On a bright day in Geneva, June 2014, fifteen distinguished political leaders, parliamentarians, former ministers, senior government officials and water experts from Iraq and Turkey met under the auspices of the Blue Peace initiative. The brainchild of Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai based policy think tank, the Blue Peace promotes transboundary water as an instrument for peace and cooperation, employing collaborative and sustainable strategies shared by riparian countries.
Home to almost 30 million people, with an irrigation potential of about 65-75 per cent, the Tigris River passes through high populated areas in both Turkey and Iraq. Little is known about the river and even less about its many tributaries. Of available scientific and academic literature, it is known that there are severe fluctuations and variations in the flow of the Tigris River. Thus, there is an urgent need to have systematic real time monitoring of not only the main river, but of the tributaries as well, to get continuous and reliable data that can be used by all riparians. This will help in planning activities related to development of resources and population, maintaining the balance of the river and environmental concerns, as well as building trust and open dialogue between riparian countries.
Analysis of the hydro-politics in the Tigris basin tells us that while there have been a number of meetings over the years, the major riparian countries, Turkey and Iraq, have been unable to reach a basin wide agreement to jointly manage the shared river. In the last decade there has been an improvement of relations between Turkey and Iraq, despite the political uncertainties, and the high level visits and positive political statements have paved the way for future dialogue and cooperation. Despite the extreme political tensions in the region, these two countries have recognized that water and environment are important aspects of cooperation and have thus mutually agreed on moving forward in this direction.
Seizing upon the positive tone and space created by the governments of the two countries, the stakeholders involved in the Blue Peace process developed, over a series of track two meetings which began in Bern in September of 2013, a plan of action to promote exchange and calibration of data and standards pertaining to the quality and the flow rates of Tigris River.
The Governments of Iraq and Turkey have on several occasions agreed in principle to promote exchange and harmonisation of water data. The proposed plan, in line with the Blue Peace philosophies would help the countries to take existing agreements, currently only in principle, ahead to the next level of an operative plan of action. Now is the time to turn positive political statements and gestures into concrete action.
Some of the objectives outlined in the plan examine identifying and assessing available data in the river basin and filling in necessary gaps in data collection and measurement. The need to identify and implement common techniques and calibration for data collection and measurement has also been stressed upon, which will serve to reduce discrepancies in collection across the river. This will ensure that there is little room for error and disagreement on the data. It was agreed that the best available measuring techniques should be used, and technology, both existing and new, should be shared by the relevant departments in both the countries.
All of this will serve to identify problems and gaps, and thus increase the confidence in the operational calibration of individual stations in both countries. By agreeing upon techniques, statistical models, reporting techniques, quality parameters to be measured and standards of data analysis, the two countries will ensure that the environmental and ecological balance and future health of the Tigris River is maintained.
The stakeholders at the meeting also recognized that development of expertise for the purpose of improving their performance and knowledge is an important pillar of cooperation between Iraq and Turkey on the Tigris River, and can be achieved if the two parties work on joint capacity building programmes to implement the objectives of the project.
The Iraqi and Turkish delegations were led by Former Ministers, Mr Bakhtiar Amin and Mr Yasar Yakis respectively, both of whom have been involved in this track two process for many years. In the last few months many leading experts and other government’s officials have also participated in the process and provided their valuable input. In the recent meeting in Geneva, senior parliamentarians such from Iraq and Turkey have also gotten involved.
In the time of extreme turmoil, in a region besieged with problems, the consensus and plan proposed by the fifteen distinguished leaders and experts of Turkey and Iraq, offers a ray of hope and promise that cooperation is possible. The progressive thinking demonstrated by the Governments of Iraq and Turkey encourages a positive atmosphere that will hopefully expand in the future.
Dr Sarikaya is the former Undersecretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Turkey and Ms Suhail is a Member of Parliament in Iraq.