June 5, 2018 / 3:23 PM / 16 days ago

Turkish dam project threatens rift with Iraq over water shortages

BAGHDAD/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Iraq is surprised by Turkey’s decision to start holding back water behind its Ilisu dam earlier than promised, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday, suggesting it was done to win support for the government in upcoming elections.

A boy sits in a boat in Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Turkey has started filling the dam basin, a step that has alarmed neighboring Iraq, which is struggling with a water crisis.

“The Turkish prime minister had promised me they would start filling the dam at the end of June, not the start, so I was surprised to see they started,” Abadi told a news conference.

“I am aware that they have elections on June 24 and perhaps need to get the support of farmers,” he added, referring to Turkey’s planned general elections for president and parliament.

Turkey’s ambassador in Baghdad said Ankara is cooperating.

“We will not take any step without consultation with the neighboring country on how we can cooperate and provide support during any problem, Fatih Yildiz told a news conference through an Arabic translator.

A spokesman for Turkey’s Ministry of Forest and Water Management spokesman said Turkey was “partially”¬†filling the dam’s basin.

Around 70 percent of Iraq’s water resources flow from neighboring countries, especially in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Both flow through Turkey.

Residents swim in the Tigris River to cool off in Baghdad, Iraq June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Abadi was at lengths on Tuesday to show his outgoing government was doing everything it can to tackle the issue.

“There are plans to secure our water resources on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Yes, there is a water shortage this year, but it is not a crisis,” he said.

The government has plans to provide water to farmers, Abadi said, especially for Iraq’s strategic wheat crop. At the same time, it might reduce plots of land reserved for planting other crops that consume a lot of water.

Iraqi media suggested Baghdad had asked Ankara to delay holding back water because of its own election, which took place on May 12. Abadi’s bloc came third, but he may yet secure a second term if he gathers support from the winning groups.

The dam issue was not the only point of contention between Baghdad and Ankara on Tuesday. Abadi demanded Turkey respect Iraq’s sovereignty in its approach to Kurdish militias.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said on Monday that Turkish forces were waiting for the right time to carry out an operation in northern Iraq’s Qandil region where high-ranking members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are located.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Soylu had said that “Qandil is not a distant target” anymore. Abadi countered that the Turks had been “talking about that for over 35 years” and again suggested the statement was an attempt to score points before the Turkish elections.

“We will not accept any violations of Iraq’s sovereignty,” he said, adding there was no military coordination with Turkey on this issue.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; additional reporting by Maha El Dahan in Dubai; writing by Michael Georgy and Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by Larry King

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