Mitigating Conflict over Water in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—the most water-scarce region in the world—has arguably borne the brunt of climate change in the planet. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the issue of hydro-insecurity, defined by the Strategic Foresight Group generally as the inability to cope with current water-related challenges as well as the vulnerability to future ones. A 2018 report stated that in MENA, “more than 60% of the population has little or no access to drinkable water and over 70% of the region’s GDP is exposed to high or very high water stress.” Given that water is essential for human survival, energy and food production, and socioeconomic development, the consequences of hydro-insecurity are especially problematic for a region that, in recent history, has been beset with profound political instability and conflict.

This includes the Euphrates-Tigris (ET) river basin, whose fertile banks were home to the world’s earliest civilizations. Today, however, unchecked environmental degradation and resource depletion have jeopardized the basin’s safety and sustainability, creating problems for the four states that rely on it for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower. Baseline water stress is high in the three core riparian states (Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) while the fourth, Iran, faces extremely high stress. The three core riparian states also face medium to high drought risk, and Syria and Iraq in particular face high riverine flood risk. Therefore, long-term, multilateral cooperation is necessary to develop equitable and ecological water use policies that satisfy each state’s water consumption needs. Otherwise, both natural and human forces are likely to worsen their hydro-insecurity, in the process straining the already-fragile economic, social, and political conditions of each state. Ultimately, this exacerbates both internal and transboundary unrest and conflict in a dangerous cycle.

Environmental Conditions in the ET Basin

Impact of climate conditions and human behavior. Climate change has endangered water availability in the ET basin in numerous, interrelated ways. Droughts are increasing in duration and intensity, desertification has proliferated, sand and dust storms are more frequent, snowmelt in mountainous areas is accelerating, and flash floods are intensifying. All of these factors compromise agricultural yields. Due to rising sea levels in the Gulf, water availability is further reduced by the salinization of inland aquifers as well as by saltwater intrusion into coastal freshwater aquifers and the Shatt al-Arab confluence. Aquifers in transboundary basins also suffer from overuse. A major consequence of such factors is crop failure and the subsequent loss of agricultural income from water-intensive crops such as wheat, which is particularly problematic for rural and impoverished populations in each riparian state.

Government mismanagement and insufficient regulations have exacerbated these issues. Irrigation tariffs, for instance, are often based on the size of the land irrigated, not on water use, which facilitates the cultivation of water-intensive crops. Irrigation facilities themselves are unevenly distributed, with some areas solely dependent on rainfall (and more susceptible to drought as a result), while other areas are over-irrigated, which results in water logging and waste. Furthermore, water prices in the three core riparian states are subsidized but do not cover the full cost nor generate profits, so the financial loss is borne by the supply side of the water system (usually the state). Subsidizing water prices has not been coupled with ways to reduce consumption or minimize waste.

Some of the impoverished populations are also compelled to purchase water from private contractors, thus straining their already-limited financial resources. Pollution is another area of concern as irrigation and drainage systems are inefficient, water treatment facilities are lacking, and regulation is weak regarding agricultural runoff and discharges of sewage, industrial waste, and byproducts of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. Where applicable, investment in water supply has also been strained by unsustainable population growth and urbanization.

Syria and Iraq are also vulnerable to the consequences of dam-building activity in Turkey and Iran, given the two Arab states’ respective midstream and downstream positions. 

Syria and Iraq are also vulnerable to the consequences of dam-building activity in Turkey and Iran, given the two Arab states’ respective midstream and downstream positions. Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which consists of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants in the ET basin, is of particular concern to both states. Upon its completion, up to 70 percent of the natural flow of the Euphrates, 40–50 percent of its observed flow, and 50 percent of the Tigris’s flow would be stopped. Further, 40 percent of the Euphrates River’s waters from Turkey to Syria and 25 percent of the Tigris River’s waters from Turkey to Iraq would be polluted. Meanwhile, the downstream flow of the Euphrates from Syria to Iraq would pollute 50 percent of that area of the river’s waters. Syria’s dependence on external water resources is at 80 percent, but 65 percent of its resources depend on the overall water supply from the Euphrates. Iraq is in an even more precarious position as an additional 35 percent of common waters from the Euphrates would also be withdrawn if Syrian river projects are completed.

