Turkey's Rivers of Dispute

by Hilal Elver
published in MER254

In the waning years of the twentieth century, it was common to hear predictions that water would be the oil of the twenty-first. A report prepared for the center-right Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, forecast that water, not oil, would be the dominant source of conflict in the Middle East by the year 2000. This prognosis rested in part upon the estimate of US intelligence agencies that by that time “there will be at least ten places in the world where war could break out over dwindling shared water, the majority in the Middle East.” [1]

The sprawling watershed of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is one area where water wars have long been expected. The twin rivers rise in the high mountains of northeastern Anatolia and flow through Turkey, Syria and Iraq before eventually merging to form the Shatt al-‘Arab, which empties into the Gulf. Turkey, the upstream country, has a powerful military and has not traditionally enjoyed warm relations with the Arab countries downstream. Add to this backdrop the Turkish army’s running battles with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist movement based in the Euphrates and Tigris basins, and it seems that an inter-state shooting war is indeed possible there. Turkey is usually the pivotal state in such scenarios.

There is a false perception that Turkey is water-rich by world standards. Turkey has approximately 1,600 cubic meters (about 422,600 gallons) of consumable water per person per year. On the global scale, countries classified as water-rich have 8,000–10,000 cubic meters per capita per year. With its population of 71 million, Turkey has about one fifth the quantity of water per capita as water-rich countries. Turkish government experts believe, furthermore, that the available water will decline to 1,000 cubic meters per capita annually by 2023. [2] By regional standards, however, Turkey is blessed. The average fresh water supply in the Middle East is 900 cubic meters per capita annually. In the past, Turkey has sought to take advantage of its natural endowments, advertising its willingness to sell water in bulk to its neighbors. This attitude has contributed to Turkey’s history of conflicts over water, particularly in the Euphrates and Tigris basins, and needs to be revised if Turkey is to avoid such conflicts in the future.

Dam That River

In 1953, the fast-growing state in Ankara established a powerful institution to govern supply and distribution of water, the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (or DSI, by the Turkish acronym). DSI is central to Turkish political culture. Two of its water engineers and eventual directors, Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal, went on to become prime minister and president of the country.

Not surprisingly, Turkey’s successes in water management are a source of national pride. Eighty-five percent of Turks have running water in their homes, a figure that compares poorly with advanced economies (99 percent) but well with the average among Middle Eastern countries (75 percent). Unlike most Middle Eastern countries, which consume almost all of their water resources, Turkey uses only 41 percent of its water flow. Turkey, therefore, has had the luxury of investing in water development projects for power generation, flood control and expanded irrigation, as well as household use. Agriculture has long been the largest sector in terms of employment and a major contributor to the gross domestic product. And Turkey uses only 35 percent of the hydraulic energy it produces.

Most of these achievements were made possible by dams in the country’s 25 hydrological basins. Starting in 1954, DSI has supervised the construction of 673 large dams and 657 smaller ones across the country. At the time of DSI’s founding, the erection of such massive infrastructure was the basis of water policy worldwide, modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority established under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. The Aswan Dam in Egypt, the Keban Dam in Turkey and counterparts in India and Bangladesh were among the legacies of what is called the “hydraulic mission” emanating from the United States in this period. The “hydraulic mission” is now seen as inspiring a series of hydrological mistakes (among them, ironically, many projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority), and the US itself has abandoned such ventures, yet the impact on Turkey and other countries has been lasting.

The pièce de résistance of the “hydraulic mission” in Turkey was the gigantic Southern Anatolian Project (known by its Turkish acronym, GAP), which commenced in the 1970s and encompasses 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants and several irrigation networks. GAP remains the second biggest integrated water development project in the world, covering approximately 10 percent of Turkey’s population and an equivalent surface area. The total cost of the project is estimated at $22 billion and 57 percent of these monies have already been invested. With GAP, Ankara sought to harness its rivers to produce electricity and irrigate land, but also to create job opportunities for the predominantly Kurdish citizens living in southeastern Turkey, known historically as upper Mesopotamia. If GAP is completed, Turkey’s arable land will be greatly expanded, allowing the country to become a major food and energy producer in the Middle East.

Most of the Turkish political spectrum -- from social democrats to liberals to right-wing Kemalists -- has been strongly nationalist about the country’s water resources and enthusiastically supportive of GAP. Özal and Demirel, both of right-leaning parties, were big GAP boosters who had grand visions of Turkish water enhancing Ankara’s regional clout. When he was prime minister, Özal was known for advocating a $20 billion “peace pipeline” to transport water from two of Turkey’s smaller rivers to 15 million consumers in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. [3]

“Good Neighborliness”

Dam construction slowed significantly in the 1980s, in the southeast and elsewhere, in part because of environmental concerns, which had gained prominence in international forums. Various UN organizations and think tanks were established to promote a new approach of “integrated water resources management,” based on hydrological realities rather than political boundaries, and aimed at protecting ecosystems as well as generating electricity. Countries with major transboundary water resources had jealously guarded their sovereignty over shared rivers and lakes, and so were wary of integrated water resources management. Upstream countries were particularly worried by the UN’s advocacy of international river committees that would replace sovereign decisions.

Forty percent of Turkey’s water resources are transboundary waters -- the Euphrates, Tigris, Coruh, Kura and Aras Rivers, which originate in Turkey, and the Meric and Orontes, whose headwaters are in neighboring countries. In the 1920s, the fledgling republic established the status of the Meric, Kura and Aras in bilateral agreements with Greece, Bulgaria and the countries of the south Caucasus. Regular technical meetings are held with Georgian experts concerning the construction of dams in Turkey to regulate the erratic flow of the Coruh. The status of the Orontes, shared with Syria, is unresolved because the river flows through the Hatay district, which Damascus still considers part of Syria.

