The falling levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers warn of an impending water crisis in Syria and Iraq, two countries engulfed in war and economic and political crises with no end in sight. The rivers – once the lifeblood of the two countries – have been reduced to swamps since Turkey and Iran constructed hydropower facilities that have considerably reduced the flow of the rivers. The situation has repercussions as dire as those of the wars in Syria and Iraq, in particular for demographic change and the destruction of the economy, since agriculture remains a major contributor to the GDP of both countries.
Root of the problem
The root cause of the dwindling flow of the Tigris and the Euphrates is Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish acronym GAP, in which Turkey has built a series of dams along the two rivers with the aim of doubling the amount of irrigable land in the Anatolia region and generating hydroelectric power. The dams must be filled annually, and in years of drought, Turkey uses the majority of the water from both rivers, at the expense of Syria and Iraq.
Turkey recently cut off the Euphrates water supply to Syria, significantly reducing the water level. The flow rate has not exceeded 200 m³ per second since then, in violation of the 1987 agreement between Syria and Turkey which stipulates that Turkey must release water to Syria at a rate of 500 m³ per second, 60% of that water being allocated to Iraq.
In 2011, the Iranian Government approved a project to build 152 dams, some lying on the Sirwan and Lower Zab rivers, which flow into the Tigris in the Iraqi governorate of Sulaymaniyah. In recent years, Iran has completely cut off both rivers in the summer, which has had a major impact on water reserves in the Darbandikhan and Dukan dams in Sulaymaniyah and on people and agriculture in the two river basins.
The Tigris disaster has been exacerbated as Turkey has taken to diverting water to the Ilisu dam, which has halved Iraq’s share of the river’s flow. According to estimates, 696,000 hectares of Iraqi agricultural land will be deprived of water, and water resources will be reduced by 11 billion m³. International reports state that in the last decade, Iraq has lost around 80% of its water flow from Iran after the latter cut off some 35 main tributaries. This is according to the Iraqi parliamentary committee on agriculture and water resources, which indicated that only seven tributaries from Iran remain and that Iran will be building new dams in the coming years, despite the 1975 Algiers Accord concluded between the two countries, which includes a protocol on water.
Frameworks governing water relations between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq
Turkey does not recognize the Euphrates and Tigris as international rivers, declaring them instead to be “transboundary waters” subject to the absolute sovereignty of Turkey. This “Turkification” of the two rivers, as described by some experts, gives Turkey the right to decide freely how much water it allocates to other riparian States, taking what it wants to meet its own needs.
An agreement brokered in 1975 by the World Bank, the main financier of water constructions on river embankments, forced Turkey to divide the needs of the three countries evenly against the average annual water flow. However, Turkey reneged on this agreement and signed a protocol with Syria in 1987 that granted Turkey 50% of the average annual river inflow in order to fill the reservoir of the Ataturk Dam until the end of 1993, when Turkey’s share would return to a third.
Despite this, these agreements have remained temporary and are largely governed by political factors in the three countries and by developments on the ground; Turkey holds the upper hand as it controls the headwaters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, which are Syria and Iraq’s most important water sources.
Turkey’s water strategy
The power differential between the Turkey and its two Arab neighbors, in addition to its NATO membership, have allowed Turkey to manage its water issues with Syria and Iraq through faits accomplis, exploiting the weakness of Syria and Iraq and their inability to do more than verbally object.
Turkish leaders have previously stated that their country has the right to its water resources just as Arab countries have the right to their oil resources, which indicates Turkey’s ambition to exchange the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for Syrian and Iraqi oil and gas. Earlier, Turkey had proposed the idea of commodifying water and selling it to Israel (the Peace Pipeline) but did not find a project funder. Meanwhile, Israel is buying Turkish water shipped in plastic containers.
Turkey has long used water as a weapon to blackmail and pressure Syria and Iraq in order to achieve political and security gains. It did not activate its water agreement with Syria until the two countries signed a security agreement in September 1992, under which Syria agreed to prevent the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Syria and Lebanon and to allow Turkish forces to pursue the party inside Syria.
The Syrian and Iraqi governments have thus far failed to respond to Turkey in kind. Iraq imports the equivalent of $20 billion in goods from Turkey and $10 billion from Iran; if the Iraqi Government wished, it could use this economic trump card to force Turkey and Iran to abide by previously signed treaties and agreements. Before the revolution, Syria was Turkey’s gateway to the Arab world, and the Syrian regime granted it many investment benefits; despite this, Syria did not properly leverage the situation to achieve a balance in the Euphrates water issue.
Repercussions of the water crisis
In his 2013 book The Revenge of Geography, American strategic analyst Robert D. Kaplan predicted that water shortages in Syria and Iraq would have such an impact on political and societal stability in the two countries that it could lead to their disintegration and transformation into States belonging to Turkey and Iran.
Indeed, the water crisis in Syria and Iraq have driven instability. Many studies indicate that the 2008–2009 drought in Syria, which led to the displacement of more than one million people from the eastern regions of Syria to Dara’a and Damascus, was one of the causes of the 2011 revolution. Likewise, the unrest that began in Basra and spread to the governorates of central Iraq in 2018 was sparked by the massive shortage of drinking water after Iran cut off the tributaries of the Tigris.
Experts anticipate that the water crisis in Syria and Iraq will considerably reshape the two countries, especially in terms of population distribution, production methods, and consumption patterns, which would perpetuate long-term instability. This situation may spread to other countries in the region, as large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis are forced to migrate from newly created wastelands.
Turkey and Iran will almost certainly not retreat from their water policies toward their Arab neighbors, as they have realized that there are no consequences for their actions. On the contrary, the water crisis is significantly increasing Turkey and Iran’s influence over both Syria and Iraq, especially as the shortage of “blue gold” will be the prime issue of the coming decades, and whoever controls the tap will control the political orientations of countries afflicted by water poverty.
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