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Middle East: Water Dispute, Part 1: Turkey, Iraq, Syria Disagree On Rivers' Use

  • Charles Recknagel

Turkey, Iraq and Syria are locked in a water-sharing dispute prompted by Ankara's ambitious plans to develop its impoverished southeast. In part one of a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel takes a closer look at the dispute and examines the claims of the different countries.

Ankara, 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the Mideast, there are few issues as contentious as who owns the water.

And there are few rivers as disputed as the Tigris and Euphrates.

Upstream, where both rivers originate in the highlands of Turkey, Ankara is in the midst of building 21 dams across the Tigris and Euphrates as part of its Southeast Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish initials as GAP.

The project, at an estimated total cost of $32 billion, is Turkey's most ambitious development program ever and is aimed at irrigating vast areas of the country's parched and restive southeast.

At the same time, GAP aims to generate enough hydroelectric power to fuel the southeast's economic growth and help Turkey meet its growing national energy needs.

But downstream, two other countries say Turkey's development is at their expense.

Iraq, which uses both the Euphrates and Tigris to irrigate its fields, says that Turkey is already using more than its share of the two rivers and causing water shortages. It says the water shortages have aggravated three successive years of drought which is reported to have seen river levels drop by 45 percent.

Syria, too, says Turkey is depriving it of water -- which Damascus counts upon for economically developing its own central and eastern regions.

Here is one measure of how far apart the three countries are in the water dispute. The combined claims which the three states put upon the Euphrates exceeds its supply by more than half.

And their combined claim on the Tigris exceeds that river's supply by 12 percent.

The three countries have met repeatedly over the past two decades in intermittent water talks. But so far the talks have made no progress.

Aysegul Kibaroglu is an expert in Turkish water policy at Bilkent University. She says the principal deadlock is over Syria's and Iraq's desire to negotiate the Euphrates alone, while Turkey insists talks also include the Tigris.

"The parties in the negotiations couldn't agree on the subject of the negotiations and on the object of the negotiations. Which [means] that Turkey did not agree that only the Euphrates should be discussed during the negotiations, [while] Syria and Iraq insisted upon that. Turkey proposed that the Euphrates and Tigris rivers should be considered as a single river system and should be discussed together in the negotiations so as to find more areas to cooperate on."

The heart of the problem is the heavily used Euphrates, which arises 90 percent in Turkey. Syria and Iraq argue that its waters should be equally shared between them -- with Turkey keeping one-third and sending the rest downstream.

Ankara charges its downstream neighbors with exaggerating how much water they need. But Turkey says it is willing to take water from the more lightly-used Tigris to supplement the water in the Euphrates to solve the problem. And it has proposed combining the two rivers via a canal in Iraq to do so.

That idea, however, is opposed by Iraq, which currently consumes some 82 percent of the Tigris' water. Baghdad argues the Tigris should be outside the discussions, something which draws counter-charges from Ankara that it is Iraq -- not Turkey -- which is refusing to share its water. Some 52 percent of the Tigris originates in Turkey but the rest originates inside Iraq.

With current talks deadlocked, the major water cooperation agreement in the region remains a 1987 interim accord by which Turkey agreed to release half the capacity of the Euphrates to Syria. But that deal -- which is supposed to hold only until a final accord is reached -- is rapidly being overtaken by the construction of the GAP dams, which will increase the amount of water remaining in Turkey.

Kibaroglu says Turkey is now releasing half the flow of the Euphrates to Syria in accordance with the interim accord, and sometimes more than that amount. But she says once GAP is finished this decade -- Turkey's self-imposed deadline is 2010 -- the Turkish irrigation projects will consume more than half the Euphrates' water.

Yet if the water sharing dispute for now looks intractable, water experts say that much of the problem may in fact be caused by inflated consumption estimates put forward by all sides themselves. Those estimates may reflect the countries' own development aspirations and desire for a strong bargaining position more than a real shortage of water.

Kibaroglu says that studies of the two rivers' capacities have shown there is enough water to reasonably meet all the three countries' water needs.

"From the objective data and from the observations so far it has been argued that the Euphrates-Tigris river system as a whole has got reasonably sufficient amounts of water to be used by all three riparians. If that demand can be assessed very objectively, it is not a real problem to allocate the rivers reasonably. It is not a real problem that the supply does not meet the demand [because those] there are mismatches on paper."

So far, proposals that the three countries carry out joint studies of their water needs and the rivers' capacities have led nowhere, reflecting the high stakes -- and mistrust -- on all sides.

Turkey sees its GAP project as its best hope for developing its southeast after 15 years of fighting with the separatist Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That battle has now subsided with the arrest last year of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Meanwhile, Syria wants as much water as possible to support the 40 percent of its workforce which is employed in agriculture, a sector which today accounts for a quarter of its gross domestic product.

And in Iraq, whose economy is based on oil, some one third of the population still depends upon agriculture for their livelihoods. And that makes Iraq -- like Turkey and Syria -- as loathe to give up its claims to the Tigris and Euphrates as its rivals.

(Part 2 looks at Turkey's goals for its GAP project)