Friday, September 4, 2009

The Middle East's Troubled Waters

Something worth keeping an eye is the growing dispute between Iraq, Syria and Turkey over water issues. All three countries, which share many of the same river borne water resources, are going through a period of decreased rainfall. The difference, of course, is that Turkey is upstream from Syria and Iraq, which means that it controls much of the water that eventually trickles down to the other two countries. Iraq, in particular, is accusing Turkey of taking too much of the water that flows through the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow through all three countries, because of its extensive dam network on the two rivers. (For more on Turkey's dam building project in the southeast of the country, take a look at this Eurasianet piece of mine.)

From a Reuters report on the brewing water crisis:
Turkey has failed to meet a pledge to release more water down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to Iraq, an Iraqi minister said on Thursday, and called for a coordinated water policy in the region.

In June, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Ankara will guarantee a minimum 400 cubic metres of water per second from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to help its neighbour weather a drought.

But Iraq's Water Resources Minister Abdul Latif Rasheed told Reuters that Iraq was still not getting enough water from Turkey, and said his country's agriculture and drinking water supplies were at stake.

"It isn't happening and we want Turkey to implement that agreement. The amount of water we are getting is fluctuating," Rasheed said on the sidelines of a meeting between Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian ministers to discuss water sharing from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"The minimum requirement Iraq needs is 600 cubic metres. Sometimes it fluctuates to less than 200 cubic metres. We need two or three times that amount," he said.

Iraq accuses Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria, of choking the Euphrates with hydroelectric dams that have restricted the flow, damaging the farm sector already suffering from decades of war, sanctions and neglect.

The dispute is a delicate diplomatic issue for Iraq as it seeks to improve ties with its neighbours. Turkey is one of Iraq's most important trading partners.

Turkish officials say flows to Iraq have been decreased by Syria, which also shares the Tigris and Euphrates basin.

But Rasheed said Iraq was getting less water since Turkey began building dams in the southeast of the country under the GAP development project....

....Turkey says it has occasionally limited the flow on the Tigris and Euphrates to less than 400 cubic metres per second to meet its own needs during extremely dry weather.

Syria's Irrigation Minister Nader al-Bunni said his country was "concerned" about the amount of water that flows out of Turkey and said neighbours sharing the Euphrates and Tigris rivers needed to find a solution that is "sustainable from a social and humanitarian point of view".

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to abandon their land in Syria, a major farm commodities producer in the region, due to the effects of the country's worst drought in decades.
(You can read the full article here.)

[UPDATE I -- Turkey has apparently now reversed course on the issue, saying it would release more water than the minimum required, although it did not specify how much.)

Water issues and climate change are clearly going to pose major political and diplomatic challenges for the Middle East in the years ahead. For some interesting perspectives on this, take a look at the most recent edition of Bitterlemons, an online roundtable on Middle East issues. One of the articles, titled "Conflict Ahead," by Aharon Zohar, a specialist in regional and environmental planning, offers this warning:
These issues will affect stability mainly in countries and societies that are already destabilized due to ethno-religious conflict, weak economies and environmental decline. One expression of this could be violence between countries rich in water and energy resources and those without, particularly where they share drainage basins of international rivers: Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Nile; Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Euphrates; and Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel over the Jordan and its tributaries. Another instance could involve internal destabilization of moderate states like Egypt and Jordan due to water shortages....

....Readiness to counter the consequences of global warming in the Middle East demands coordination and problem-solving on a broad regional level. Yet in view of the hostility and tension that characterize regional inter-state relations, this option appears less likely than specific ad-hoc cooperation between specific countries.
[UPDATE II -- The Washington Post has an interesting piece about some environmentally suspect joint projects Israel and Jordan are undertaking in an effort to deal with their looming water shortage problems. Worth reading.)

(photo -- a dam near Sanliurfa, in southeast Turkey, part of the country's GAP dam and irrigation project. By Yigal schleifer)

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