Water of the Middle East and North Africa

First Mesopotamian Water Forum addresses key challenges to regional water management

Mesopotamian Water Forum-fanack Iraq
Photo 2: A group picture of the forum participants after the forum’s declaration. (Source: Save Tigris / Facebook)

Author: Juliane Schillinger

The Mesopotamian Water Forum was held for the first time in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan from 6-8 April 2019. It brought together civil society actors from across the region to discuss key challenges along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and sought to promote water as a tool for sustainable peace.

2 April 2019 was a historical day for the Dukan Dam in Iraqi Kurdistan. For only the second time in its 64 years of operation, the reservoir’s emergency spillways were used to release additional water to the Little Zab river and lower the pressure on the dam. This was necessary following an exceptionally wet winter and prolonged periods of rain in the mountain ranges along the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran over the past months. The water will eventually end up in the Tigris river, of which the Little Zab is one of the main tributaries. Yet the most pressing water challenges in the joint Euphrates-Tigris basin have not been solved by the additional rain. Although large amounts of excess water flooded meadows, houses and streets along the Lesser Little Zab below the Dukan Dam, the Mesopotamian Water Forum took place in Sulaymaniyah, 65 kilometres further south.

Held from 6-8 April 2019 at the University of Sulaimani, the forum set out to address some of these challenges in the 21st century and to promote water as a tool for sustainable peace along the Euphrates and Tigris. It was organized by civil society organizations (CSOs) led by the Save the Tigris campaign to provide an open space for discussion among participants from the four riparian countries Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran as well as from beyond the region. At the heart of the conversation were three areas of concern that are briefly outlined below.

Mesopotamian Water
Photo 1: Zab river, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. (Source: Juliane Schillinger)

Public participation in water management

The lack of public participation in decision-making processes was highlighted as one of the central causes of poor management of water resources in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. Challenges to public participation include a general lack of transparency, weak accountability and the exclusion of key stakeholders.

While the past decades have seen a strong increase in civil society activism, severe limitations on the involvement of CSOs in decision-making across the basin continue to present a major obstacle to sustainable and inclusive water management. This is particularly the case in the context of large-scale dam projects in all of the riparian countries.

Impacts of dams and transboundary management

Starting in the 1950s, intensive infrastructure development along Euphrates, Tigris and their tributaries significantly reshaped the basin in all riparian countries. Medium- and large-scale dams were built for flood control, to feed diversion and irrigation schemes and produce hydropower. They have allowed unprecedented control over the flow of the Euphrates and Tigris and enabled the expansion of irrigated agriculture in the whole basin.

However, the ongoing infrastructure development has taken a toll. Local populations have been displaced and archeological sites flooded as the reservoirs behind new dams are filled. Ecosystems reliant on regular inundation from spring floods have deteriorated with the controlled flow regime, a consequence that has particularly affected the marshlands in the south of the basin. In the absence of comprehensive basin-wide agreements between the riparian countries, dams have become potential tools to exert political power over downstream populations.

Dukan dam
The forum participants joined an excursion to Dukan Dam after the forum. (Source: Save Tigris / Facebook)

Ecosystem health and ecosystem services

The Euphrates-Tigris system provides numerous ecosystem services that are vital to human health and prosperity. Among them are regional climate regulation, water supply to both humans and the environment and quality spaces for recreation and tourism. Ecosystem services related to agriculture and fisheries are particularly important in rural areas where some populations are dependent on subsistence farming.

These services, along with the basin’s rich biodiversity, are threatened by deteriorating ecosystem health. Pollution from untreated wastewater, which is high in bacteria and nutrients, and from fertilizers and pesticides in agricultural runoff are the main problems facing ecosystem health. Solid waste, particularly plastics, adds to the pollution of water sources and the environment. Unsustainable water management practices and climate change further contribute to the degradation of water quality.

Ways forward

Following three days of plenary discussions and workshops, the Mesopotamian Water Forum issued a declaration titled ‘Water is under assault in Mesopotamia’. The declaration builds on the cultural and ecological value of the Euphrates and Tigris and the ongoing struggles of CSOs, many of which were present at the event, to protect regional water bodies and defend the right to water for all forms of life in Mesopotamia – a task the declaration refers to as a ‘critical civic duty’. The signatories thus condemn unilateral decisions in water management and infrastructure development along the rivers and policies aimed at privatizing water as well as cutting water to downstream countries or communities and the destruction of historical sites and biodiversity hotspots due to the construction of dams.

The declaration also includes an extensive set of recommendations for both national and local governments, international organizations and civil society related to the three challenges outlined above. It calls for stronger legislation regarding public participation and environmental protection by all countries in the basin as well as better enforcement of existing laws. Alongside public participation, the need for transparent decision-making processes was emphasized, particularly around the planning and justification of new dam projects and their possible alternatives. A number of measures related to education and public awareness form the core recommendations proposed by the CSOs regarding their own activities.

Moving forward, the Mesopotamian Water Forum’s organizers emphasized the need for continuous international cooperation between CSOs, particularly in the absence of noteworthy successes regarding basin-wide ministerial talks. South-South exchange of experiences with organizations active in other regions, such as South America and Africa, is expected to yield new insights and best practices from areas in a comparable situation. In this spirit, a second edition of the forum is planned to take place within the next few years in Diyarbakir, Turkey.