Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Water and Climate Change Will Shape Iraq-Turkey Relations
Water and Climate Change Will Shape Iraq-Turkey Relations

Water and Climate Change Will Shape Iraq-Turkey Relations

Bottom Line

  • Water and climate change will be at the center of Iraq-Turkish relations for years to come.
  • There is a mismatch of priorities on the Turkish and Iraqi sides, with security constituting the most urgent element for Turkey and water/environment for Iraq.
  • Iraq lacks effective pressure cards against Turkey, while Ankara can successfully weaponize water against Iraq, particularly in the short and medium run.
  • A holistic approach that integrates the questions of trade, energy, security, and water can best help assuage Iraq’s water needs in dealing with Turkey.

With Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-elected in May as Turkey’s president for five more years, it is water and related environmental concerns that are poised to be the critical issue at the center of Turkish relations with Iraq, overshadowing and shaping the moves of both countries on a range of security, trade, energy, and regional issues.   

As climate change hits Iraq hard, water scarcity and related environmental degradation have immensely impacted the country’s southern and central regions. This has transformed the significance of environmental factors in Iraq’s regional relations, particularly with Turkey, from which originate the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that provide the primary source of water for large parts of Iraq. This reality places Iraq on the weaker end of an increasingly difficult equation characterized by growing uncertainty and complications arising from the conflicting interests of numerous national, transnational, and regional actors involved. 

The importance of the water and environmental factors is best understood in terms of a range of other issues and challenges in Turkish-Iraqi bilateral relations, an account of which comes below. 

The Maze of Turkish-Iraqi Relations 

The relationship between Turkey and Iraq has been particularly uneasy over the past couple of decades. On the one hand, both countries have pursued mutually beneficial trade and investment ties, though the scales in this relationship have largely tipped toward the Turkish side. According to UN figures, Turkey exported nearly $14 billion worth of goods to Iraq in 2022, a huge leap compared to just around $100 million in 1995. Iraq exports far less to Turkey, with Iraqi exports, for example, hitting just slightly above $1.5 billion in 2021. 

on the other hand, thorny issues such as security, energy, and regional geopolitical rivalries have presented major impediments to further developing bilateral ties. On the security side, the presence of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq and its ongoing armed struggle against the Turkish state for Kurdish rights remain Ankara’s major concern in relations with Iraq. Turkey has particularly shown considerable sensitivity to Iraq’s inclusion of the PKK-affiliated Yazidi Sinjar Protection Units (YBS) in the northwestern Nineveh province within the pro-Iran Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Sha’abi. To Baghdad’s dismay, the Turkish military has increased the frequency and intensity of its attacks on pro-PKK targets inside Iraq and has established dozens of military outposts and small bases inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and other parts of broader northern Iraq. But Baghdad has also had its complaints about Turkey’s perceived inaction in restricting the Islamic State’s activities during the group’s takeover of large parts of Iraq and Syria in the mid-2010s. 

On the energy side, the investment of Turkish firms in the KRI energy sector and allowing Kurdish oil exports via the Ceyhan port have added an extra layer of complication to Iraqi-Turkish relations. Turkey has long eyed the KRI’s gas and oil reserves as a low-cost source of energy for its growing economy. Yet, Iraq, and by extension Iran, have sought to dash such Turkish hopes by reasserting Baghdad’s control over the Kurdish energy sector through local and international court orders. A recent ruling by the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has particularly weakened Ankara’s influence and maneuvering power over Iraqi energy resources, obligating Turkey to pay around $1.5 billion in fines to Iraq for facilitating KRI oil exports since the late 2000s. But the energy dossier is also very much a double-edged sword as Turkey’s halting of nearly half a million barrels of KRI and Kirkuk oil exports since the ICC’s ruling has cost Iraq over $2 billion in losses so far. 

