ANKARA/BAGHDAD - Turkey has temporarily stopped filling a huge dam on the Tigris River after complaints from neighboring Iraq, which is suffering water shortages, officials said on Thursday.
Turkey's ambassador to Baghdad and Iraq's water minister also said the two countries had agreed that when Ankara resumes filling the Ilisu dam in July it will still allow sufficient water to flow into Iraq.
The dam, more than 20 years in the making, will generate electricity for a large area of southeast Turkey. But it has been heavily criticized over its impact on the environment and on the tens of thousands of villagers who will be displaced. Its waters will also submerge a 12,000-year-old town.
Turkey started filling the Ilisu dam last week, prompting deep concern over water shortages in Iraq. Ankara had already delayed the planned start by three months at the request of its southern neighbor.
Turkey's ambassador to Iraq, Fatih Yildiz, said on Twitter Turkey stopped filling the dam on President Tayyip Erdogan's orders to address Iraq's worries.
"As of this moment, Tigris waters are being transferred to Iraq without touching a drop of it in Ilisu," Yildiz said. "With the second decision to postpone, we have shown once again that we can put our neighbor's needs ahead of our own."
The filling will resume on July 1, he said, adding that water will still flow into Iraq in accordance with agreements between the two countries.
Iraq's Minister of Water Resources Hassan al-Janabi said Iraq had asked for the postponement and that the two countries had agreed on a way to fill it while still allowing adequate water supplies to Iraq.
"We asked them to postpone until the end of June. Turkey agreed and we were very happy," he told a news conference in Baghdad. "The way the dam gets filled is very important ... and we found a filling method that guarantees Iraq's interests."
Around 70 percent of Iraq's water resources flow from neighboring countries, especially in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers which run through Turkey.
The dam, which first got Turkish government approval in 1997, is a key part of Turkey's Southeastern Anatolia Project, designed to improve its poorest and least developed region.
But Western export credit insurers quit the project saying it did not meet international standards on the environment and preservation of cultural heritage. The government later secured credit from three local banks to continue construction.
Erdogan said in an election rally two weeks ago that the 9 billion lira ($2.00 billion) dam, which he described as a "truly gigantic project" would start generating electricity next year.
Once it is filled, Ilisu will completely or partially flood 199 villages and the 12,000 year-old town of Hasankeyf, which is home to 78,000 people, according a report from a campaign group, The Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive.
Hasankeyf was used by the Romans as a fortress to ward off Persians. The town was later destroyed by Mongols and rebuilt in the 11th century by Seljuk Turks. Some of the ancient structures have been moved to a nearby area.