Is a water crisis brewing between Turkey and Iran?

A dispute over cross-border waters is simmering between Turkey and Iran, adding to recent tensions over the formation of a new government in Iraq and control of Iraq’s Sinjar region. Angered by Turkey’s construction of dams on the Aras and Tigris rivers, Tehran has come to publicly accuse Ankara, sparking a dispute that has so far been largely confined to diplomatic channels.

Speaking in parliament on May 10, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called Turkey’s dam plans “unacceptable” measures that threaten to reduce water flows and inflict damage environmental issues in Iran and Iraq. Tehran must “pursue the matter through dialogue and bilateral negotiations” since Turkey is not a signatory to the 1997 New York Convention on the use of transboundary waters for purposes other than navigation, which prevents Tehran from pursue Ankara internationally, the minister said. “We should not allow countries like Turkey to use the current lack of an international mechanism to change the environmental conditions in Iran or Iraq,” he added.

Amir-Abdollahian said he had raised the issue with his Turkish counterpart at least three times in recent months – in two meetings in New York and Tehran and in a phone call – and offered the formation of a joint commission to solve the problem. A team of experts from Iran’s foreign and energy ministries held talks in Turkey earlier this year, and a Turkish delegation is expected to visit Iran soon, he said.

Iranian parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said Iran is looking at the issue from a national security perspective.

The Aras rises in eastern Turkey and flows east, forming border stretches between several countries, namely Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Armenia, before joining the river Kura in Azerbaijan. The Tigris also originates in eastern Turkey, flowing south to form border stretches between Turkey and Syria and between Syria and Iraq before merging with the Euphrates in Iraq to form the Shatt. al-Arab. Iraq contributes 51% to the water flow of the Tigris, while Turkey contributes 40% and Iran 9%, according to Turkish statistics.

Tehran says Turkey’s Ilisu dam on the Tigris, inaugurated last year, poses environmental risks not only for Iraq but also for Iran. Iranian officials have also held Turkey responsible for dust storms resulting from the drought, which they attribute to reduced water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Turkey is no stranger to accusations over water, which have been leveled primarily by Iraq and Syria for decades. Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic countered on May 12 that the Iranian claims are “far from scientific”, noting that Africa and the Middle East are the true origins of the dust storms and of sand, which have increased due to drought, land degradation, deforestation and desertification. consequence of climate change. And on the issue of transboundary waters, Turkey is open to any “rational and scientific cooperation” with Iran, he said.

A Turkish hydroelectric plant and a dam are already operational on the Aras, while another dam is being filled and a third is under construction. Turkey is also building a dam on a tributary of the Aras, with 25% of the reservoir earmarked for drinking water needs and the rest for irrigation.

Iran, for its part, has built joint dams with Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Aras.

Turkish officials blame Iran’s water shortages on its mismanagement of water resources and see Tehran’s accusations as a diversion to assuage its population’s growing water grievances. They claim that thanks to the dams on the Aras and the Tigris, Turkey has been able to increase water flows to higher than normal levels in times of drought, pointing out that the accusing allegations undermine bilateral cooperation.

In 2017, Turkey formed five working groups with Iraq to address various aspects of the water issue, including the prospect of joint border dams, water quality, desertification, dust and sand, measurement methods and water management training. In addition, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has appointed a special envoy to strengthen water cooperation with Iraq.

Tehran may also be speaking for Baghdad in criticizing Turkey, but its own water policy has so infuriated Iraqis that they are considering taking Iran to the International Court of Justice.

Sources familiar with Turkish water diplomacy told Al-Monitor that Turkish and Iranian officials meet every three months to jointly measure the flow of water from Turkey to Iran at three separate stations – one procedure based on a protocol signed in 1955. Turkey engaged in similar cooperation with Iran and Iraq during the filling of the Ilisu dam in 2019 and Iraq received water from the Tiger in the process, they said. In 2021, a year marked by drought, the amount of water left to flow from the dam was twice the flow of the Tigris, according to the sources.

They argue that Iran has not shown similar concern for its neighbours, pointing out – for example – a significant drop in the flow of the Karkheh River to Iraq due to Iranian dams upstream, coupled with a dyke cutting across two the swamp at the border.

Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which borders Iran, accuse Iran of diverting tributaries from the Tigris to the detriment of Iraq. Iran has sought to revive its dying Lake Urmia by transferring water from Little Zab, while also diverting water from the Sirwan River. On the Iraqi side, the water level has dropped by 80% in the Little Zab and by 85% in the Sirwan. In 2020, KRG authorities reported that the flow of Little Zab, which feeds the Dukan Dam and on which 100,000 people depend for water, was completely cut off. Tehran maintains that its nautical activities are legitimate given that the two rivers originate in Iran.

The number of Iranian dams rose from 316 in 2012 to 647 in 2018. In 2019, Tehran announced a plan to build 109 more dams over two years, aimed at transferring water to drought-stricken cities. The number of dams on the Sirwan reached 18 in 2020.

Arif Keskin, a Turkish researcher specializing in Iran, argues that the water issue is at the root of many problems between Ankara and Tehran, including “Iran’s facilitation” of the illegal passage of Afghan refugees to Turkey.

“Iranian officials are trying to present Turkey’s dam projects as the main reason for the drought not only in Iran but also in Iraq and Syria. Some even blamed Turkey for the uprising in Syria, which was underpinned by the drought factor. Therefore, they link Turkey’s dams to Iran’s national security,” Keskin told Al-Monitor.

“Iran feels entitled to even change the bed of the Aras River but says Turkey has no right to build so many dams. They also describe this as a plot against Iran,” he added.

According to Keskin, Iran has made serious mistakes in the management of its water resources and is now trying to cover this up by diverting popular anger to Turkey. “They don’t have agricultural planning and crop selection based on water resources. They do not use feasible irrigation techniques and do not carry out any environmental impact assessment of dams. The Revolutionary Guards control the projects,” he said.

Turkey and Iran have clashed over a myriad of issues in recent years, from influence wars in Syria and Iraq to refugees and the fight against terrorism. The water problem, however, is unlike any other. It holds the potential to escalate and further strain bilateral relations.

Sharon P. Juarez