Additionally, the regional geopolitical angle is important to consider here, as Iraq has been a centerpiece of the rivalry and jockeying for regional influence between Turkey and Iran. The regional rivalry is also closely entangled with the fundamental shape of the Iraqi political scene and its internal fragmentations which play an important role in shaping Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian calculations. Due to the diffusion of power in Iraq on the regional levels along ethnic and sectarian axes, Turkey leans on Sunni Arab forces and Kurds—mainly the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani in this case— for influence, whereas Iran relies on a plethora of Shia and some Kurdish and Sunni groups for influence in Iraqi politics and shaping Baghdad’s regional actorhood. The internal divisions of the Iraqi polity thus prevent the exercise of its agency as a singular state actor, allowing much room for external intervention and role in determining Iraq’s domestic dynamics.  

However, as important as factors such as security, trade, energy, and regional geopolitics concerns are to one side or another, it is water that is increasingly emerging as the major point of contention for Iraq and key leverage for Turkey against the backdrop of a difficult, complex, and multilayered relationship. 

Iraq’s Growing Water Crisis 

Civilization in much of the lands making up the modern-day state of Iraq has been closely tied to two mighty rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Cities bustling at one point or another since ancient Mesopotamia, from Babylon and Ctesiphon to Baghdad and Mosul, were built by or near the banks of these rivers (the word Mesopotamia itself means the land between the two rivers). The rivers, in fact, do not just traverse much of the country’s geographical length and width but its historical and cultural memory as well. Indeed, making a harsh, inhospitable environment habitable throughout millennia, the lore of the Tigris and Euphrates is affectionately present in the literary heritage of the multiple peoples who have lived by and thrived on the two rivers. Baghdadi Jewish poet Anwar Shaʾul (1904-1984) expressed those age-old sentiments in powerful terms when he wrote:

My childhood blossomed by the waters of the Euphrates. 

The days of my youth drank of the Tigris.

But for the first time in their history, the survival of the Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq appears to be at serious risk due to dwindling water levels. Water flows in both Tigris and Euphrates have dropped by 40 percent in the past four decades. Iraqi authorities fear that the Euphrates might dry up by 2040 due to climate change and poor water management. The United Nations Environment Program listed Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. While climate change as particularly manifest in declining precipitation (most parts of Iraq grapple with high levels of precipitation deficit), loss of agricultural land, and growing desertification has played a major role, politics at national and transnational levels are at the core of the bundle of reasons that have brought about the catastrophic state of the two rivers. The World Bank warned that by 2050 for every 1 degree Celsius temperature increase and precipitation decrease of 10 percent, Iraq would witness a 25 percent reduction of its freshwater by 2050. 

Both Euphrates and Tigris originate from the mountainous areas of southeastern Turkey. The Euphrates, the longest river in southwest Asia at 2,800 km long, flows from Turkey to Syria and from there onto Iraq. The Tigris flows straight from Turkey into Iraq, although it briefly weaves through the borderline separating Iraq and Syria at their most northwestern/eastern tips. In terms of water quantity, it is estimated that approximately 90 percent of the Euphrates’ flow and 46 percent of the Tigris’ flow originate in Turkey. Both rivers converge in southern Iraq and flow into the Gulf from there. 

At the heart of the reasons behind the drop in Euphrates and Tigris’ water levels in Iraq is the 22 dams built or planned by the Turkish government as part of its Southeastern Anatolia Project, or GAP. The GAP project was planned in the 1960s to harness the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for hydropower generation and agricultural purposes and prevent flooding—although it has come under strong criticism for its ecological impact and effects on local populations inside Turkey. Covering nearly 10 percent of Turkey’s total surface area in nine provinces with an estimated budget of over $30 billion, the Turkish government touts GAP as the “largest scale and costliest” development project in the country’s history. 

Turkey’s attitude to its use of the Tigris and Euphrates has been long problematic. Reflecting the Turkish view that the Tigris and Euphrates do not constitute “international” rivers, former President Süleyman Demirel remarked in 1992 that “neither Syria or Iraq can lay claim to Turkey’s rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty.” An undated document on the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website states that “countries along the Euphrates should agree on equitable and reasonable ways of using its resources” and that Iraq (and Syria) have no “acquired rights” over the rivers by virtue of being downstream states. Employing the term “equitable” and not “equal” is notable here as it indicates that Turkey deems it legitimate to prioritize the Tigris and Euphrates water for its larger “farming industry and population” and, as a non-petroleum country, utilize water for energy generation in its southern regions and allow the surplus amount to flow downstream to Iraq (and Syria).            

