Water wars in the heart of Mesopotamia?
The capture of the Mosul Dam by fighters affiliated with the Islamic State has revived fears that water could be used as a weapon in the Middle East. A 2003 U.S. military intelligence assessment suggested that a catastrophic dam failure could send a 65 foot wall of water into Mosul. As the surge of water swept down the Tigris, portions of Baghdad might find themselves under 15 feet of water. A 2011 study predicted dam failure could kill 500,000. The dam’s destruction would reverberate into southern Iraq, disrupting agriculture in predominantly Shi‘ite southern Iraq. While fears of the dam’s destruction remain both real and relevant, the Islamic State has so far decided it has more to gain by keeping the hydroelectric plant running, and that flooding Baghdad is not worth the sacrifice of Mosul. However, while analysts worry about the actions of the Islamic State, the Kurdish drive for independence could be just as disruptive in the long-term by exacerbating existing disputes about the division of regional water resources. The problem begins in Turkey, where nearly 90 percent of Euphrates water and 50 percent of Tigris water originate before flowing into Syria and Iraq. The Tigris-Euphrates system is the only river system besides the Nile in the Middle East which offers an economically exploitable water surplus. A Delicate Balance of Competing Water Claims Perhaps the greatest complexity with regard to either Kurdish independence in Iraq or expanded Kurdish federalism in Syria and/or Turkey will be the impact of any new entity on division of water resources in the Tigris and Euphrates basin. Turkey has long defended its diplomatic management of water resources, but has not hesitated to play hardball in pursuit of its national interest. For example, Turkey was one of only three countries (Burundi and China being the others) that voted against the UN General Assembly’s 1997 Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses on what constitutes fair and reasonable distribution of water resources. Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel was blunt when in 1992 he declared, “We do not say we share their oil resources. They cannot say they share our water resources. This is a right of sovereignty. We have the right to do anything we like.” Disputes over water resources date back more than eight decades. Bilaterally and trilaterally, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq states have tried to regulate water resources and resolve disputes. In 1946, for example, Iraq and Turkey signed a Treaty of Friendship and Neighborly Relations, which addressed Euphrates and Tigris water sharing. Such agreements worked as long as both countries remained undeveloped, but tension increased alongside industrialization. Adding Syria to the mix only further complicated questions over downstream rights. In 1962 Syria and Iraq agreed to exchange information on water discharge and river levels, and Iraq demand that it should receive a fixed share of Euphrates water. After multiple rounds of negotiations over the next four years, the two countries agreed Iraq should receive 59 percent of Euphrates flow. In the 1970s and 1980s Syria, Iraq, and Turkey began laying the groundwork for a series of dams and hydroelectric plants. In 1974, for example, Syria completed the Thawra Dam; Turkey followed suit with the Keban Dam the same year. The reduced water flow led to an escalating series of accusations among Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. As drought increased in Iraq, hostility almost erupted into open warfare between Iraq and Syria.Only a Saudi-brokered agreement between Damascus and Baghdad, in which Syria received 40 percent of the Euphrates Water and Iraq 60 percent, averted war. Such agreements were mere band aids, though, readily voided as Turkey, Syria, and Iraq continued to prioritize their own development. Iraq briefly suspended oil supplies to Turkey in 1977, after Turkey decided to alter the flow of the Euphrates, in part to begin construction of the Karakaya Dam. At the time the new Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Yumurtalık) pipeline was filling two-thirds of Turkey’s petrol demands. Turkey refused to sign a binding agreement with Syria or Iraq, but it did subsequently promise the World Bank that it would allow 500 cubic meters per second of flow over the Karakaya Dam in exchange for international funding. In 1982 Turkey and Iraq formed a joint technical committee on regional waters, and Syria joined the following year. Forming a committee is one thing, coming to an agreement quite another. It took five years for Turkey and Syria to reach an agreement. Turkey would allow Syria 500 cubic meters per second of Euphrates discharge, but claimed the right of first use. While this settled matters between Turkey and Syria, it did not for Iraq. It was only in 1989 that Syria and Iraq agreed to a provisional division of Euphrates water released by Turkey. Bickering over water flow continues, however. Should Iraqi Kurdistan become independent, or should Syrian Kurds extend their reach to the Euphrates inside Syria, then they effectively void all previous agreements because the new entity would either declare itself not bound by existing treaties or insist on renegotiating its own allotment. Can Water Disputes Erupt into Violence? In the last decades of the twentieth century it became fashionable in university circles to suggest that water shortages in the Middle East could lead to war. While academics may have exaggerated the threat, it was not without basis. Turkey and Syria skirmished in 1987 when Turkey responded to Syrian support for Kurdish insurgents by suspending water sharing agreements. When Turkey turned down the spigots, Syrian MIGs retaliated by downing a Turkish reconnaissance plane inside Turkish airspace. In January 1990 Syria formally asked Turkey to reduce its diversion of the Euphrates, and in May Iraq