Hassan al-Janabi: 'We want Turkey to help develop water resources in Iraq'

Hassan al-Janabi: 'We want Turkey to help develop water resources in Iraq'
The New Arab Meets: Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Hassan Al-Janabi, who denounces Turkey's dams as a water crisis grips Iraq’s southern governorates.
5 min read
Overview of the Tigris river in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq [Sebastian Castelier]
Deadly protests erupted in southern Iraq on July 8, denouncing unemployment, corruption - and the poor quality of public services, including water supply.

Once a water-rich country, Iraq faces its worst water crisis since 1931 as water levels in major rivers have been reduced in recent decades by as much as 40 percent.

With this decade seeing just half the rainfall of previous decades in Iraq, the drought is exacerbated by a fall in water resources flowing from neighbouring states.

The development of major water infrastructure in Turkey, including the Ilısu dam, raises the fear of a further deterioration of the water situation in Iraq.

Amid the crisis, Iraq's Minister of Water Resources Hassan al-Janabi has denounced Turkey's giant dams.

What can explain the low water level Iraq has faced this year?

"It's a dry year. Iraq has water reserves but we need to pass through the summer season first. 

"We could increase the level of the Tigris river within one week, but in two months we won't have any water stored in our reservoirs. We made those water reserves to keep drinking water available and to insure that agriculture could be maintained.
Iraq's Minister of Water Resources Hassan al-Janabi
during a press conference in Baghdad in June [Sebastian Castelier]

"Also, we anticipate that the water coming from Turkey is going to be less.

"Turkish reaction to the public outcry in Iraq was to postpone Ilısu Dam's filling until July.

"This of course does not satisfy Iraq's needs or the public needs. Ilısu Dam is a factor that will cause further decline in our water resources.

"The matter is a source of concern for Iraq, because we don't have a long term agreement with Turkey regarding water sharing."

How will Iraq build a relation of mutual interest with Turkey?

"Ilısu Dam is a very controversial structure. Nobody likes Ilısu Dam, except the Turkish government. We think that those major water infrastructures are not sustainable.

"After Turkey will start filling Ilısu Dam, we have an initial agreement on water-sharing until November 1, 2018.

"Then, we will symbolically meet at Mosul Dam on November 2 to negotiate. So our Turkish counterparts can see the impact and develop a personal relationship to assess the real needs. 

"We want to engage Turkey and Turkish businesses in developing water resource projects in Iraq.

"Iraq has two main agricultural seasons: winter and summer crop season. We need water in the two-three months of winter and then in summer. 

"This summer, the government decided to restrict agriculture, including water-intensive rice farming, which is part of the Iraqi identity."

We think that those major [Turkish] water infrastructures are not sustainable

How did Iraqi farmers react?

"Anger. We have never had such low water inflows since 1931.

"People blamed the Ministry of Water Resources. But the problem is that they don't know all the details, and just need someone to blame."

You said some people are using the crisis to destabilise the government?

"I mean, why these unreasonable attacks towards our ministry? It cannot be explained. We have been talking about droughts since October last year, but it seems like it is not enough.

"People started to feel like Iraq is losing the Tigris river. The emotion was so strong and when you turn emotional, you can do unreasonable things.

"Back in 1999/2000, Iraq also experienced serious droughts and Saddam Hussein's government prevented agriculture as well.

"But nobody protested because the regime was cruel. But now, it is very easy.

"I welcome the ability of people to criticise, but you cannot just write stuff on Facebook from your room at night - you need real data."

In your opinion, is the agricultural sector using water resources properly?

"The irrigation system in Iraq is unfortunately ancient and traditional. Because of wars, under Saddam Hussein against Iran and Kuwait, then the US-led invasion, 2006's sectarian tensions and the [war against the] Islamic State group, all sectors of our economy have been damaged.

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"It causes even further decay in our infrastructure, especially in rural areas, which have been heavily impoverished.

"Farmers, as the government, don't have sufficient financial resources to invest in new technologies and develop efficient irrigation methods.

Read also: Haïfa al-Amin: A step towards social equality in Iraq

"But non-efficient methods of irrigation is not a valid reason for our neighbours to use our water.

"We work to improve the efficiency of our irrigation methods to cope with the decline of available water resources. Our irrigation system improved mostly in the Nineveh Province, prior to the rise of the Islamic State group. Then everything was destroyed.

"Generally speaking, we have to abandon irrigation by flooding. But we get all those farmers living culturally, economically, religiously based on this area to be flooded. So if you want to change that, you will be creating some other problems you have to address.

"Lastly, drinking water needs to be tackled in the south, using desalination, for example."

Is Iraq desalinating water?

"Not yet; there is plan to open a desalination facility in Basra, to cater their water needs.

"Desalination has to happen, most cities in the south of Iraq need it. We want to ensure drinking water 100 percent of the time and delink it from the irrigation system.

"We hope to open the facility within the next two years, but the project is not yet under construction."

Quentin Muller is a French journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @MllerQuentin.

Sebastian Castelier is a photojournalist specialising in the MENA region. Follow him on Twitter: @SCastelier 

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