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Turkey Cuts Off Euphrates Waters To Syria, Iraq

January 13, 1990 GMT

SANLIURFA, Turkey (AP) _ President Turgut Ozal cut the flow of the Euphrates River with the push of a button Saturday, diverting its waters to a reservoir and raising fears of tension with Turkey’s arid downstream neighbors.

″Starting with the name of Allah all-forgiving and for the benefit of our people,″ Ozal said as he pushed the button at the end of a cord extending from a channel at the giant Ataturk dam.

During the one-month stoppage, Syria and Iraq will get 75 percent less water from the tributaries of the Euphrates, the 1,460-mile-long river that has been the lifeblood throughout history for the area, once ancient Mesopotamia. The river already slows to become a sluggish stream before joining the Tigris at the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in Iraq and emptying into the Persian Gulf.

Commando forces stood guard on heights in the reservoir area while 10,000 people watched the ceremony at the dam site about 60 miles north of the Syrian border.

White, blue and pink clouds mushroomed from smoke bombs exploded on the opposite side of the river during the ceremony, as water gushed down the middle of the dam’s three derivation channels.

Once the Southeast Anatolia project of 15 dams and 18 hydroelectric power plants is completed, Turkey will have a stranglehold on both the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

But in a speech, Ozal promised Syria and Iraq that ″Turkey would never use the water of Euphrates as a threat.″

″This was a technical necessity but we have taken all possible care not to cause any damage to our neighbors,″ Ozal said.

Ozal proposed that Turkey’s neighbors invest together in infrastructure projects as he said European countries had done. He did not give details.

Turkey views the dam and a chain of others to be built in the future as crucial for the economic development of its backward southeastern region, providing much-needed electricity and water for crop irrigation.

It says the monthlong stoppage of water will allow engineers to fill a reservoir to a height of 396 feet and build a concrete plug for a diversion channel as part of the construction project.

Syria is more dependent than Iraq on the river, because Iraq also has the Tigris running through its territory. But being upstream, Syria could keep more of the Euphrates waters in its own reservoirs and allow a trickle to Iraq.

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Syria has made no public statement on the water cut. Iraq said it would send a senior envoy to Ankara on Sunday to discuss problems arising from the reduction in the Euphrates flow.

Iraq sent its deputy foreign minister, Nizar Hamdoun, to Turkey last month to ask for a cut in the Euphrates flow of two weeks instead of the planned one month. Turkey said two weeks was not enough time.

Hamdoun told reporters that the cutoff would not provoke a full-blown crisis in Iraqi agriculture, but it would still cause damage in some areas.

Turkish officials have taken an Iraqi delegation to the dam construction site to explain the situation, Foreign Ministry officials said.

Turks maintain that since November they have released extra water to Syria and Iraq, to allow them to store water in their reservoirs for use during the shortfall.

A state waterworks official at the dam site said that since November, Turkey had released 4.42 billion cubic yards of water downstream, and 1.1 billion cubic yards of it had been allowed into Iraq by Syria.

Ozal said the construction of the massive dam by Turkish workers and engineers showed ″what we are capable of doing.″

There has been talk in newspapers and diplomatic circles of possible future strains among the countries of the mostly arid region since Ozal said last summer in an off-the-cuff remark that Turkey could block the Euphrates River waters to punish Syria for providing support to Kurdish guerrillas waging war for independence in southeast Turkey.

When completed in 2006, the Southeast Anatolia project will produce 22 billion kwh of electricity annually and irrigate an area of 4 million acres.

The additional energy should double the yield of many crops in Turkey and produce $5 billion worth of surplus in the country, which is agriculturally self-sufficient, officials say.

The first of the Ataturk dam’s eight electricity-generating units is scheduled to go into operation May 1991.