Both the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers originate in Turkey and flow to the Shatt al-Arab basin in southern Iraq. The Euphrates crosses Syria and Iraq, with Turkey and Syria contributing 90% and 10% to its water flow respectively. On the other hand, the Tigris flows from Turkey to Iraq, with Turkey, Iraq and Iran contributing 40%, 51% and 9% of its flow respectively (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013).
Although Iran contributes to the flow of the Tigris, it is generally not considered a main co-riparian in the Euphrates-Tigris (ET) basin. Hence, this case study will only focus on the three main riparian states, i.e. Iraq, Syria and Turkey (see however a case study on Iraq and Iran over the Shatt al-Arab river).
Between cooperation and conflict
Relations between the three main co-riparian states have been punctuated by both highly cooperative and conflictive events. Until 1960, as the water used by the co-riparians was low, relations between the three countries were considered “harmonious” (Kibaroglu, 2014). However, at the beginning of the 1960s, several factors led to tensions amongst the states and thus inhibited cooperation on water management of the ET basin.
Unilateral water development projects lead to tensions
At that time, the co-riparian states unilaterally initiated large-scale water development projects in an uncoordinated way, thereby affecting river flow. As the region’s population growth led to higher water demands, the initial purpose of these projects was to regulate river flow and prevent floods (Gleick, 1994; Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013).
However, it rapidly became a plan for hydropower generation to enable Turkey to limit its dependency on oil for energy. In addition, environmental factors aggravated tensions between the co-riparians. For instance, in 1975 Turkey and Syria simultaneously started to use the Keban (Turkey) and Taqba (Syria) dams during a period of drought. This dispute, solved thanks to the mediation of Saudi Arabia, almost led to an armed conflict (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013). Moreover, variations in precipitation throughout the seasons, coupled with very inefficient irrigation systems and the cultivation of water-intensive crops, intensified water disputes (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013).
External factors intensify the dispute
Besides these environmental aspects, other factors unrelated to water played a major role. First, while the Cold War deepened tensions over water, Turkey joined NATO whilst Syria and Iraq kept close ties with the USSR (Kibaroglu, 2014). Second, the issue with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) was a major bone of contention between Iraq and Turkey until the 2000s (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013). Lastly, the territorial dispute over the Hatay province was a major source of tension between the countries until 2005 (Kibaroglu et al., 2005; Stern, 2005).
1980s-1990s: Culmination of the conflict
The tensions brought the dispute to another level in the 1980s and 1990s, as Turkey started to use water as an instrument to put pressure on the other co-riparian states and link it to issues not related to water (Gleick, 1994). For instance, in 1987 Turkey and Syria brokered an agreement in which Turkey committed to release 500 cubic metres per second of water to Syria, whilst the latter committed to put an end to its support for the PKK (Kibaroglu, 2014; Lorenz & Erickson, 2013).
Moreover, in 1990, Turkey cut off the Euphrates flow when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 (Gleick, 1994). In this period, cooperation seemed to be in a deadlock (Vajpeyi, 2012). Turkey's refusal to sign the 1997 UN Water Convention, being one of only three countries to vote against it in the UN General Assembly, added to this deadlock. Turkey, the upstream riparian, thereby indicated that it did not feel bound to comply with the principles that the convention sought to codify, especially the obligations to not cause significant harm to co-riparian states and to share the river equitably (FAO, 2008).
The large number of factors which play a part in the eruption of conflict shows that grievances over water management are not the only sources of conflict in the ET basin. This also shows how Turkey, as an upstream state, could instrumentalise water to pressure states located downstream. After a period of acute tensions between the co-riparians during the 1980s and 1990s, the late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a significant improvement in relations amongst the co-riparian states, which enabled the reactivation of cooperation over water management (Kibaroglu, 2014).
Late 1990s-early 2000s: Improvement of relations amongst the co-riparians
The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a significant improvement in relations amongst the co-riparian states. Politicians at the highest level of decision-making enabled the evolution of water policies from hostile to cooperative (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013). In 1998, Syria expressed its will to re-start Joint Technical Committee meetings, which had been attempted unsuccessfully in 1983. The expulsion of the PKK's leader from Syria was a major step towards improvement of relations (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013).
Moreover, in 2001, a Joint Communiqué between Syria and Turkey – which advocated sustainable use of the region's land and water resources through joint projects and knowledge exchange – was a turning point in the co-riparian states’ relations (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013). Although this communiqué did not lead to any concrete actions, it acted as a framework for agreements made at the end of the 2000s (Kibaroglu, 2014).
Amongst these initiatives, the most significant are the Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) on water management signed between Iraq and Turkey and between Syria and Turkey in 2009. Moreover, in the same year, both Syria and Turkey signed an agreement to jointly build a dam on the shared Orontes river in the Hatay province, which used to be a bone of contention between the neighbours (Kibaroglu, 2014).
Another important achievement was the founding of the Euphrates-Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC). Following the regime change in Iraq, and improving Turkish-Syrian relations, the ETIC was established as an informal Track 2 diplomacy initiative in 2005, with the aim of promoting cross-border water dialogue and scientific collaboration (Kibaroglu & Sayan, 2021).
Factors explaining increased cooperation
A number of factors can explain this increased cooperation on water management. These can be divided into three categories: internal changes, external factors of influence and changes in the regional context.
The first range of factors corresponds to internal changes in Turkey. The early years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power following their election victory in 2002 was characterised by a “zero problems with neighbouring countries” approach (Djavadi, 2016), which contributed to improving relations in the ET basin. Furthermore, years of (failed) negotiation processes in the basin and Turkey’s increasing participation in global fora on water have also exposed Turkey to the “benefit-sharing” idea based on water use efficiency, pollution protection and cooperation. As such, Turkish authorities becoming increasingly aware of the pressure and unsustainability of large-scale regional irrigation projects on the Euphrates (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013). Moreover, the decision-making process of Turkey's water legislation became more inclusive and decision-makers met with stakeholders, NGOs, universities and water users to elaborate on water legislation (Kibaroglu, 2014).
