Cablegate: Iraq Depends On Others for Water; Low River Flows Have

Published: Sun 13 Sep 2009 01:22 PM
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SUBJECT: Iraq Depends on Others for Water; Low River Flows Have
Negative Impact
1. (U) Note: Post intends this message to be the first periodic
report on water issues - and their growing prominence - in Iraq.
2. (SBU) SUMMARY: The Tigris and Euphrates river systems supply
almost all of Iraq's water needs. Ninety percent of the two rivers'
water flows first through Turkey, Syria, or Iran - with a separate
ten percent rising first in the Kurdistan region. (Iraq also has
some ground water from underground aquifers.) The Euphrates River
water flows in Iraq have fallen and water quality has deteriorated
since the construction of Turkish and Syrian dams upstream from the
1970's to the 1990's. Today, the Euphrates River inflow from Syria
is at its lowest level in six years. The Tigris River flow from
Turkey may still be within historical norms but shows great seasonal
variation, and has dropped by half since early July. The low flow
levels have led to reduced Iraqi hydroelectric power generation and
reportedly exacerbated salinity and pollutant concentrations in the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Improvement in water management and
use would mitigate these negative impacts, but would require a
functioning Iraqi regulatory system that may be years away. To meet
its immediate needs, Iraq is pressing Turkey to increase flow to the
Euphrates River. End summary
3. (SBU) Iraq is a downstream riparian state dependent on other
countries for its water supply. Ninety percent of Iraq's water is
contained in the Euphrates and Tigris river systems, which are fed
from Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Turkey is the single largest
contributor, providing on average 90 percent of the Euphrates flow
and 50 percent of the Tigris flow. Syria separately contributes
about eight percent of the Euphrates flow, and Iran contributes an
estimated 30 to 40 percent of the Tigris flow. Some ten percent of
Iraq's waters rise from the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
4. (SBU) Over the last forty years, Turkey and Syria have built or
are in the process of building several large dams on the Euphrates
River that have affected water flow into Iraq. Before the
development of the dams, the Euphrates River's average flow rate
into Iraq exceeded 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year or 1000
cubic meters per second (cms). Today, the flow is much less.
According to recent data provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Water
Resources (MoWR), the average Euphrates flow rate into Iraq was 290
cms during July and August of 2009. This average flow rate is a 36
percent reduction from the same time last year, and is the lowest
flow rate at this time of year in the last six years.
5. (SBU) Dams have also been built or are in the process of being
built by Turkey on the Tigris River. According to the UN Food and
Agricultural Organization, the average annual Tigris River water
inflow to Iraq is 21.33 bcm. Because the river is fed mainly by
snow pack, the average flow shows large monthly variations. (For
example, September averages are about 123 cms while April averages
are almost 1400 cms.) A spot analysis of MoWR daily flow data, as
measured entering Mosul Dam, shows that the Tigris River's daily
flow average in August 2009 was 139 cms, about the same as Tigris
River inflows in August 2008 and in line with averages expected for
this time of year. (Comment: A full analysis of yearly flow data
must be performed to determine whether Tigris River flows have been
significantly affected by upstream development in Turkey. End
6. (SBU) Iran contributes up to 40 percent of the water flows to the
Tigris River at several locations - via the Lesser Zab River
southeast of Mosul, the Diyala River east of Baghdad, the Karkha
River east of Ammara, and the Karun River, which joins Shatt Al Arab
just south of Basra. According to MoWR data, the flows entering
Iraq from Iran, as measured at the Dokan and Derbendi-Kahn
(Darbandikhan) dams located in Northern Iraq, has more than doubled
from this time last year. However, recent reports indicate that
Iran has built sand dams in other locations to divert river flow
away from Iraq, especially in the south. Some Iraqi lawmakers have
called on Iran to reopen these waterways. This issue will be
addressed in a future cable.
7. (SBU) The Euphrates' decreased flow rate - along with diversion
water from Lake TharThar (located southwest of Mosul) and irrigation
return flows - has increased the salt content in the river.