Hydro-insecurity as a cause and consequence of conflict. If environmental degradation––especially when compounded by harmful human activity––continues unabated, the factors that facilitate or exacerbate unrest and conflict will intensify. Underdevelopment and marginalization precipitate the migration of rural, farming, and impoverished populations to cities or other hydro-insecure areas. Migrants, internally displaced persons, and refugees are, in part, a product of hydro-insecurity while also acting as a source of pressure on water supply systems elsewhere (often in multiethnic regions). This contributes to strain that leads to social unrest and competition. The Strategic Foresight Group highlights “water refugees” as a growing phenomenon in the ET basin, where 57 percent of Syria’s displaced population and 12 percent of Iraq’s migrated due to recurring droughts.

Resource scarcity can instigate tension and competition along ethnic and sectarian lines as well because of the rural-urban divide, especially if such cleavages coincide with economic disparities.

Accordingly, when compounded by ineffective government action, resource scarcity can instigate tension and competition along ethnic and sectarian lines as well because of the rural-urban divide, especially if such cleavages coincide with economic disparities. For example, poor public services, including water and electricity, were among the catalysts for protests in Iraq. Conditions of relative deprivation can draw people closer to their ethnic identities due to shared grievances and a sense of group cohesion, which can facilitate mobilization for conflict. In fact, low-income countries that suffer from high unemployment and poverty are more likely to experience conflict; this diverts resources from productive activities to those that inflict destruction or try to address it, only to stymie development and increase the risk of future instability.

The severe drought and subsequent food and water shortage in Syria from the mid to late 2000s, for example, were catalysts for its civil war and worsened hydro-insecurity and other developmental areas, both there and in neighboring regions. Internal and transboundary displacement is a consequence of the conflict, in which various belligerents—including Turkey, Iran, and their proxies—are active. Accordingly, state and non-state actors alike—to varying extents—bear responsibility for the refugee crisis in the region. Of the roughly 5.8 million Syrian refugees, 3.6 million reside in Turkey and 241,000 in Iraq. Another 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced persons (IDPs). Moreover, the refugees and IDPs often live in dilapidated and unsafe conditions in hydro-insecure areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, thus increasing already-extensive water stress. While pollution and overuse should be sufficient for the stronger riparian states to reconfigure the aims of Turkey’s GAP and other dam-building projects, the threat of infrastructure strain, economic stress, and communal tension that comes with transboundary refugee flows surely makes such issues even more pertinent.

Of course, there are other actors at play, such as the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, which would need to be consulted at the very least given its location at the intersection of each state and its administration of territory that includes the Tigris and several of its tributaries. Additional variables complicate matters as well, particularly regarding Syria. The Syrian government is not in full-control of the country despite recapturing most of the territory that it had lost earlier in the war with the help of Russian and Iranian-backed forces. Moreover, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces control hydro-insecure regions in the northeast, while Turkish forces and Turkish-backed militias control other hydro-insecure areas across the north, including Idlib. That is why any multilateral agreement among the four riparian states may be contingent on a resolution to the conflict, the odds of which seem slim given the prospect of resumed hostilities.

Riparian Geopolitics

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (1992), Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Water Convention, 1997), and Law of Transboundary Aquifers (2008) have sought to enshrine riparian relations into international law, but as with other international regulations, self-compliance is necessary in the absence of a supranational authority that can enforce rules. Moreover, of the four basin states, only Syria has signed, acceded, and ratified the 1997 Water Convention, while Iraq has acceded but not yet ratified it. Turkey and Iran are not party to it.

