trade partner that faces what its government says is a water crisis.

Turkey’s ambassador in Baghdad sought to ease concerns in Iraq on Tuesday, saying Ankara is cooperating.

“This is an important matter for both countries,” Fatih Yildiz told a news conference through an Arabic translator. “We will not take any step without consultation with the neighbouring country on how we can cooperate and provide support during any problem.”

The Ministry of Forest and Water Management spokesman said Turkey was “partially” filling the dam’s basin by closing one of the valves on the first of three diversion tunnels. The second tunnel will probably be sealed three months later and the third shut more than six months later, the spokesman said.

The current operations will not affect the flow rate on the Tigris, the spokesman said. Around 70 percent of Iraq’s water resources in Iraq flow from neighbouring countries, especially in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Both flow through Turkey.

Iraqi media are raising alarm bells. The country is already suffering from a drought that has reduced water levels in lakes and rivers. Much of the blame has been directed at Turkey.

Yildiz stressed that Turkey wants to support Iraq. One example, he said, was Ankara had agreed to delay holding water behind the dam by three months until early June.

A bloc led by nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr scored a surprise victory in a parliamentary election last month. Whoever leads the new administration will face pressure to resolve the dam issue.

Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan in Dudbai; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Larry King

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