Case Study #1
Dividing Conflict Zones New and Old :
The Tigris-Euphrates Basin

Both the Tigris and Euphrates rise in the mountains of eastern Turkey. The annual flow of the Tigris-Euphrates fluctuates significantly. Combined discharges over 84 km3 (1 km3 = 1 BCM) occurred in the mid-1970s, while drought plunged annual flows below 30 km3 in the 1960s. Analysis of the base years 1957-1969, before major dam construction altered flow patterns, found average annual flow volumes in the Tigris of 49 km3 and 35 km3 in the Euphrates. On average, Turkey provides 90 percent of the water running in the Euphrates and Syria provides the remaining 10 percent. Turkey furnishes about half the flow of the Tigris, while Iraq supplies two-fifths, and Iran the remainder. [37] Both Iraq and Syria are highly reliant on the Tigris-Euphrates for their water supplies. Iraq’s “dependency ratio” on external water flows is 53.5 percent and Syria’s is 72.3 percent. Turkey’s dependency ratio, by contrast, is 1 percent. [38]

As early as the 1950s, Turkish leaders had discussed harnessing the waters of both rivers to drive national economic development and bolster domestic energy production. The resulting project, GAP — from its Turkish name Güneydogˇu Anadolu Projesi, or the Southeastern Anatolia Project — was launched in the 1980s, with plans for twenty-two dams and nineteen hydroelectric power plants. Upon completion, this massive infrastructure project is expected to eventually divert enough water to irrigate 1.8 million hectares of land and provide 27 billion kilo-watt-hours (kWh) of electricity. The project enables the continued economic development of the politically restless Kurdish southeast corner of the country where unemployment remains high and which, given the sentiments of separatist Kurds, Ankara is eager to bring closer under its wing. [39]

The GAP plans sparked considerable concern among Turkey’s neighbors. Using the project’s own figures, one calculation concluded Turkey’s irrigation intentions would imply withdrawing 9 to 10 km3 of water from the Euphrates and 3.7 to 5.6 km3 from the Tigris annually. Other experts suggested the project could entail using roughly half the flows of both the Tigris and the Euphrates when fully implemented. Adding to the impacts expected downstream — because some of the waters diverted by Turkey for irrigation would subsequently drain back from the fields — analysts anticipated that agricultural runoff would pollute 40 percent of the flow entering Syria from Turkey and 25 percent of the Tigris waters running from Turkey into Iraq. [40]

With construction of GAP projects underway, the three riparians in 1983 established the Joint Technical Committee for Regional Waters (JTC) to address all water issues in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin. Yet from the outset, the parties have espoused contrary perspectives on water distribution in the basin. Thus, in 1984, Turkey put forward a plan for joint development of the rivers based on a complete in- ventory of the basin’s land and water resources. Proposed projects would then be compared across the basin as a whole, and those judged most beneficial implemented. At the same time, however, Turkey claims absolute rights to utilize the waters originating within its borders, asserting that it shares the rivers with its neighbors without any legal obligation to accommodate them. In the words of then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel,

“Water resources are Turkey’s and oil is theirs. Since we do not tell them, ‘Look, we have a right to half your oil,’ they cannot lay claim to what is ours.” [41]

Insisting on this right of territorial sovereignty, Turkey figures as one of only three states to have voted against the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (versus 103 votes in favor). Syria and Iraq, by contrast, ground their claims to the Tigris-Euphrates waters on customary principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and acquired historical rights. They argue that Turkey’s appeal to territorial sovereignty violates the obligation not to cause harm and deem the proposed 1984 framework for centralized basin development a ploy designed to favor allocating basin waters to irrigation and hydropower projects in Turkey. [42]

With little direct leverage over Turkey’s upstream water projects, downstream Syria and Iraq resorted to outside issue linkages to influence Ankara. Syria in particular long wielded support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its guerrilla activities against Turkey as a counterweight to Ankara’s potential ability to manipulate flows in the Euphrates. In 1987, for example, the two countries signed dual protocols by which Turkey guaranteed Syria an annual average minimum flow of 500 m3/s on the Euphrates, while Damascus pledged to curtail its support for the PKK. Nevertheless, Turkey frequently failed to comply and Syria soon renewed its backing of the Kurdish group, precipitating serial political crises and military showdowns. In 1990, Turkey halted the Euphrates’ flow for a month during the filling of the Atatürk Dam reservoir. In 1998, Syria’s ongoing assistance to the PKK animated Ankara to accuse the Assad regime of waging an “undeclared war” in Turkey’s southeast. Under threat of armed intervention, Damascus then ceased its support for the separatist movement, expelling rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan and concluding the 1998 Adana security agreement, banning the PKK as a terrorist organization. [43]