Building its control over the flow of Tigris and Euphrates successfully, since the 1980s, Turkey has used water as an instrument of pressure against other co-riparian states, namely Iraq and Syria. To regulate the downstream flow of the Tigris and Euphrates, Ankara agreed to release 500 cubic meters of water per second to Iraq. But the water flow has fluctuated significantly as whereas until a decade ago, Iraq received around 625 cubic meters of water per second from the Tigris, in late 2022, the average rate was slashed by a third to around 200 cubic meters per second. In tandem with this trend, the amount of water available to each Iraqi has reduced by half from over 5,000 cubic meters in 1997 to 2,400 in 2009.  Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resource spokesperson Khalid Shamal said in late April that Iraq was receiving only 313 cubic meters per second from the Tigris, and 175 cubic meters per second from the Euphrates. 

Against this backdrop, water scarcity has left a major impact on life in Iraq, particularly in its southern regions. Satellite images are often invoked to demonstrate the apocalyptic effect of the water recession in southern Iraq. While water scarcity and mismanagement are increasingly a problem all over Iraq, the government has proved particularly incompetent in providing a steady stream of water for drinking and agricultural purposes in the south. The repercussions of this for political stability are already on display in provinces such as Basrah, Iraq’s major hub of oil production, and Dhi Qar where water scarcity has already triggered violent protests and minor tribal rebellions. Officials are terrified that such scenarios might increase in frequency and intensity as the water shortage exacerbates. If the current trend continues, the water crisis threatens to produce major demographic shifts as well, causing depopulations of significant parts of southern regions and migrations to areas northward that have more water. A 2019 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that over 21,000 in the southern provinces were displaced due to the scarcity of water for agricultural, livestock, and drinking purposes. That figure had risen to 62,000 as of September 2022, according to another IOM report. 

Iraq’s Options Versus Turkey

Iraq-Turkey relations are complicated by a mismatch of priorities and expectations. On the Turkish side, the fight against the PKK constitutes the top priority as the government has become more inflexible in seeking a political solution to Kurdish political grievances in the country. With the PKK ending the unilateral ceasefire it had declared in the wake of the deadly earthquakes in Turkey February this year, there is in fact much potential for continued or even growing conflict with a reinvigorated Erdogan in power. This is attested by Turkish attacks against the positions of the PKK and its affiliates in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks. Fighting the PKK presents a convenient opportunity, with minimal to manageable cost, for Erdogan to buttress his nationalist credentials, particularly with groups on the far right of the Turkish political-ideological spectrum to whom he is indebted for securing a new presidential term.

The relatively weakened Kurdish electoral performance in Turkey amid a highly unfair and uneven electoral landscape for Kurds, might further embolden Erdogan to intensify his security gesture toward Kurds. Given that Ankara views the PKK as a security threat, and considering PKK’s close relationship with pro-Iran paramilitary groups inside Iraq, for Turkey the PKK question has also broader regional dimensions that directly pertains to the entirety of Iraqi politics and regional geopolitical rivalries played out on the Iraqi arena. This means that Turkey’s interest in Iraq—though immediately centered on and shaped around the PKK presence there—goes well beyond the group as it is entangled with Ankara’s wider regional struggles and ambitions, particularly in light of its aggressively assertive foreign policy since 2015. 

To bend Iraq to its will, Turkey will likely further weaponize water as an instrument that can be deployed conveniently and at will with major impacts felt downstream in Iraq, particularly in the southern portions of the country which are home to the constituencies and popular base of Iraq’s ruling Shia class and pro-Iran paramilitary groups. However, given the growing water crisis across Iraq, the impact of Ankara’s ungenerous water policy would be felt by the Sunni and Kurdish communities with whose political forces it has a closer relationship. The water question has the potential of increasing Turkey’s unpopularity across Iraq. Yet, it remains to see if the Turkish government, whether under Erdogan or others, would care much about becoming progressively unpopular with the Iraqi public.  

