KIRKUK, Iraq — A worsening water shortage in Iraq is raising tensions in the multi-ethnic Kirkuk province, where Arab farmers accuse the Kurdistan region of ruining them by closing the valves to a dam in winter.
“We are harmed by the Kurds, and the officials responsible for Baghdad and Kirkuk will not lift a finger,” said Sheikh Khaled al-Mafraji, a leader of the Arab Political Council that groups mainly Sunni tribal leaders.
At the heart of the conflict is the Dukan dam, built in 1955 in Iraq’s northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, 75 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Kirkuk province.
“They release too much water from June to September while from October it is the opposite: there is not enough drinking water and even less to irrigate our lands,” Mafraji complained.
Kirkuk province with its rich oil reserves has 250,000 hectares (617,740 acres) of arable land and 16 percent of its workforce engaged in agriculture, according to UN figures. Winter crops include wheat and corn, and summer harvests are mainly sesame, tomatoes and watermelon.
A UN factsheet in October 2010 showed that while more rain fell in 2009 compared with 2008, the situation is still critical. Rainfall is now 50 percent below average.
“The central government must intervene immediately to ask that our brothers in the north (Kurds) provide the necessary amounts of water for irrigation,” Mafraji said, threatening to hold demonstrations if his voice was not heard.
Out of Kirkuk’s estimated 900,000 inhabitants, some 31 percent live in rural areas, UN data shows. They represent all of Iraq’s faiths, and are ethnic Arabs, Turkmen or Kurds.
Largely because of its oil riches, Kirkuk is at the centre of a tussle between Iraq’s central government and authorities in Kurdistan, who want to add it to their own region, currently made up of three provinces.
“Our suffering began in 2005, when the peasants were forced to set aside one-third of their land and cultivate only small patches near the artesian well” where there was water, said Abdul Rahman al-Obeidi, who owns 450 hectares west of Kirkuk.
“The peasants claimed that they (the Kurds) cut off water supplies to force them to leave the area. They do not understand there is a shortage and believe it is a political conflict,” he added.
For him, it “is the lack of coordination between the authorities in Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah (the province in which the Dukan dam lies) which fuels the notion that the Kurds are responsible.”
The growing water deficit and dams built by Iraq’s neighbours have significantly reduced the water flow in a country that was until the late 1950s a breadbasket of the Arab world.
“The dam holds 1.3 million cubic metres of water,” said Shihab Hakim Nader, director of water resources in Kirkuk province.
“There is a strategic reserve of 700,000 cubic metres (which must not be used), which means there remains 600,000 cubic metres that can be used. But the rain is becoming more scarce, and the level of the dam is decreasing.”
“Also, the Kirkuk area receives only 30 cubic metres per second of water, when it should be receiving 75. This is only sufficient for drinking water,” he added.
The issue is a ticking bomb in a province with strong ethnic loyalties, where Arabs accuse Kurds of intentionally harming the province.
“The water issue is critical, and thousands of people driven to unemployment blame their situation on Kurdistan,” said Sheikh Burhan Mezher, the head of Kirkuk’s agriculture department.
According to Tahseen Kader, a former minister of water resources for the Kurdistan region’s government, the closure of Dukan’s gates is routine and not a matter for concern.
“Every year, even during the time of the old regime (of Saddam Hussein who was ousted in 2003) we used to close the dam gates during the winter,” he said.
Kader said that was done “to conserve water for agriculture in the late spring, and for the production of electricity,” and claimed the notion that political motives had driven the dam closure was absurd.
“The majority of the inhabitants of the province of Kirkuk are Kurdish, so why would we harm them? We don’t want to harm anyone,” he said.