According to Dawood Salman of the Iraqi Ministry of Science and
Technology, salinity concentrations at Basra were approaching 2.0
parts per thousand (ppt). (Note: The generally accepted drinking
water limit for salinity is less than 1 ppt and the
agricultural/irrigation limit is 2 ppt. End note). Decreased river
flow rates has meant less water to dilute salts entering the
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Euphrates through rainfall runoff, saline ground water discharges,
and from using Lake TharThar as a backup water source. (Comment:
Lake TharThar is a shallow depression used to divert water from the
Tigris River during winter high river flows. Evaporation results in
a high accumulation of salts. When water is needed, the lake's
highly saline water (1.7 ppt) is released into either the Euphrates
or the Tigris River. End comment.) Separately, irrigation return
flows also carry soil salts from the fields to the river adding to
the total salt content.
8. (SBU) Upstream development and increased agricultural runoff in
Turkey and Syria also appear to cause increased river pollution from
fertilizers, pesticides, and salts. In addition, Iraqi raw sewage
and industrial discharges are routinely fed into the Euphrates and
Tigris Rivers both in cities and rural areas. In Baghdad alone, the
inoperable Karkh Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges over 100
million gallons per day of raw sewage into the Tigris River.
9. (SBU) The low level of the Euphrates River is reportedly having
negative effects downstream. In one example, the Haditha
hydroelectric dam, near the Iraq-Syria border, is operating at only
13 percent of capacity. The dam will reportedly suspend operations
if water levels drop another five feet - which could occur in two
weeks if water levels continue to fall at the rate of six inches a
day. According to ePRT - Al Qaim, intake lines for the local water
treatment plant now sit above the river channel. Nasiriyah's
governor, Qusey al-Ebadi, has publicly stated that, as a result of
low water levels, "The people... have started to dig wells for their
own survival. There is no water to use for washing, because it is
stagnant and contaminated. Many of the animals have contracted
disease and died and people with animals are leaving their areas."
Basra Province's Agricultural Director said he is prepared to
announce a water catastrophe because the saltiness of the Shatt
Al-Arab (which the Euphrates River feeds into) had reached a level
making planting crops and rearing animals impossible. He also
stated that residents were leaving the area in search of other areas
to settle.
10. (SBU) Iraq uses 75 percent of its water for highly inefficient
flood irrigation, according to the Iraq Transition Assistance Office
(ITAO). Flood irrigation is a common, but antiquated, practice in
developing countries that wastes large amounts of water and leads to
soil salination. (Comment: Several USG agencies and international
donors are promoting more efficient irrigation methods, such as drip
and spray irrigation, to Iraqi agriculturalists. End comment) The
thousands of miles of canals that make up the Iraqi crop irrigation
system leak; are improperly sized; waste a large amount of water;
feed secondary and tertiary canals choked with weeds and silt; are
used to irrigate low-value, non-sustainable crops like rice and
wheat; and supply water to a dwindling farming community that has
little incentive to keep the canals operational. As a result, Iraq
has a higher per capita water usage rate (2020 cubic meters per year
(cmy) than Turkey (1430 cmy) or Syria (1200 cmy). The GOI could
improve water management and use by removing water subsidies,
encouraging more efficient irrigation methods (such as drip or spray
irrigation), increasing water storage by building dams along the
Tigris River and Euphrates Rivers, and permanently repairing the
QTigris River and Euphrates Rivers, and permanently repairing the
Mosul Dam foundation to allow the dam to operate at a higher water
level. To its credit, the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resource has a
long-term plan to increase water storage capacity in Iraq and to
repair the Mosul Dam. The plan calls for the construction of 11
large dams and 29 small dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers over
a seven year period.
11. (SBU) While the region's three-year drought is often cited as
the cause of Iraq's water woes, it may only be a contributing
factor. The construction of dams by Turkey and Syria on the upper
Euphrates River has enabled those two countries to divert large
quantities of water, at least half of the annual Euphrates River
flow by some estimates, to agricultural and other domestic uses.
Our interlocutors on water issues most often blame Turkey - and not
Syria - for Iraq's water shortages. Iran's role in water issues is
not yet clear, and may contribute to Iraq's water deficiencies,
especially in southern Iraq. Iraq's poor management of water
resources will improve in the coming years only if the government
identifies priorities and puts effective regulatory structures in
place. Until such steps ease Iraq's water problems, the GOI will
likely look to Turkey to release more water from its upstream dams.
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