A view of Tigris river flowing in Iraq
A view of Tigris river flowing in Iraq Image Credit: Shutterstock

In the 1980s, the CIA had warned that there at least ten places in the world where war could break out over water shortages — most of them in the Middle East. The region has not experienced these “water wars” yet, but the situation is fast becoming precarious.

In per capita terms, the Middle East is the region with the least fresh water available. With 1% of the available water resources, it harbours over 5% of the global population. Many of the countries in the region rely heavily on waters from transboundary rivers, shared among several countries.

In recent years, war threats in the region’s Nile River have captured global attention. Ethiopia’s construction of a massive dam called GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) has brought huge uncertainty for Egypt and Sudan over their future water availability.

Turkey Dam
Attaturk Dam is the centerpiece of the 22 dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris, which comprise the integrated Southeastern Anatolia Project (Guney Dogu Anadolu Projesi, known as GAP) Image Credit: Shutterstock

While the international community is occupied with Ethiopia’s GERD project, Turkey’s GAP (Southeastern Anatolia Project) has already been exacerbating water scarcity downstream of the Euphrates-Tigris River system for decades.

The Euphrates and the Tigris are the two largest rivers in the Middle East. Both rivers originate from the Anatolian highlands in Turkey and flow through the Mesopotamian desert plain in Syria and Iraq and unite in Iraq at Qurna to form the Shatt al-Arab, which runs into the Gulf.

Turkey contributes 90%, and Syria 10% of the water flow to the Euphrates River. In the case of Tigris, Turkey contributes 40%, Iraq 41%, and Iran 9% of the flow.

In the first half of the last century, water was abundant in the rivers compare to their national needs. Thus, the countries in the basin had mostly focused on using the river water in a limited manner for domestic needs.

Since the 1960s, the growing development aspirations resulted in increasing competition as the hydro-political relations in the basin were shaped by the building of massive water projects unilaterally.

In the 1960s, Turkey started its GAP project, which became a major integrated regional development scheme intended to utilise large parts of the Euphrates-Tigris waters for irrigation, hydropower generation, and water supply. This massive project of 22 large dams aims to capture Turkey’s 25% water resources and the rationale is to improve socioeconomic conditions in the Southeastern Anatolia region.

Challenge to water security 

Turkey’s GAP has been posing a severe challenge to the water security situation in Syria and Iraq. There were some instances of bilateral cooperation in the 1970s and 1980s, but the Cold War-era politics made it difficult for any sustainable water sharing mechanism to develop.

Turkey used the dams to get concessions from Syria and Iraq on the Kurdish issue. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Turkey also cut water supplies to Iraq.

Again, changing regional security dynamic brought some signs of cooperation in the basin in the early years of this century. Turkey signed bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on transboundary water management with Iraq and Syria. Even Syria and Turkey agreed to build a dam jointly in 2009.

However, the hope of water-induced cooperation in this highly volatile basin didn’t move much. The mistrust for Turkey led to the rejection of the MoUs by the parliaments in Iraq and Syria.

The civil war in Syria brought an end to finding a mechanism for cooperative sharing of the Euphrates-Tigris water. Turkey used the political instability downstream to strengthen its control of the water and use it as a bargaining chip to strengthen its territorial security. The Daesh also often used dams in Iraq and Syria as water weapons in 2015-2016.

Besides Turkey’s GAP project, Iran has also started to develop its water resources. Though its contribution is relatively minimal to the basin, however, it increases Iraq’s water woes. Iraq is 90% dependent upon the freshwater supply from the Euphrates-Tigris, almost as much as Egypt is dependent upon the Nile.

Even the GAP project is not fully completed; there is already at least a 40% reduction in water flow to Syria and Iraq. The minimum flow period in the basin is in July and August. The recurring droughts have made the water situation this year much worse.

Severe water scarcity

Iraq and Syria face severe water scarcity and fail to meet demands for domestic water supply and irrigation. Iraq’s famed marshlands, a UNESCO heritage site, are virtually disappearing, creating ecological and humanitarian crises.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has already warned 50,000 farm households in Syria are at the risk of losing their livelihood due to critically low water levels in the Euphrates River. Kurdish leaders in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria accuse Turkey of using the water from the Euphrates River as a weapon against the Kurdish population.

The water crisis has undoubtedly brought severe challenges for the peacebuilding in Syria and Iraq. For more than a decade, Turkey has not shown any interest in negotiating to share the Euphrates-Tigris water.

Turkey has always maintained its exclusive upstream right to exploit the waters of the shared river systems. It was one of the three countries that had voted in the UN General Assembly in 1997 against the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

Water scarcity has not led to wars between countries yet, but it has contributed to causing civil wars. The severe drought had made the conflict in Syria worse in 2011.

To support sustainable development, the international community must ask Turkey to change its hegemonistic approach to the shared Euphrates-Tigris water.

Civil wars have a high rate of reoccurrence. Thus, for durable peace in the basin, Iraq and Syria need to get their fair share of water through a basin-based framework for water sharing.