Iraq and Syria have also clashed over the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. In 1973 Syria began im- pounding water behind the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates to fill Lake Assad behind the dam. Iraq accused its neighbor of withdrawing one-third of the river’s flow, complaining to the Arab League that Syria was abusing its role as an upper riparian, and threatened to bomb the offending structure. Syria abandoned negotiations and closed its airspace to Iraq in May 1975. Soon, the two countries were amassing troops at their borders in preparation for conflict, averted only when Saudi Arabia brokered a pact in which Damascus agreed to guarantee that 60 percent of the flow of the Euphrates would reach Iraq. [44]

Since that time, Turkey has shifted its stance somewhat on territorial sovereignty, emphasizing instead the possibility of sharing joint benefits through coordinated water management and more openness to environmental cooperation. In 2001-2002, Turkey and Syria issued a Joint Communiqué and Implementing Document committing to common research and training programs. From 2005, the Track II Euphrates and Tigris Initiative for Cooperation has gathered academic analysts and former officials from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq for multilateral discussions. And in March 2008, the three countries officially established a joint water institute. [45]

Nevertheless, despite various bilateral arrangements between them, no trilateral agreement governs river flows or water allocations among the three riparians. Though unfinished, the GAP remains contentious inside and outside of Turkey. Within Turkey, the government — and many Kurds as well — judge the project essential to the socio-economic welfare and integration of one of the country’s least developed regions. Yet the multiple dam projects so far completed have flooded nearly 400 villages and displaced almost 200,000 people, most of them Kurds. [46] Outside of Turkey, Iraq and Syria both blame withdrawals by their upstream neighbor for recurring water shortages while also accusing Turkey of contaminating what little river flow reaches them. Indeed, many experts cast doubt on the long-term political and environmental viability of completing the GAP. The existing diversions and engineering projects have already pared average annual flow volumes in the Tigris-Euphrates from 80 km3 in the period 1965-1973 to 50 km3 in 1989-1998. According to one study, finishing all of the GAP installations would further trim annual flow volumes by 5 km3 while shrinking the marshes by an additional 550 km2. [47] Another analysis simulating the water demands from the full array of planned irrigation and hydroelectric projects concluded that completing the GAP design would cut outflows in the Tigris and Euphrates by 25 percent and 32 percent respectively, rendering Turkey unable to meet its commitment to guarantee minimum flows downstream 25 percent of the time. [48]

Global climate change could place additional strains on the basin’s water resources. Spring and summer snowmelt in the mountains of eastern Turkey accounts for 60 to 70 percent of total annual river runoff. Yet climate change may substantially diminish the winter snows that nourish the Tigris-Euphrates Basin. Climate model runs reviewed by Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Forests suggest that snowfalls in eastern Anatolia could decline by up to two meters (snow water equivalent), implying considerable subsequent changes in stream flows. [49] Other models suggest substantial declines in spring and summer runoff in the Upper Euphrates by 2100. One high-resolution model of the region projects that summer stream flow in the Euphrates could dip to less than 12 percent of its current levels during the peak month of June, while the river’s total annual discharge could plummet 29 to 73 percent by the end of the century. [50]

Model and statistical analyses by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that climate change forcing accounts for half of the increased drying trend already observed around the eastern Mediterranean region over the past century (1902-2010). [51] As the effects of climate change alter the timing of snowmelt and precipitation, tensions could easily flare throughout the basin. Abnormally low precipitation levels in the basin’s Turkish headwaters, for instance, might cause Ankara to with- hold water behind Turkish dams as a reserve to generate hydroelectricity and irrigate crops, to the detriment of downstream water users that rely on the same water to grow food and drive economic activity.

