BACKGROUND: Water has been the Middle East’s most treasured resource ever since the world's first Neolithic agrarian societies developed in the great Mesopotamian "Fertile Crescent" alluvial plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers around 9,000 B.C. Even then, the region suffered from violence related to water, as when two Sumerian city-states, Lagash and Umma, clashed over the draining of a freshwater canal in the southern portion of today's Iraq 4,500 years ago.
Turkish water disputes with its downstream neighbors dates back to 1990 when the Atatürk Dam the centerpiece of the government’s ambitious Southeastern Anatolia Project was completed. The Euphrates flow was restricted despite Syrian and Iraqi protests to fill the dam’s Lake Atatürk Dam reservoir, now Turkey’s third largest.
Interest in hydroelectric power has a long history in Turkey. In 1929 President Mustafa Kemal said, “It is imperative that the technical competence and capacity of the General Directorate of State Hydraulics Works, which is one of the main measures taken for our economy, be firmly established.”
Given the region’s arid climate and surging population growth, water conflicts with Turkey have an era of inevitability, especially as Ankara sees GAP, under development since the late 1960s, as critical to developing the water resources of southeastern Anatolia, home to most of Turkey’s Kurds and historically the nation's most impoverished region. GAP was launched with the construction of the Keban Dam in 1975.
GAP stretches across more than 28,500 square miles of Gaziantep, Diyarbakir, Şanlıurfa, Mardin, Adıyaman, Batman, Kilis, Şırnak, and Siirt provinces. Seven projects are located in the Euphrates river basin and six are in the Tigris basin. The Tigris originates in the highlands of Eastern Turkey, but the main contribution to the river comes from the tributaries in Iraq; Turkey contributes around 51.8 percent of the Tigris' flow. GAP projects, in particular, the Ilısu dam under construction, have provoked concern in Damascus and Baghdad that the project, when completed in 2015, will further substantially reduce the rivers’ downstream flow. According to an official in Iraq's Water Resources Ministry, when Ilısu is completed, it will reduce the Tigris waters by 47 per cent a year, depriving Mosul of about 50 percent of its summer water requirements Iraq annually requires about 50 billion cubic meters of water, with the Tigris providing 60 percent and the Euphrates the remaining 40 percent.
In mid-January 1990, when the first phase of the Atatürk Dam was completed, Turkey dammed the Euphrates entirely for a month to begin filling up the Atatürk Dam reservoir, despite vehement Syrian and Iraqi protests. Iraq threatened to bomb the dam, which led Turkey to mobilize its military and threaten to cut off the water flow to Syria and Iraq permanently. The Atatürk Dam and the irrigation projects emanating from it have now reduced the Euphrates’ flow by roughly a third.
IMPLICATIONS: The Atatürk Dam is the largest of the GAP’s 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power stations and network of irrigation canals being built in the Euphrates, Tigris and Upper Mesopotamia basins. It is highly unlikely that the Turkish government will reverse its commitment to GAP, estimated to cost $32 billion, as it projects that it will double the Turkey's irrigation land and hydroelectricity production and also increase regional per capita income by 50 percent. GAP is also expected to quadruple the gross national product and provide employment to two million people. When completed, GAP is projected to irrigates about 1.8 million hectares of land and also generate 7,476 megawatts of electricity.
Syria's anger over the GAP project was a major factor in its decision in the mid-1990s to provide support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.
On May 12, 2009, in the midst of a severe water-supply shortage, Iraq’s Parliament demanded that the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki demand a greater share of water from Turkey; it was claimed that due to Turkey’s GAP infrastructure work, spring water reserves in Iraq had dropped to a total of 11 billion cubic meters, compared to 40 billion cubic meters in 2006. The Iraqis insisted that rainfall had not been below normal levels and that the shortages had been created by Turkey’s GAP dams.
Four months later, Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian ministers met in Ankara on Sept. 3, 2009 to discuss water shortages in the Tigris and Euphrates. Syrian Irrigation Minister Nader al-Bounni commented, "Syria and Iraq are badly in need of water but our Iraqi brothers feel the need much more... it is why this meeting is so important. Our dams are empty and we have human needs." Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız replied, "We are aware of the water needs of Syria and Iraq. Water is not plentiful in Turkey, and therefore we cannot exceed the determined amount too much." Unfortunately for Syria and Iraq, the gathering produced no breakthroughs.
