ANKARA, Turkey — In a change of heart, Turkey said Thursday it would strive to increase the amount of water it releases to Syria and Iraq through the historic Tigris and Euphrates rivers but warned that it too was suffering from a severe drought.
Hours earlier, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz had said his country was already too overstretched with water and power demands and could not raise the flow of water any further.
Water disputes threaten to disrupt the newly warm relations between Turkey and its neighbors and complicate wider efforts to bring stability to the region, as the populations of the three countries increase and the demand for water grows.
Drought-stricken Iraq has accused upstream neighbors Turkey and Syria of taking too much from the rivers and their tributaries. Below-average rainfall and insufficient water in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have left Iraq parched for a second straight year, wrecking swaths of farmland and threatening drinking water supplies.
"It is very important and Iraq is already getting much less water due to some dams constructed in Turkey and Syria," said Nagesh Kumar, a water expert at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. "There is potential for international conflict in this region on water disputes."
Turkey's environment minister, Veysel Eroglu, said his country would try to release as much water as possible over its legal obligation of 500 cubic meters per second.
"There is a serious water crisis in Iraq, we are taking this into account," he said at the end of a meeting Thursday with the Iraqi and Syrian irrigation ministers. "But our own capabilities are limited."
Eroglu would not say how much more water Turkey could allow its neighbors. Yildiz said Turkey was already releasing on average 517 cubic meters per second, sacrificing its own energy needs to help others.
The drought has also dealt a blow to Iraq's hopes that reductions in sectarian violence over the last year would fuel an economic recovery. Instead, lower-than-expected oil prices have crimped government revenues and the scarcity of water is forcing Iraq to spend money to import crops like wheat and rice to meet domestic demand.
Minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press said Iraq had requested 500 cubic meters per second at the Syrian-Iraqi border during September and October to help farmers during the irrigation period. That's about twice the amount Iraq receives currently, a Turkish Energy Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
According to the minutes, Turkey said it would be difficult to increase the water flow by that amount because of the drought.
Abdul-Latif Jamal Rasheed, Iraq's Minister of Water Resources, said Turkey and Syria had shown understanding.
"The situation in Iraq is serious, we are asking that they help us in our hour of need," Rasheed said. "They have said that they will help us as much as they can."
Rasheed did not say how much water was currently flowing into Iraq and there were discrepencies in the figures the ministers gave concerning water levels. Earlier, Rasheed had hinted that Syria wasn't sending all of the water it should down to Iraq.
He said reporters "ask me at every meeting whether there will be a war over water." "The issue cannot be solved through war but through neighbors negotiating between them with the best of intentions," Rasheed declared.
Nader al-Bunni, Syria's irrigation minister, contended his country was letting more water flow into Iraq than required by agreements.
Sharing water from the Tigris and Euphrates has been a potential source of conflict since the 1970s when Turkey and Syria began constructing dams. To avoid strife, the three nations have been holding a series of water meetings – Thursday's was the sixth gathering in the last two years.
Turkey has recently established friendly ties with Syria – a country it had long accused of harboring Kurdish rebels – and has been actively participating in Iraq's reconstruction.
Turkey in the past has been advocating using water more efficiently through joint projects instead of increasing water flows downstream.
On Thursday, the three nations agreed to establish joint stations to measure water volume, monitor and exchange information about climate and drought, and create joint water education programs.
They will meet again in Baghdad next January.
Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu and Gulden Alp contributed to this report.