Middle East Hydropolitics: Conflict and Scarcity

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

In 1920, a committee was established by France and Britain (then the region’s mandated powers) to coordinate efforts toward the utilization of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. Attempts since to create a sustainable governance framework and management system for both, have faltered.

The Middle East and North Africa is the most water-scarce region in the world with both rivers at the centre of the region’s water crisis. They originate in Turkey and flow down through Syria and Iraq where they provide the various populations’ water supplies, including irrigation water for farming. The majority being regional subsistence-based farming rather than commercial.

Climate change, increased demand for water, poor resource management and wasteful agricultural policies have created conflict between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While hotter temperatures and diminished rainfall are expected to make the crisis worse.

The conflict between the region’s three core riparian states (Iraq, Syria and Turkey) can be traced back decades. In 1974 when Turkey began to fill the reservoir behind the Keban Dam and Syria began to fill the reservoir behind the Tabqa Dam, water flow downstream into Iraq dropped by nearly two-thirds. This coincided with a number of draughts that had hit the country during the same period. The resulting conflict brought both countries to the brink of war which was only averted by Saudi mediation efforts.

Since this time, Turkey and Iran have been building dams that reduce the flow of the rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates. Turkey has built at least 20 dams on the Euphrates and the tributaries that feed it. As such, the water flow to Iraq has been reduced by 80%. While Iraq relies heavily on both rivers for drinking water, irrigation and for generating electricity, it neither controls the flow of its rivers nor has the infrastructure to clean them.

The same thing is happening with the Tigris. Turkey is building a number of dams as part of its Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), designed to improve its poorest and least developed region. In 2018, it was reported that as Turkey began filling its newly built Ilisu Dam, so much water was blocked that residents in Baghdad could cross the Tigris by foot. As of this year, water levels in Iraq have dropped 50%. Aware of the urgent need to address the water crisis, the Iraqi foreign ministry announced in May this year that it was holding talks with neighbouring countries to secure the country’s water supply.

In 1987 and 1990 two bilateral accords were reached that created water-sharing agreements for the Euphrates-Tigris river basin. However, these bilateral accords did not serve the goal of achieving the efficient and equitable allocation and management of water resources in the basin. They were mostly seen as interim measures, deriving from the then-prevailing political atmosphere.

Furthermore, there are additional challenges not addressed within these agreements. Both rivers also face depleting water levels and deteriorating water quality, due in part to environmental degradation, mismanagement of resources and years of conflict.

The impact of climate change will continue to challenge existing water use patterns in the region. Furthermore, these protocols do not include provisions to address the growing social and economic needs of the respective populations.

Unchecked environmental degradation and resource depletion have jeopardized the basin’s safety and sustainability, creating a multitude of issues for the countries that rely on it for drinking water, irrigation and hydropower.

All three core riparian states experience a high drought risk, while Syria and Iraq also have a high risk of riverine flooding. Therefore, it is of major importance to develop equitable and ecological water use policies tailored to each state’s water consumption needs through long-term, multilateral cooperation.

Regional cooperation is required to tackle the shared challenges brought by water scarcity. Each state should focus on better management and allocation of water, alongside improving irrigation policies, while also increasing public awareness campaigns around water conservation.

If not, the situation may lead to both internal civil unrest and transboundary conflict. Countries are diverting ever greater water supplies through unprecedented levels of dam building and water extraction, leaving regions vulnerable to the consequences of this activity. A drought in Syria between 2007−2010 triggered the mass migration of 1.5 people from rural to urban areas. According to researchers, the discontent that followed contributed to the Syrian uprising that began in 2011.

Local protests sparked by water shortages have been spreading across the region in recent years. In 2018, months of violent demonstrations saw thousands take to the streets of Basra in response to severe water shortages, water contamination and frequent power outages. The existing hydro-insecurity in the region is likely to worsen due to the already fragile economic, social and political conditions plaguing the region.

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