Turkey did sign bilateral agreements with Iraq in 1984 and Syria in 1987 which committed Ankara to provide a minimum water flow of 500 cubic meters per second in the Euphrates. Tensions did not end with the agreements however, and a tripartite agreement would have dealt more equitably with the water distribution.
Another point of conflict over the Tigris and the Euphrates concerns the status of the basin formed by the two rivers. While Turkey insists that there is just one basin - formed by the Shatt al-Arab River, created by the union of the Tigris and Euphrates, Iraq and Syria maintain that there are two different basins formed by the two rivers.
The last major GAP dam to be built, the Ilısu Dam will generate nearly 2 percent of Turkey's electricity supply, and create an 11 billion cubic-meter reservoir, but will also reduce the flow of the Tigris from Turkey into Iraq by 50 percent.
Compounding the downstream impact of Ilısu and other GAP projects, Turkey has experienced one of its most arid winters and springs in recent years. A six-year drought has crippled agriculture in southern Iraq, while Syria is also suffering from drought in addition to the legacy of the 2006-2010 drought.
The Euphrates, the only major river to flow through Syrian territory, is Syria’s sole reliable source of running water for both for its irrigation programs and for maintaining water levels in the Tabqa Dam’s Lake Assad reservoir to sustain the dam’s hydroelectric output.
Iraq, as the furthest country downstream, suffers from both Turkish and Syrian water policies. Many Iraqi villages are said to have been depopulated because of water shortages along the Euphrates and Tigris. Iraqi officials maintain that while Turkey claims to release 500 cubic meters of river water downstream each second from its dams, the actual amount is closer to 200 cubic meters per second.
The Iraqis and the Syrians believe that Turkey is asserting itself as a regional hydrological superpower. Over the next decade Turkey plans to build an additional 1,700 dams, nearly doubling the country’s facilities. Turkey’s attitudes towards its neighbors’ complaints are encapsulated in Turkish President Süleyman Demirel’s remarks at the July 25, 1992 dedication of the Atatürk Dam, where he said, “Neither Syria or Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources and they cannot say they share our water resources.”
CONCLUSIONS: There now exists an international legal mechanism to resolve trans-boundary river disputes - the 1997 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The convention needed ratification by 35 members to become international law. Vietnam was the 35th state to accede, on May 19, 2014. In 1997 Turkey voted against the convention; Syria and Iraq have both ratified it. Whether the Turkish government will soon flout international law remains the unanswered question; in the meantime, Syrians and Iraqis continue to suffer the effects of a prolonged drought.
Compounding Iraqi misery, the Islamic State (IS) has been using water as a weapon of war. When the IS took control of the Fallujah dam in April 2014, the Islamist militants closed off the water supply to the south Euphrates using the dam, then reopened it, flooding major areas and wasting potable water. IS militants then captured the Mosul dam on August 7 before being driven the site ten days later. IS militants also attempted to seize the Haditha Dam in Anbar province, Iraq's second largest dam. On August 10, IS urged Turkey to release more water from the Euphrates River, warning that the “Islamic State” will otherwise do it from Istanbul when it "liberates" the city.
As unrest continues to roil the Fertile Crescent, whether water is used as a tool of inconsiderate state policy or a weapon of war, the suffering of civilians and farmers has dire political consequences. The severe drought in Syria between 2006 and 2010 was one important trigger behind the civil war that started in 2011.
In the short term, the situation is worsening. On Sept.4, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said during a press conference that a long period of drought had exhausted Turkey's reservoirs and impacted electricity production, noting, “This is not a desirable situation. Our rainfall has plummeted and we are unable to come up with the amount of energy we need from our hydroelectric plants. We are seeing the lowest levels since 2007. While a quarter of our energy was produced by water, now we are only producing a fifth from water sources. Regarding our domestic sources, this is a loss which we are forced to compensate by using natural gas and other sources.”