The long-term ecological integrity of the famed Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq remains threatened by huge canals and earthworks con- structed to re-route the Tigris’s and Euphrates’s waters around the marshes they once nourished, and channel these rivers’ waters directly into the Gulf instead. The end result was catastrophic from an environmental standpoint, with 93 percent of the lower basin’s original marshlands wiped out by 2002. Marsh Arabs’ traditional livelihoods and ways of life were also marginalized to the point of non-existence, fulfilling Baghdad’s intention to consolidate government influence in the region. (The UN imposed strict sanctions as a result, requiring Baghdad to pay compensation for war damages and environmental damage. These sanctions, however, restricted Iraq’s ability to restore key social services and infrastructure, with feedbacks to the river system. At the Al-Rustamiyah wastewater treatment plant in Baghdad, for instance, it proved impossible to import spare parts to rehabilitate the plant, resulting in the discharge of 300,000 cubic meters per day of untreated sewage into the Tigris.) To date, little more than a third of the original Marshlands area has been restored. [52]

Today, Iraq’s water infrastructure and usage patterns leave little room for optimism. Urban water supply and sewage systems have fallen into disrepair from years of neglect and lack of maintenance, suffering damage from war, looting, and power cuts. Water loss rates to seepage and wastage hover between 50 to 60 percent, owing to leaky water-distribution networks and pipe ruptures. Meanwhile, many newly developed areas in city suburbs are not served with any potable water. Instead, the population depends entirely on raw, low-quality water provided by private vendors. According to the Ministry of Water Resources, on current trends Iraq’s available water supply could fall to 43 km3 in 2015, far short of the 66.85 km3 the country is then projected to need. [53]

The economic stability of Iraq and Syria depends fundamentally on Ankara’s water management policies as well as their own. Water-related human insecurity in any of the basin countries could reverberate between them via contending claims on water supplies or potential pathways, such as the possibility of increased migration from water-scarce areas. During the drought of 2007 to 2009, for example, precipitation levels across much of the Fertile Crescent dove 60 to 80 percent below normal, while water levels in the Tigris-Euphrates and other water bodies fed by the rivers — such as Lake Tharthar, Iraq’s largest lake — also plunged, causing shortages of irrigation water. Cereal production in Iraq and Syria slumped. From 2006 to 2008, the wheat and barley crops in both countries slid by half or more. [54] In Syria, the UN estimated that 1.3 million people were affected, losing over 90 percent of their income on average, and driving 65,000 families to leave their homes. In Iraq, an estimated 100,000 migrants left stricken areas in the predominantly Kurdish northeast of the country. At the height of the drought in May 2009, the Iraqi Parliament moved to compel the government to demand a greater share of water from Turkey, passing a resolution requiring any agreement signed with Ankara to include an article ensuring that Iraq receive an equitable water supply from the Tigris-Euphrates. [55] With Syria experiencing significant internal unrest and Iraq recovering from two decades of sanctions and war, water resource management capacities in both countries are considerably diminished. Turkey must also tread carefully in its water-rich southeastern region. Without sufficient consultation or involvement of the region’s Kurdish leadership, hydroelectric developments in the region could end up agitating Kurdish separatist factions.

A comprehensive agreement on the Tigris-Euphrates basin remains elusive, despite several decades of promising technical cooperation and bilateral agreements among the three riparian countries. The prevailing Syrian and Iraqi views are that the basin’s waters are a common good, to be shared equally and fairly. Turkey views the headwaters as its sovereign domain, with the freedom to utilize those water resources as it sees fit. Commanding the literal high ground has allowed Turkey great influence over the basin’s hydrology. Ankara has signaled its intention to improve water-sharing relations on the river, declaring its willingness to work with downstream riparians to ease tensions over basin disputes, although substantive actions have not yet been taken. All the pressures described above will complicate water-sharing relationships between the three countries unless new frameworks are devised to take into account the heightened water-supply variability that may become increasingly commonplace.