The last factor is the general improvement of the political climate between the countries at the time, and the cooperation on non-water issues to achieve ‘win-win’ situations, particularly those pertaining to broader security issues (Daoudy, 2008). In 2003, Syria and Turkey signed a trade agreement and both countries joined forces in their fight against the PKK in northern Iraq (Emerson & Tocci, 2004). The reactivation of cooperation also became possible because the co-riparian countries developed complementary objectives. For instance, Iraq and Syria wanted to diversify their economy whilst Turkey wished to increased trade with its neighbours (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013). Actions to achieve such ‘win-win’ situations have so far been limited, although the potential is promising: for example, Turkey could store water for Iraq in its territory where evaporation losses are low, while Iraq could offer Turkey cheap energy in exchange (Alwash, 2016).
Interruption of cooperation
Despite the cooperative events since the beginning of the 2000s, collaboration on the ET basin has ground to a halt. Although cooperation efforts were attempted at high political levels, both MoUs could not be ratified as they did not fulfil the legal requirements of each respective country’s parliament and were therefore rejected by both the Syrian and Iraqi parliaments (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013). The resentment and distrust of Iraq's population towards Turkey regarding the upstream use of the Euphrates have also been a reason for the Iraqi parliament to reject the MoU (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013; UPI, 2009).
Furthermore, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 strained relations between Turkey and Syria. During the war, the Damascus government switched sides to become a de facto ally of the PKK, which ultimately meant that Syria was retreating from its earlier agreement with Turkey to combat the movement (Mueller et al., 2021).
Moreover, several key prerequisites for transboundary planning and management remain lacking. For example, there are currently no basin-wide data monitoring systems on discharge and water quality, the implementation of which could help build trust among the co-riparians (Mueller et al., 2021).
Environmental risks of lack of water management cooperation
While water-sharing issues have largely been addressed on an ad hoc, bilateral basis (Hassan et al., 2018; Mueller et al., 2021), the absence of a trilateral agreement makes it problematic to collectively and sustainably address the severe environmental and water challenges in the basin (Kibaroglu, 2014). More broadly, it also impedes efforts to ensure future water security and climate resilience.
Scholars have pointed out that the environmental impacts of irrigation plans – which led to salinity and pollution through chemicals – are likely to have “greater, and more immediate” effects on the basin’s population than a reduction in water quantity (Kibaroglu, 2014). Considering the importance of agriculture for Turkey, Syria and Iraq, this degradation of soils and waters would put more pressure on the livelihoods of local populations (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013).
In addition to these environmental impacts, climate change could heighten the risks faced by the ET basin’s population. By mid-21st century, warmer temperatures are projected across the basin – in the southern part of the basin and east of the Tigris river for example, temperatures could rise by up to 1.2°C (Mueller et al., 2021). Rainfall levels are projected to decline by as much as 40mm per year during the same period in the northern part of the basin and in the border area between Iraq and Iran – areas that are important for the generation of river discharge (Mueller et al., 2021). Indeed, runoff in the upper Tigris river basin is projected to decline by 30% after 2040, which will significantly influence downstream water availability (Şen, 2019).
Although relations amongst the co-riparians had become more cooperative since the beginning of the 2000s, cooperation over the management of the ET Basin has now stalled. As a result, there are currently no official agreements or frameworks in place to support equitable sharing and sustainable management of water resources in the region (Hassan et al., 2018). Considering the projected impacts of climate change and worsening environmental degradation in the basin, it is critical to find solutions to mitigate these effects in a region where livelihoods rely heavily on agriculture. While some observers argue that the risk of inter-state war over the ET basin remains low (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013), the lack of progress in cross-border water cooperation could lead to “progressively growing fragility”, especially in Iraq and Syria (Mueller et al., 2021).
Resilience and Peace Building
The late 1990s and early 2000s have witnessed a significant improvement in co-riparian relations. In 1998, Syria expressed its will to restart Joint Technical Committee meetings. Moreover, in 2001, a Joint Communiqué between Syria and Turkey, which advocated sustainable use of the region's land and water resources through joint projects and knowledge exchange, was initiated. This communiqué acted as a framework for the Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) on water management signed between Iraq and Turkey and between Syria and Turkey in 2009. This same year, Turkey and Syria agreed to jointly build a dam on the shared Orontes River, which used to be a bone of contention between the neighbours. The reactivation of cooperation also became possible because countries developed complementary objectives. Another important achievement is the establishment of the Euphrates-Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC) in 2005 to promote cross-border water dialogue and scientific collaboration.
Improving actionable information
Turkey’s increased participation in the global fora on water has exposed the country to new information on water use efficiency, pollution protection and cooperation. Turkish authorities have become aware of the unsustainability of large-scale irrigation projects on the Euphrates. Moreover, the decision-making process of Turkey's water legislation became more inclusive as decision-makers met with stakeholders, NGOs, and universities. The involvement of experts to elaborate water legislation played a major role in promoting cooperation amongst the co-riparian states.
A trilateral agreement is imperative in order to collectively address the basin’s severe environmental challenges, especially as major temperature, precipitation and runoff changes are predicted in the coming decades. The degradation of soils and water in the region will continue to put more pressure on local populations.
Resources and Materials
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- Lorenz, F. & Erickson, E.J. (2013). Strategic Water: Iraq and Security Planning in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press.
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