Scarcity of drinking water is without doubt the most imminent threat to the planet.
While blue gold, as water is often called, becomes less and less accessible, the risk of wars being fought over water scarcity rises.
According to UN data, more than one billion people have limited access to fresh drinking water, with highly densely populated areas most affected.
Global population growth, drought from climate change, and the growing need for water for field irrigation following the industrialisation of the agriculture sector, contribute to this scarcity.
Countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are particularly vulnerable to water stress, and the risks it poses to governments and populations.
The river basins of big rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Indus, the Brakmaputra, the Mekong, and the Amu Darya could become the “battlefields” that will redefine the geopolitical balance of the new millennium.
According to the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, the troubled Middle East area seems to be at high risk for water stress. Its water availability is, in fact, 1,500 m3/yr per capita, while the average annual population growth is about 2%, or seven million people.
The agricultural sector absorbs 90% of already scarce water resources, leaving only 10% for the nutrition and hygiene of the population.
According to recent estimates, the average 1,500 m3 is expected to decrease, by around two thirds per capita over the next twenty years.
For these reasons, and considering the territorial morphology the rivers flow through, it is easy to understand why the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, two of the main water reserves in the Middle East, might become objects of contention.
Originating in Turkey (in eastern Anatolia, where Kurds constitute a major community), the two rivers flow south through Syria and Iraq. The Tigris meets with the Euphrates near Basra and together form the Shatt al-Arab waterway that flows into the Persian Gulf.
They are the main source of water in the three countries, but their asymmetric watercourse has given rise to a water dispute.
For the time being, there are no regional agreements to manage the Tigris and the Euphrates. Syria and Iraq are often forced to accept Turkey’s political decisions that claims rights strictly due to its geographical position.
Geopolitical tensions date back to the foundation of the Southeastern Anatolia Development Project.
The development project envisages the construction of 22 dams and 19 power plants. It also plans the construction of a tunnel to take the waters of the two rivers into the Harran plain, to irrigate 1.7 million hectares of land.
The dispute arose because Syria uses the waters of the Euphrates to irrigate fields and for the Tabqa dam, which created Lake Assab.
Iraq uses the Euphrates’ waters for seven dams, to irrigate fields, and for hydropower generation, to satisfy the country’s energy and agricultural needs.
The reasons for the dispute are easily understood: according to the Turkish plan, Turkey would use the Euphrates’ waters at the expense of the other riparian States. These fear their food sovereignty might be threatened.
Although Ankara periodically provides Syria and Iraq with minimal amounts of water, it has never recognized the international status of the Tigris/Euphrates watercourse.
Syria and Iraq, on the other hand, have used all the tools available to put pressure on Turkey, in order to guarantee the water supply they need.
Damascus’ support of Kurdish activists on the Turkish-Syrian borders (starting from the protection initially given to the historic PKK leader, Ocalan) has been used as blackmail against feared Turkish restrictions.
Baghdad, instead, relies on the oil supply that Turkey desperately needs.
Turkey, on the other hand, asserts that its dam system regulates the river course of Mesopotamia, and provides Syria and Iraqi with more efficient agricultural activities.
Iraq claims that it has ancestral “acquired rights,” and therefore made a proposal to Ankara, and indirectly to Damascus, to share the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers among the riparian States through a mathematical formula.
Syria has proposed a similar solution, by claiming that the two rivers are “international watercourses” which can be classified as “shared resources.” The waters of those rivers should be shared among the riparian States according to a quota to be determined as follows. Each riparian State should declare its demand on each river separately. The capacities of both rivers, in each riparian State, should be calculated. If the total demand does not exceed the total supply, the water should be shared according to the stated figures. If the total demand for water declared by the three riparian states exceeds the water potential of a given river, the exceeding amount should be deducted proportionally from the demand of each riparian State.
Turkey, appealing to the International Law, replied that the Turkish State was the first to develop a dam and water distribution system. They think this should be taken into consideration, claiming therefore a priority role among the riparian States.
Turkey proposed Syria and Iraq an alternative project: the Three-Staged Plan. This covers: the exchange of all available data on river sediments and precipitations; verification of the data; verification of water quality; calculation of water-flow at various stations, with the estimation of water uses and above all water losses in the Mesopotamic hydro system.
Turkey intends to handle this problem with a policy of purely bilateral agreements (not regional) in order not to compromise its supremacy. Considering what is going on in Syria, with many northern villages under Kurd control, the use of water as a strategic tool by Turkey, to face a potential Kurdish threat, cannot be ruled out.
For Turkey, a solution to the river dispute would mean a step towards the realisation of its geopolitical projects aimed at acquiring regional leadership, and of a greater “strategic depth in Asia,” as well as stronger border control to resolve the “Kurdish Question.”