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Tigris and Euphrates Agricultural Water Utilization

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on May 3, 2012 at 1:44:19 pm


Agricultural Water Utilization 


    The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are crucial resources of water for the countries through which they run.  Each of the riparian nations has set up dams and irrigation systems for collecting and utilizing the water from these rivers. Turkey is probably the most ambitious of the three countries along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The first major adjustment that Turkey made to the Euphrates River was the construction of the Keban Dam which was completed in 1974 (Republic of Turkey). The dam was constructed to gain control of the irregular flow of the Euphrates River which regularly threatened agriculture along its banks.  With the construction of the dam, agricultural production was allowed to expand.  Somewhat recently, the water being stored behind the Keban Dam has been used for the irrigation of more than sixty thousand hectares of agricultural land in 1999 (Republic of Turkey). Ninety-six percent of the crops that are irrigated using waters from the Euphrates and grown on the Harran Plain are cotton, followed by supplemental cereals, maize, and vegetables (Ozdogan, Woodcock, Salvucci & Demir, 2006).  However, the cultivation of the sugar beet has been growing recently due to its value as a key cash crop.
     The construction of the Keban Dam was only the vanguard to a much larger plan that would be developed by Turkey: the South-East Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or GAP). GAP is “a multi-sector and integrated regional development effort approached in the context of sustainable development.” (Republic of Turkey)  One part of this project focuses on developing irrigation and hydraulic energy production by constructing a number of dams and irrigation channels along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The GAP’s plans on constructing a total of twenty-two dams and seventeen hydraulic power plants along rivers, which would generate almost twenty-two percent of the energy consumed in Turkey and provide irrigation for about 1.7 million hectares of agricultural land (Unver, 1997).  According to a study that looked at the expansion of summer irrigated crops on the Harran Plains in Turkey, the amount of irrigated land grew nearly three hundred percent from the summer of 1993 to 2002 (Ozdogan, et al, 2006). If the agricultural expansion in this region continues at this current rate, the amount of water withdrawn from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would result in a reduction of the flow rate through Syria by about forty percent while Iraq would be devastated with a reduced flow of around ninety percent (Bulloch J. Darwish A. 1993)
     Downstream from Turkey is Syria. Syria’s first major construction along the Euphrates River was the Tabqa Dam in 1973. About ten years later the Baath and Tishrin Dams were built. Syria uses a large majority of their water collected from these dams in the agricultural sector since the export of agricultural goods is a major contributor to the Syrian economy, accounting for almost thirty-two percent of Syria's GDP (Salman, M. Mualla, W. 2003).   In order to maintain the agricultural system that Syria has, it uses about eighty-seven percent of the available water for irrigation and agricultural needs drawing about 7,160 million cubic meters of water from the Euphrates River (Salman, M. Mualla, W. 2003). A majority of Syria’s fertile agricultural land lies to the northeast in the country’s fertile central plain. Recently this expansion of irrigated land has grown to about 1.4 million hectares.  As of 2002 it was recorded that about 1.2 million hectares of cultivated land was irrigated in Syria.
    With Turkey using a large portion of the water coming from the Euphrates River, and the regions arid climate, Syria has become water stressed.  However, even with the pressure of lack of available water, Syrian farmers continue to use irrigation methods and technologies that are out-of-date and inefficient, causing water to go to waste and further contributing to limited water availability.  Syria redirects and transports a majority of its irrigation water through concrete lined canals, however these systems rarely exceed sixty to seventy percent conveyance efficiency due to evaporation and poor maintenance (Salman et al, 1999).  Syria's Ministry of Irrigation, which is responsible for formulating water policy within Syria, has plans to convert the old open surface distribution system into a pipeline system and rehabilitate new lined canal systems. However, due to the massive irrigation infrastructure in Syria it is not economically feasible, or possible for them to redo the entire system with the currently available resources (Salman, M. Mualla, W. 2003).  On a smaller scale, looking at the farmers themselves, their water use efficiency falls in the low forty to sixty percent range due to over irrigation with the use of traditional, out of date basin irrigation method, named surface or flood irrigation.  If these farmers were to update their current irrigation systems to systems such as furrow, sprinkler, or drip irrigation, improve on-farm water management and conservation techniques, or implement rainwater collection practices, the farmers would be able to compensate for the lack of available water. (Salman, M. Mualla, W. 2003).
     Syria's Ministry of Irrigation has ambitious plans, investing about 32 billion Syrian Pounds (600 million USD) on the rehabilitation and modernization of old irrigation projects.  By doing so, the Ministry of Irrigation hopes to improve the conveyance efficiency and minimize distribution losses through converting open irrigation canal systems to pressurized pipe systems and rehabilitate lined canal systems.  Recently, the Syrian government has adapted a sort of modernization policy at the field level and encourage farmers to change to modern irrigation techniques by providing tax-free low-interest loans to cover the capital cost of modern techniques and technical advice on the implementation and use of such systems.  However, due to the lack of confidence that the farmers have in the financial return of the implementation of these techniques, the adoption on the field level has been low (Salman, M. Mualla, W. 2003).  Lack of confidence is not the only issue on the field level.  There is a lack of communication between water authorities and farmers.  Research was conducted in Syria on these new techniques that the government is recommending to farmers.  This research showed the positive influence that the implementation of these technologies would have on water conservation, however that information never reached the farmers (Salman, 2002).  By establishing solid lines of communication between the researchers and the farmers developing trust between the farmers and the agencies could make a major step in progress towards a stronger and smarter Syrian agriculture.

     Iraq, being in an arid climate, shares many of the same water issues that Syria does.  Being downstream from both Turkey and Syria, Iraq’s access to water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers has been significantly reduced.  Iraq relies heavily on its water resources for use in its agricultural sector, as seen in Figure 5.  Based on data in the Regional Water Intelligence Reports on the Middle East Region, Iraq extracts nearly ninety percent of its fresh water resources for agricultural resources, while Syria extracts ninety-six percent of its fresh water for agricultural use. Iraq and Syria share a lot of the same water usage issues dealing with inadequate and out-of-date irrigation techniques. With the current Iraqi irrigation systems in dis-repair, there is significant room for improvement. With agriculture being a major contributor to the water usage, solutions should address this sector.


Figure 5: Distribution of water use per sector for countries in the Middle East.


     The Tigris and Euphrates rivers play a crucial roll in the economic success and livelihood of the nations through which they run.  With inefficient irrigation techniques and out-of-date water management practices, water that could have been used to create a stable and reliable agricultural system has gone to waste. While propositions have been made to update the current systems to make them efficient, the resources needed to do so are just not there.





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