[37]Kavvas et al.
[38]FAO, Iraq: Country Profile (Rome: FAO AQUASTAT, 2008); FAO, Syria: Country Profile (Rome: FAO AQUASTAT, 2008); FAO, Turkey: Country Profile (Rome: FAO AQUASTAT, 2008).
[39]Republic of Turkey, Southeastern Anatolia Project Action Plan 2008-2012 (Southeastern Anatolia Project Regional Development Administration, May 2008); A. Akpinar and K. Kaygusuz, “Regional sustainable water and energy development projects: a case of Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) Turkey,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16, no.2 (2012).
[40]Peter Beaumont, “Restructuring of Water Usage in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin: The Impact of Modern Water Management Policies,” Yale Forestry and Environmental Studies Bulletin 103 (1999), p.172; Marwa Daoudy, “Asymetric Power: Negotiating Water in the Euphrates and Tigris,” International Negotiation 14, no. 2 (2009), p. 370.
[41]Murat Metin Hakki, “An Analysis of the Legal Issues Concerning Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP),” World Affairs 169, no.4 (2007), p.176.
[42]Ali Çarko ĝ lu and Mine Eder, “Domestic Concerns and the Water Conflict over the Euphrates-Tigris Basin,” Middle Eastern Studies 37, no.1 (2001); Hakki; Daoudy.
[43]Serdar Güner, “The Turkish-Syrian War of Attrition: The Water Dispute,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 20, no.1 (1997); Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy 17, no.1 (2010).
[44]Kevin Freeman, “Water Wars? Inequalities in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin,” Geopolitics 6, no.2 (2001); Daoudy.
[45]Aysegul Kibaroglu et al., “Cooperation on Turkey’s Transboundary Waters: Analysis and Recommendations,” in Turkey’s Water Policy, Aysegul Kibaroglu et al. eds. (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2011); Daoudy.
[46]Leila M. Harris, “Water and Conflict Geographies of the Southeastern Anatolia Project,” Society and Natural Resources 15, no.8 (2002); Jongerden.
[47]C. Jones et al., “Hydrologic impacts of engineering projects on the Tigris-Euphrates system and its marshlands,” Journal of Hydrology 353, nos.1-2 (2008).
[48]A. Tilmant, J. Lettany, and R. Kelman, “Hydrological Risk Assessment in the Euphrates-tigris River Basin: A Stochastic Dual Dynamic Programming Approach,” Water International 32, no.2 (2007).
[49]Republic of Turkey, First National Communication of Turkey on Climate Change (Ankara: Ministry of Environment and Forestry, January 2007), p.165; A. Arda Şorman et al., “Modelling and forecasting snowmelt runoff process using the HBV model in the eastern part of Turkey,” Hydrological Processes 23, no.7 (2009).
[50]Akio Kitoh et al., “First super-high-resolution model projection that the ancient ‘Fertile Crescent’ will disappear in this century,” Hydrological Research Letters 2, no.1 (2008); A.G. Yilmaz and M.A. Imteaz, “Impact of climate change on runoff in the upper part of the Euphrates basin,” Hydrological Sciences Journal 56, no.7 (2011).
[51]Martin Hoerling et al., “On the increased frequency of Mediterranean drought,” Journal of Climate 25, no.6 (2012).
[52]Hassan Partow, “Environmental Impact of Wars and Conflicts,” in Arab Environment: Future Challenges, Mostafa K. Tolba and Najib W. Saab eds. (Beirut: Arab Forum for Environment and Development, 2008), pp.164, 165; UN Integrated Water Task Force for Iraq, Managing Change in the Marshlands: Iraq’s Critical Challenge (New York: UN, 2011), p.8.
[53]UN/World Bank, “Joint Iraq Needs Assessment Working Paper: Water and Sanitation,” October 2003, p.5; UN in Iraq, “Press Release: On the occasion of the 2011 World Water Day, the UN Calls for Improved Water Resource Management, Policies and Governance for All,” Baghdad, 22 March 2011; UN Assistance Mission for Iraq/UN Country Team in Iraq, “Water Resources Management White Paper,” June 2010, pp.8,15.
[54]Ricardo M. Trigo et al., “The intense 2007-2009 drought in the Fertile Crescent: Impacts and associated atmospheric circulation,” Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 150, no.9 (2010).
[55]UN, Syria Drought Response Plan 2009-2010 Mid-Term Review (New York: UN, February 2010); Robert A. McLeman, “Settlement abandonment in the context of global environmental change,” Global Environmental Change 21, Supplement (2011), p.115; Jongerden, p.138.