In progress: The Ilisu Dam, And Its Likely Impact On Iraq


Footage released this weekend shows the impressive engineering feat of lifting and moving an entire 15th century building. The tomb of Zeynel Bey is being relocated as the construction of the Ilisu dam is slated to flood its historic home of Hasankeyf by 2019. Turkish officials say that many more historic sites will be moved in this way, in an effort to protect the town’s rich heritage.

The loss of Hasankeyf (said to have been populated for over 10,000 years), and the relocation of its residents are just two of a multitude of controversies surrounding the project. Human rights and environmental groups have been actively opposed to the dam since the announcement of its construction in 1998, and European partners in the project suspended funding of $610 million in late 2008, after Turkey failed to meet over 150 international standards.

Construction has been halted and slowed several times since the recommencement of hostilities between the central government and Kurdish militants, with the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) carrying out attacks on armed forces at the dam since 2014.

Environmentalists point out that untreated waste water from Batman and Diyarbakir to the north will pollute the resulting reservoir, and warn that waterborne diseases such as malaria and leishmaniosis could flourish.

All these problems are behind the dam. Ilisu is some 100 km upstream from where the Tigris crosses into Iraq at Faysh Khabur, and it’s the massive reduction in flow that concerns Iraq.

Activists in the country want an immediate halt to the construction of the dam, stating that Turkey is violating international law by dramatically altering the water flow to a downstream country without negotiation.

A recent visit to Ankara by Iraqi Water Resources Minister Dr Hassan al-Janabi was met with dismay by advocacy group The Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI). Al-Janabi claimed to have received assurances from the Turkish government that Iraq will suffer no ‘significant damage’ when the reservoir at Ilisu begins to fill. This, says the ICSSI, is a recognition and approval of the impending completion of the dam, when Iraq should be vigorously opposing it, should it pose the risk of any damage whatsoever.

Moreover, the ICSSI outlines the options to challenge construction available to the Baghdad government, which has incorrectly maintained for years that there is no legal recourse open to it. This inaction legitimises further dam construction in Turkey and Iran, the ICSSI claims.

Furat al-Tamimi, head of the parliamentary Water and Agriculture Committee, said recently in an interview with Al-Monitor: “Turkey will escalate its systematic water ban into Iraqi territories, which would take a heavy toll on agriculture, following the completion of the dam’s final stages. Iraq has been objecting to the dam project, but to no avail. Upon completion, Iraq will lose about 50% of the Tigris River.”

Some of this could be mitigated with improved water storage and irrigation along the course of the Tigris in Iraq, as masses of one of the country’s historic water resources (along with the Euphrates) empties into the Shatt al-Arab and onward to the Gulf.

The impact of the dam loss, estimated at about 8 billion cubic metres per year, will be increased desertification, hitting an already fragile agriculture sector. The great land between two rivers, cradle of civilisation, is number 21 in countries most threatened by water insecurity globally.

Besides agriculture, such a reduction of water threatens not just the rehabilitation of the Mesopotamian marshes, named a UNESCO world heritage site last year, but the marshes themselves. The lack of water will lead to drying, but more worryingly the marshes have been experiencing increased salinization for years. The vicious circle comes in three parts, according to a joint report from the Universities of Basra, and Waterloo, Canada:

1) The overtime increasing in the salinity level of their direct water inputs, due to dams’ constructions.

2) the increase of the Arab Gulf tide via Shatt Al-Arab river due to the reduction of the water level in the outlets of the Central and Al-Hammar marshlands.

3) the huge accumulation of salts due to desiccation.

The World Health Organisation states that salinity of 1,000 parts per million (ppm) makes water unsafe for human consumption (the current level in Baghdad), and twice that renders it useless for agriculture. Where the Tigris crosses into Iraq, salinity is currently at 275 ppm, but officials expect it to rise to 550 ppm. What this will do to levels around the marshes is impossible to call – however in Ali al-Sharki, north of the marshes, salinity is currently at 2,250 ppm.

The Ilisu dam won’t just further desiccate Iraq, it will also affect its extremely limited portfolio of renewable energy, reducing generation at the Mosul dam and Samarra barrage.

The hold that Iraq has allowed Turkey to have over its shared rivers is absurd. Some politicians are belatedly talking of an economic fight back. MP Ali al-Badri told Al-Monitor that economic sanctions are a card Iraq holds: “Oil is being transported through Turkish territory … Turkey is in dire need of it.”