As far as Iraq is concerned, its options to affect change in Turkey’s behavior in regard to water are desperately limited. To begin with, it is highly uncertain if Iraq could seek arbitration on its water dispute with Turkey as Ankara is not a signatory to the 1997 U.N. Convention on the Law of the non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses— the sole treaty regulating the use of transboundary rivers. Additionally, while Turkey showcases its military power and ability to destabilize Iraq by frequently striking targets deep within the Iraqi territory, Iraq does not possess such military leverage over Turkey, a Western-backed NATO member messing with whom would be costly for Baghdad. Occasional minor attacks by PMF groups against Turkish military positions in northern Iraq are almost negligible due to their lack of impact. And the PKK card that some pro-Iran quarters in Iraq might wish to use against Turkey would likely produce limited results in light of the highly offensive posture of Turkey, its use of superior drone technology, and PKK’s own interests and calculations to avoid becoming the claws of one regional camp against another. 

For Iraq to have a chance of influencing Turkish decision-making on water, some like Laith Shubr, a water and environmental activist and expert who was part of Iraq’s team negotiating with UNESCO to include the southern marshes on UNESCO’s list of global heritage sites, are proposing that Iraq should adopt a holistic, rather than piecemeal strategy. “The water issue is not an independent issue. Iraq needs to use it as part of a larger package and put it next to other aspects of its bilateral relations with Turkey, such as investment, trade, energy, and security,” he told the author in a phone interview from Baghdad. 

Indeed, in the absence of effective pressure cards, Iraq has been trying to entice Turkey primarily through prospects of increasing trade and large-scale investment and contract opportunities for Turkish companies. The centerpiece of such efforts is the so-called Development Road, an ambitious $17 billion development project envisioned to improve connectivity between Iraq’s southern and northern regions (bypassing Kurdistan) to expedite the transfer of goods between the Gulf (and Asia) and Turkey (plus Europe) through Iraq and turning the country into a regional/global transit hub. The project, whose implementation on the scale promised is still uncertain, fared prominently in the discussions between Erdogan and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, during the latter’s visit to Ankara in March this year. Sudani managed to convince Erdogan to release more water to the Iraqi side of the Tigris, though the Euphrates is not included in the plan. Turkey, however, has reduced its water flow to Iraq since late April again. 

Some experts advocate for involving Turkish companies in large-scale agricultural and food-production projects in southern Iraq that would naturally need a steady stream of water flowing from Turkey into Iraqi rivers, wrote Ali Faris Hamid, the dean of Al-Nahrain University’s College of Political Science in a book on the “water crisis” in Iraq, recently published by the Baghdad-based Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies. 

Others call for better water management policies and methods to harness the rainfall and surface waters, much of which pour into the Gulf without being properly utilized by Iraq. 

Indeed through efficient management of surface waters, deploying wastewater treatment/recycling systems, and introducing cutting edge agricultural techniques that utilize low quantities of water, Iraq could in the medium to long run decrease its reliance on Turkish water discharges and relatively free itself of the political machinations tied to it. But all that requires strong competent governance which Iraq does not appear to muster at the moment or in the short run.

It can be said with little doubt that the Turkish-Iraqi relationship will remain highly complicated and unbalanced in the years to come, as the government in Baghdad does not hold the reins of the major issues of interest to Turkey, particularly security. The existence of multiple domestic and foreign decision-making actors inside Iraq with varying degrees of power over issues of interest to both Iraq and Turkey impedes the effective exercise of policy by the Iraqi state. Amid this reality, what is certain is that minus a radical reconfiguration of the state of affairs inside Iraq, the country will grow thirstier and weaker vis-à-vis Turkey if the current trend of multiyear drought, rising temperatures, poor management of water resources, old-fashioned, water-intensive agricultural methods, and population growth continue.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Cpl. Lindsay Sayres)

Correction: Due to an error by the editor, a previous version of this article was published earlier that did not reflect the most up-to-date edits from the author.