demanded that Turkey release a minimum of 700 cubic meters per second to Syria, so that Iraq’s downstream proportion would also rise. When Turkey refused, Iraq retaliated by refusing to renew its 1984 security protocol. Once again water disputes threatened to morph into broader hostility. As Turkey moved to fill the Atatürk Dam, effectively stopping the Euphrates’ flow for one month, Iraq threatened to bomb the dam, and both Iraq and Syria joined together in a boycott of Turkish companies involved with its development of southeastern Anatolia. Indeed, disputes continue to simmer. In December 1995 and at the behest of Syria, seven Arab states signed a declaration accusing Turkey of releasing contaminated water into Syria. The Arab League demanded Turkey stop building dams on both the Tigris and Euphrates, and began to retaliate against European companies working on Turkish hydroelectric projects. Decreasing flow on the Euphrates led to a 50 percent cut in electricity to Nasiriya, Iraq’s fourth largest city, in August 2009. “Iraq has not faced a water shortage like this,” Iraqi Water Resources Minister Latif Rashid, an ethnic Kurd, quipped in 2009, blaming the shortage on water diversion. The Iraqi government claimed that Turkish dams had reduced flow into Iraq by nearly three-quarters. Not only electricity and water for agriculture are at stake: increased salinity as salt water from the Persian Gulf and Shatt al-Arab flows northward compounds the problem. Iraq has set its maximum saline limit at 1,500 parts per million, lethal to all crops but date palms, but during the 2009 drought salinity levels peaked at 40,000 parts per million in southern Iraq, and they have since leveled out at 12,000 parts per million. Iraq reserved some of its vitriol for Syria, as well. In a 2010 newscast the state-controlled al-Iraqiyah warned that “neighboring countries meet to wage a new war on Iraq, which Syria is spearheading through drying up the water of the Tigris River.” Could Kurdish Independence Spark a Water War Given the animosity that now exists between Iraqi Kurds and both Sunni and Shi‘ite Iraqis, any Kurdish claim to water resources could just as easily spark conflict. Already there are warning signs about how Kurdish independence could spark conflict within southern Iraq. In March 2014 prominent Iraqi Shi‘ite politician Abbas al-Bayati warned Iraqi Kurdistan not to dam water that he said rightfully belongs to the Iraqi government. Uday al-Khadran, governor of the largely Sunni Al-Khalis district, likewise condemned “attempts of Kurdistan Region President Masud Barzani to wage a water war against several governorates by reducing their water share from the dams, which should be under the control of the central government.” Not many issues can unite Iraqi Arabs across the sectarian divide. Both Americans and Iraqis are right to worry about the security and integrity of the Mosul Dam. But that represents just one dam among dozens in the Tigris and Euphrates watersheds. Not only explosives placed by terrorists, but also the establishment of new political entities can spark conflict in an already volatile region. Kurds often argue that there can be no peace in Mesopotamia until they achieve their national aspirations. That may be true, but if the recent history of water disputes in the region is any indication, Kurdish statehood may simply swap one type of conflict for another. Notes: 1. Andrew G. Wright, “Iraqi Dam Has Experts on Edge until Inspection Eases Fears,” Engineering News-Record, May 5, 2003. http://enr.construction.com/news/Front2003/archives/030505.asp 2. Amanda Ellison, “An Unprecedented Task,” International Water Power & Dam Construction (London), November 3, 2011. http://www.waterpowermagazine.com/features/featurean-unprecedented-task 3. Mahmoud Habboush and Aziz Alwan, “Islamic State Funds Caliphate With Mosul Dam as Terror Spreads,” Bloomberg, August 11, 2014. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-11/islamic-state-funds-caliphate-with-mosul-dam-as-terror-spreads.html 4. Ryan Wilson, “Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in Tigris-Euphrates Basin,” Future Directions International (Perth), August 28, 2012. 5. Ali Çarkoğlu and Mine Eder, “Water Conflict: The Euphrates-Tigris Basin,” in Barry Rubin and Kemal Kirişci, ed. 6. Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multiregional Power. (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2001), p. 235. 7. Ali Çarkoğlu and Mine Eder, “Water Conflict: The Euphrates-Tigris Basin,” p. 237. 8. Quoted in Ryan Wilson, “Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin.” Future Directions International (Perth), August 28, 2012. 9. Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2010, p. 138. 10. Baskın Oran. Türk Dış Politikası, (Istanbul: Iletisim Y., 2008), p. 795. 11. Ali Çarkoğlu and Mine Eder, “Water Conflict: The Euphrates-Tigris Basin,” p. 225. 12. Martin Chulov, “Water Shortage Threatens Two Million People in Southern Iraq,” The Guardian (London), August 26, 2009. 13. Paul Williams, “Euphrates and Tigris Waters—Turkish-Syria and Iraqi Relations,” in Dhivendra Vajpeyi, ed. Water Resource Conflicts and International Security. (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011), p. 43 14. Ryan Wilson, “Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin.” Future Directions International, August 28, 2012. 15. Al-Iraqiyah Television, in Arabic, May 27, 2010, 1700 GMT. Translation courtesy of the Open Source Center. 16. “Al-Bayati: Qati’a Kurdistan L’almiya ‘an Muhafithat Akhri Yatalabu Tahrukan Itha Ma Thabut” (“Al-Bayati: If Kurdistan Cut Off Water from Other Provinces, then Action is Required”), Al-Sumariya (Baghdad), March 1, 2014. http://goo.gl/ivu2B8 “Qaimqamiyat al-Khalis Tahadud al-Barzani biqati‘a al-Turuq Limuajahat Harb al-Miyah” (“District Governor of Khalis threatens to cut off roads in response to Barzani’s water war,”) Al-Sumariya (Baghdad), March 9, 2014 http://goo.gl/fJNWYX