By Ismaeel Dawood
Statements issued by government officials, especially ministers, are considered as evidence of significant positions of their countries on sensitive issues. Governments in general are very careful to release any statement that may harm its own interests. Paradoxically there is a long history of statements by government representatives against their own countries’ rights, as international experts in international law and political science can testify. In this regard, is the comment of Iraqi Water Resources Minister Dr. Hassan al-Janabi on Ilisu dam during a meeting with the Turkish Minister of Forestry and Water Veysel Eroglu, in his visit to Ankara earlier this month, a positive or negative development?
Mr. al-Janabi, posted on his Facebook page that the meeting had a positive outcome and published a report. During the meeting the Iraqi minister referred to Ilisu dam, saying specifically that he had received promises from the Turkish side that there will be no “significant damage” inflicted on Iraq when the Turkish government proceeds to fill the reservoir of Ilisu Dam. This was cheered by Al-Janabi, but unfortunately this implies that Turkey has the right to complete the construction of the dam, without consulting Iraq or having studied the degree of impact of the dam on water flows and environment. This is contrary to international norms.
Instead of demanding an immediate halt to the construction until the two countries initiate detailed negotiations about the dam and its enormous impact on the water resources downstream, Iraq in the words of the Minister recognized that the dam will be built, even if it has not been completed up until now and still faces opposition from local communities in Turkey. The core issue is the dam’s existence and the lack of consultation with Iraq. Yet the Minister is already legitimizing the filling of the dam’s reservoir. The Turks from their side have promised they are ready to discuss the prevention of “significant damage to Iraq”, which is very little too late. But how can Iraq cheer the recognition of possible damage?
Al-Janabi’s statement only confirms the weakness of the Iraqi government and recognizes Turkey’s sovereignty argument that it has full control over its own dam policies without having to consult Iraq. This position complicates the work of Iraqi civil society and in particular our campaign, as we have always demanded to halt the construction of the dam and called for a dialogue. International law says upstream countries cannot dramatically alter water flows to downstream countries without negotiating first. Imagine the Iraqi government would have taken a solid position and defended Iraq’s water resources from the day Turkey decided to construct Ilisu Dam! Imagine Mr. Al-Janabi and his delegation would have firmly called to stop the construction of the dam until negotiations are initiated between Turkey and Iraq on its impact. If the Turkish government would not have been willing to negotiate, Iraq could have resorted to international arbitration in order to protect their rights, possibly with allies among the Arab countries, the European Union and the United States.
Unfortunately, Iraq unlike Egypt – which has always invested in a dialogue over Nile water resources with upstream countries – has always neglected its own water security, and the issue of Ilisu Dam has been taken up by the Iraqi government only rarely. The Iraqi government has justified its own inaction on the pretext that Iraq has no legal basis to protect its own waters, which is not true. Despite the lack of a specific water-sharing treaty between Iraq and Turkey, there are a number of important legal tools available for Iraq. The Save the Tigris Campaign together with legal experts earlier published a study about these legal options available to Iraq on its official website.
I met Mr. Al-Janabi once in Geneva in September 2015. At that time he was the head of the Iraqi delegation and I handed him the campaign statement and the report which was entitled “The Threat of Ilisu Dam and the Failure of the Iraqi Government to Protect Iraqi’s Right to Water”. Mr. Al-Janabi responded “I am aware of your campaign and please consider me a member of it”, to which I replied: “What concerns me here is that we would like you to support the demands of the campaign, since you are the representatives of the government”.
What makes it worse is that Iraq has not only turned a blind eye to Ilisu Dam, but the whole principle that Iraq must be consulted before the construction of any dam with downstream impact. This legitimizes further dam construction in Turkey and Iran. For example, construction of Daryan dam on the Diyala River continues without any attempt for a dialogue between Iraq and Iran, despite the supposedly “privileged” relationship between the two countries.
Ilisu Dam is not only the tip of the iceberg, but it will remain an unfortunate milestone in the history of Iraq’s water security. It is the first and largest Turkish dam on the Tigris River and a hydroelectric project that will regulate the river on which Iraq’s heavily relies upon. Turkey has already exhausted the water resources of the Euphrates River through the dams it built in the 1980s and 1990s. Ilisu Dam will be followed by other small dams such as Cizre and others. Ilisu dam was supposed to be completed by 2015, but construction suffered many issues and was halted for a long while. European credit agencies withdrew from the project yet the Turkish government has been determined to complete the dam under the silence of Iraq, except for one attempt by the former foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, to urge the European Union to intervene and pressure Turkey to consult with Iraq. It never received any serious follow-up by the Ministry, which appears to have remained completely silent on this attempt during the visit of Mr. Al-Janabi. Now, the silence has been broken as the Minister resolved the matter in favor of Turkey.
Only two options are available for Iraq: to mourn the upcoming desiccation of its own rivers or to continue to defend them vigorously, which is still possible. The Save the Tigris Campaign will not be discouraged by this incident but instead will seek greater public awareness in order to wake up the Iraqi government.
* One of the founders of the Iraqi – International Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign, holds Phd. in political science and human rights from Scuola Sant’Anna University in Italy.
 The reference to the case of the archaeological city of “Hasankeyf”, the local population and number of those interested in the city’s ancient history rejects the construction of Ilisu dam because it will cause destruction to this city and its heritage.