Officials from the core riparian states have met on a regular basis to negotiate over water consumption in the ET basin, producing several bilateral agreements. However, the arrangements were limited and thus insufficient to address the deeper issues facing these riparian states’ hydro-insecure populations. In 1987, Turkey committed to an annual minimum flow of 500 meters3/second at the Turkish-Syrian border, while 1.25 billion cubic meters of the Tigris’s waters were allocated to Syria on an annual basis. A 2002 security protocol reaffirmed this agreement. In 1989, Syria and Iraq agreed that the latter’s share of the Euphrates across the Syrian-Iraqi border would amount to 58 percent of the water volume crossing the Turkish-Syrian border.

Apart from the demarcation of the Shatt al-Arab waterway under the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iran is absent from any major water-use agreements.

Nevertheless, these disjointed agreements failed to address a variety of issues, including longer-term volumetric allocations and polluted return flows from irrigation. Moreover, apart from the demarcation of the Shatt al-Arab waterway under the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iran is absent from any major water-use agreements, which is notable given that several of the Tigris’s major tributaries originate from its territory. To be sure, Turkey has often been non-compliant in its obligations, such as when it filled the Atatürk Dam in 1990. Political will is essential for any long-term multilateral agreement, but the Turkish position on “absolute sovereignty” shows intransigence; in fact, rather than recognizing the rivers as international waters, Turkey considers the ET system as a transboundary watercourse and does not believe that it shares co-sovereignty with or accountability to downstream riparian states.

Mutual Interests as a Basis for a Basin-Wide Agreement

A multilateral arrangement among the four riparian states is still possible. Given their respective midstream and downstream positions, Syria and Iraq would benefit from a long-term agreement that regulates water consumption. Meanwhile, Turkey’s and Iran’s priorities lie in satisfying broader strategic interests concerning regional security, but issue linkage with a focus on mutual interests can produce more equitable and ecological water-use arrangements among all four states. In other words, despite Turkey’s and Iran’s leverage as upstream or tributary riparian states with greater political, economic, and military means, cooperation is possible because it is in the interest of each state—whose hydro-insecure areas are generally located in border regions—to cooperate on the matter so as to curb negative environmental impacts and mitigate spillover effects that exacerbate them.

Despite their relative weakness, Syria and Iraq could coordinate with one another by employing linkage strategies that emphasize mutual interests to persuade Turkey and Iran to adhere to more equitable water-use arrangements. Previous agreements were reached under conditions of imbalance of power, with bargaining outcomes determined by a variety of security measures. Although such securitization achieved short-term gains in the absence of a more comprehensive long-term agreement, greater bargaining power has remained with Turkey and Iran given that time is on the side of the upstream or tributary riparian states. As a result, long-term water allocation and management have been elusive.

Climate- and human-induced environmental degradation has been unresolved—but therein lies the space for durable, multilateral cooperation on the matter.

More importantly, climate- and human-induced environmental degradation has been unresolved—but therein lies the space for durable, multilateral cooperation on the matter. Rather than employing strategies that conjoin water consumption with security issues, states should emphasize their mutual interests in long-term environmental sustainability. In doing so, the root cause of several security concerns are also likely to be addressed. At the same time, it is important to recognize that security interests are fluid, plentiful, and competing among multiple stakeholders. Thus, the mitigation of resource depletion, pollution, and the spillover effects that compound hydro-insecurity would generate stronger incentives for states to work together.

Reforms in agriculture, irrigation, sanitation, and hydropower can advance sustainability and ameliorate developmental issues such as poverty and unemployment, which are prevalent in each of the four ET basin states. Not only can such efforts alleviate negative climate-induced impacts, but they can also blunt the factors that increase unrest and conflict. In fact, equitable water access is essential to post-conflict recovery. In conjunction with such reforms, it would be important to implement more just and sustainable methods of water allocation in accordance with an impartial, internationally recognized body of rules such as the Water Convention of 1997. Moreover, joint surveillance can verify compliance, ensuring the quality and quantity of the rivers’ waters, while also respecting each state’s sovereignty. In sum, shared resources require mutual solutions; otherwise, each riparian state will share in the multiple consequences of degradation and depletion.

Yoseph Hamid is a research, editing, and social media intern at Arab Center Washington DC.