Protestors in Baghdad decry Turkish water policy. Photo: AFP

Iraqis brave scorching heat to protest water, electricity shortages, pointing finger at Turkey

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Dozens of Iraqis protested amid soaring temperatures in Baghdad Tuesday over water and electricity shortages, blaming Turkey for reducing river flows. The United Nations lists Iraq as one of the five countries most impacted by some aspects of climate change. This is the fourth consecutive summer of drought.

“We have come to peacefully protest and demand water from the government and the source countries,” Najeh Jawda Khalil, a protestor from the central province of Babylon, told AFP midday Tuesday as temperatures reached nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). 

He said the agricultural regions and marshes have disappeared due to drought. “There is neither electricity nor water.”

Iraqi officials blame upstream dam construction in Turkey and Iran, along with declining rainfall and rising temperatures, for affecting water volumes in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. 

Recently, Baghdad and Ankara have engaged in discussions about water flow from Turkey as Iraq contends with severe drought. The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources disclosed that the country is dealing with its fourth consecutive season of intense drought, leading to urgent initiatives to address the issue. 

Earlier this month, Minister of Water Resources Aoun Dhiab Abdullah told the state-owned al-Sabah Newspaper that a significant impact on the water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is due to inadequate water releases, depleting the country’s strategic reserves. However, he said there are encouraging signs of progress in discussions with Turkey to activate the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding, particularly regarding a summer operational plan for Turkey’s dams and reservoirs. 

This cooperation will assist in Iraq’s water planning, with Turkey indicating a willingness to increase water releases into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers this summer.

Watch: Iraqi protesters gather under the scorching sun in Baghdad’s Nisour Square to protest against Turkey’s role in increasing the country’s water shortages.

A sign at the protest on Tuesday warned, “If the Turkish government continues to deprive Iraqis of water, we will move towards internationalizing the water problem and boycotting Turkish products.”

Iraq’s summer illustrates multiple crises plaguing its 43-million population: increasing temperatures, critical water shortages, and a deteriorating electricity sector — all exacerbated by widespread corruption and mismanagement.

“Twenty years and the electricity crisis repeats itself every year,” read another banner, referring to the time since Saddam Hussein’s fall in a US-led invasion.

Despite being oil-rich, conflict-stricken Iraq depends on Iranian gas imports for a third of its energy. Power outages can last up to 10 hours a day, worsening every summer as temperatures rise. Only those who can afford it supplement the poor public supply with neighborhood generators.

Minister of Water Resources Aoun Dhiab Abdullah reported a marked impact on Tigris and Euphrates river levels due to insufficient water releases, which is depleting the country’s strategic reserves. However, he noted promising indications of progress in talks with Turkey to implement terms from a memorandum of understanding, particularly a summer operational plan for Turkey’s dams and reservoirs. 

This collaboration could aid Iraq’s water planning. Turkey has shown a willingness to release more water into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers this summer.

Water shortages have escalated tensions between Turkey and Iraq, with Iraq demanding Turkey release more water from upstream dams. 

“Currently, Iraq only receives 35 percent of its water rights. This means that Iraq has lost 65 percent of its water, whether it’s from the Tigris or the Euphrates,” Khaled Chamal, Ministry of Water Resources spokesperson, told AFP.

In summer 2022, the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad stirred anger by accusing Iraqis of squandering water and encouraging ‘modernized’ irrigation systems. Experts say the ambassador may have a point. Iraqi farmers often flood fields rather than using more efficient irrigation methods.

AFP/ NRT English