Building More Large Dams Threatens Southern Iraq and Increases Drought and Water Scarcity: No More False Solutions

Statement by Save the Tigris – Amsterdam, April 15, 2022

Our concern is growing over the Iraqi governments’ persistence and insistence on building more large dams on the Tigris River and its main tributaries, a river that is already facing many negative consequences from existing large dams. Iraqis ignoring the advice of its own water strategy, the “Strategy for Water and Land Resources in Iraq”, known by its acronym SWLRI, published in 2015 by specialized Iraqi and International water resource consultants.

The strategy indicates that demand for water in Iraq is exceeding available water resources, but it also states clearly that Iraq does not need more dams or large reservoirs. It shows that Iraq has enough of them especially given the absence of water agreements with its upstream neighbors. It concludes that the Iraqi state should focus on implementing major reforms in the water sector, instead of building more large dams.

This conclusion is supported by several facts, including that the current Iraqi reservoirs suffer from a water shortage and some of them also suffer from deteriorating water quality and increased salinity to the point where their waters are no longer useable (for example, Al-Tharthar Lake).

Every time a dam is built, it causes water shortages downstream from the dam, especially in southern Iraq. Water and environmental activists report a major water shortage crisis in areas from Diyala Governorate all the way to Basra and the marshes of southern Iraq.

With temperature increases expected (and already seen) in the region due to climate change, the volume of water lost due to evaporation from the reservoirs of dams is also increasing. Recently, Save the Tigris issued a report on the volumes of water lost due to evaporation from Iraq’s dams. The results are astonishing, as it is estimated that evaporation from Iraqʼs reservoirs decreases the country’s total water supply by more than 10% each year (Iraq Energy Institute, 2018). The quantities of water being wasted from Iraq’s strategic reserves demands that we sound the alarm. What Iraq considers a strategic store is vanishing into the air day after day, leaving water with higher levels of salinity.

Dams and More Dams

Despite the evident failure of dams to address Iraq’s water crisis, politicians continue the push to build more dams in the upper stream of the Tigris River and its main tributaries. The problem is also increasing with the rise of fears of new dams being built in Turkey. Most recently the Ilisu Dam was completed in 2018 and now the focus is on the new Cizre Dam, as well as four large dams that are planned to be built within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and one more that is under construction by the Iraqi government next to the ancient ruins of Assur called the Makhoul Dam.

Though the public can attempt to follow media coverage about the Cizre Dam, little information is provided by either the Iraqi or Turkish governments. The Iraqi government is not transparent to its people about its position on this dam. Will it continue its policy of turning a blind eye and remaining silent to the building of dams and the non-compliance of its upstream neighbors (Turkey and Iran) to international laws and custom. These require consultation with countries that share rivers and tributaries, and the provision of comprehensive studies on the impact of these dams on those countries.

The Turkish government has released only minimal information about the steps it is taking toward construction of the Cizre Dam, which it is pursuing despite the serious impact that threatens the downstream countries (Iraq and Syria). Save the Tigris will publish an update on the status of the Cizre Dam this summer.  It is important to stress that:

  • Official public disclosures about the Cizre Dam project are woefully inadequate. Turkish authorities indicated in 2021 that the Cizre Dam was to be built soon, but as early as 2016 unofficial sources reported that Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works (DSİ) had signed a contract with a private company for the Cizre dam and hydroelectric power plant project. Recent searches of the DSİ website reveal little information about the Cizre project, inviting speculation that the project has been delayed.
  • The lack of transparency is alarming and raises concerns about potentially catastrophic impacts on the health, safety and livelihoods of downstream communities.
  • According to a report prepared in 2006 by Phillip Williams & Associates on behalf of World Economy, Ecology and Development (WEED), the joint operation of the Ilisu Dam and Cizre Dam would potentially reduce the flow of the Tigris River to Syria and Iraq to less than 60 m3/second during dry years and in times of drought summer flows to the border could stop completely.

At the same time, the Kurdistan Regional Government is working to build four dams without the Baghdad central government being consulted. Al-Sabah newspaper, an Iraqi publication, published news from the Ministry of Water Resources under the title “There is no federal authority over the water policy in Kurdistan” (Monday, 4 April 2022, Issue #5373). The Ministry of Water Resources confirms in this article that the Kurdistan Regional Government has already signed a memorandum of cooperation with “PowerChina”, a company owned by the Chinese government, and that this will cause major conflicts between the governments in Erbil and Baghdad. These four dams are the Dalkah Dam within the borders of Bashdr District and Khyota Dam, both in Sulaymaniyah, Mandawa Dam in Erbil, and Bakirman Dam in Dohuk. In fact, the Kurdistan Regional Government hopes to build a large number of dams, as outlined in a Save the Tigris report.

Finally, the Iraqi government is moving to complete work on the Makhoul Dam, despite criticism from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and geological experts, which led to its previous suspension. The complicated geology of the Makhoul Dam site is very similar to the geology of the site of the Mosul Dam, which is infamous for being “the most dangerous dam in the world”. The Mosul Dam is built on a foundation of soluble gypsum and requires continuous maintenance to avoid a catastrophic failure. It cannot be operated at full capacity. Completing the Makhoul Dam may leave Iraq facing two failing dams that need millions of dinars per day to protect them from collapse.

Also, the Makhoul Dam, if completed, will threaten a number of archaeological sites, including the World Heritage site of Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), due to damage flooding and a higher groundwater table. It will also result in the displacement of 39 villages and local communities living in this area, requiring the resettlement of over 118,000 inhabitants. Once again, we see dam-building plans that do not take into account the impacts on the cultural heritage and the local community. Our campaign to Save the Tigris River will soon issue a dedicated study on the Makhoul Dam and it will be published on our official website this summer.

Dams as False Solutions

We in Save the Tigris are surprised that more dams are being talked about as if they were solutions to Iraq’s water problems. For us, these dams are false solutions to a real and complex problem. It is better to stop promoting these false solutions and go to real alternatives such as rain harvesting, conservation, and pollution control to protect our rivers and groundwater resources. There is a dire need to rationalize and modernize the use of irrigation and drinking systems throughout Iraq. We present these alternatives as real solutions, and we call on the governments of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to invest the billions they plan to spend in new failed dams and turn them into long-term programs for alternatives that can provide real solutions to our water crisis today and tomorrow.

We announce our readiness to come to Baghdad and Erbil with experts and specialists for further discussion and dialogue about these alternatives. This statement is a wake-up call, but it is also a request for dialogue about forging a different path forward.

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For more information, contact the international coordinator:

Johanneke Van den Bos: coordinator@savethetigris.org

Our website: https://www.savethetigris.org

Our Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/save.the.tigris.stc


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