But it is the mighty Euphrates and Tigris that have been a major preoccupation of Turkish foreign policy. These rivers are a crucial resource for Turkey, supplying 31 percent of its water. Add the fact that springs, runoff and tributaries on Turkish territory contribute about 89 percent of the annual flow of the Euphrates (the rest comes from Syria) and 52 percent of the Tigris (the rest originates in Iraq), and Ankara’s feelings toward the waters have long been proprietary.

In the 1980s, these sentiments began to run afoul of developments in international water law. UN agencies were keen to curb pollution and environmental degradation through “integrated watershed management.” Moreover, as population increase and climate change began to reduce river flows around the world, international water law began to promote the principle of “equitable use” of shared resources rather than “absolute sovereignty.” A decade of tortuous diplomatic tussles ensued, pitting the upstream countries against the downstream, the water-rich countries against the water-poor and environmentalists against development experts. Turkey fought hard to maintain the principle of sovereignty in water law because of the Euphrates, the Tigris and, in particular, GAP. But UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, not coincidentally the ex-foreign minister of a prominent downstream country, Egypt, intervened personally to bring negotiations to a close, and in 1997 the Framework Convention of the Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary Water Resources was presented for signature in the UN General Assembly. “Equitable use” became the operating principle of customary international law. In the end, almost every UN member state, most of which are downstream countries, signed the convention, having either concluded bilateral agreements with its neighbors or having negligible shared water resources. (Many signatories, however, have not ratified the agreement.) Turkey, China and Burundi stood alone in refusing to sign.

Before and after the convention, Turkey has favored bilateral agreements between riparian countries over a global approach or third-party mediation. In that framework, Turkey accepts the “equitable use” principle. Yet Ankara is very sensitive about the term “water sharing,” believing that it “is not a useful approach, as one cannot share a commodity which is constantly changing in quantity and quality in time and space under variable conditions of the hydrological cycle. Instead, the principle of sharing the benefits at basin level should be pursued.” [4]

Declining to be legally bound to a certain degree of water sharing, Turkey professes to be adhering to a transboundary water policy of “good neighborliness,” whereby it releases the greatest possible “sufficient amount of water” downstream. This amount fluctuates a great deal during the dry Middle Eastern summers and periods of drought, but Turkey claims that there would be less water without the GAP installations. The reduced flow of the Euphrates and Tigris is nonetheless a perennial bone of contention with Syria and Iraq, whose governments are reminded by upstream, militarily powerful Turkey of the history of Ottoman domination of the region.

Restraints on Sovereignty

Public investment in GAP has fallen steadily since the 1990s, in part because it is politically charged within Turkey. One domestic issue is the fate of the people who have been and still may be displaced by the dams and waterworks. Resettlement is not only expensive to the state, but also inflammatory because the region is home to Turks, Kurds and Arabs, as well as ruins of prehistoric civilizations. The provinces of Mardin, Sanliurfa, Sirnak and Siirt, in particular, have a rich cultural heritage that has vocal defenders, as do the birds and fish indigenous to the diverse climate of desert and wetlands.

There are, however, external forces that have constituted more important restraints on Turkey’s water sovereignty than international law or environmental activists. One is money. Reeling from a series of financial crises, the most severe of which hit in 2001–2002, the state treasury has simply been unable to afford the pace of water infrastructure construction that the political establishment would like. The World Bank, for its part, has denied Turkey’s credit demands for GAP financing because Syria and Iraq were not consulted on the project.

Another restraint is the state’s diminished control over all its resources in the era of corporate globalization. In the 1990s, water came to be regarded internationally as a commodity. The first international document to say openly that water was an economic good that should be priced accordingly was the UN Dublin Principles of 1992. Think thanks, meanwhile, rallied behind the public-private partnership as a mechanism for delivering clean, safe water, especially in developing countries where the public sector was said to be dysfunctional. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, pushed behind closed doors by transnational corporations like Veolia (formerly Vivendi) and Suez, began to promote concepts like “decentralization” and “deregulation” of water resources as a remedy for developing countries’ management ills.

These developments coincided with the increasing subordination of macroeconomic policy in countries like Turkey to the dictates of the IMF. One of the IMF’s signal recommendations for countries wrestling with debt burdens and recurring fiscal crises was to privatize management of natural resources. As an IMF client, Turkey was subject to significant pressure to change its resource management laws, particularly during the severe financial troubles and recession of 2001–2002. Despite civil society opposition, the Turkish legislature relented and gave the right to manage water services to private companies. The government still owns the water, but its private companies now hold long-term leases over delivery.

The global water giants and their associated think tanks have only grown more powerful as climate change, population increase and the resulting water scarcity have made water a more lucrative commodity. At the dawn of the new millennium, more than a billion people lacked access to clean water, and public institutions managed 90 percent of the world’s water resources. The companies that could break the hold of the public sector would make billions. Backed by the World Bank and the IMF, big water companies have launched a massive public relations campaign against “irresponsible water use.” A raft of fancy documentaries and elegant reports, some with the imprimatur of UN bodies, propagate the clear message that if the scarce resource of water is to be conserved, it must be rightly priced.

The World Water Council, the biggest global think tank, organizes large gatherings every three years in countries that either have significant water resources or embrace privatization. In 2009, the council’s Fifth World Water Forum, quietly underwritten by Veolia and its fellow corporation Suez, met in Istanbul under the banner of “bridging divides for water.” The Turkish government was happy to play host, considering the council’s choice of venue an endorsement of Turkey’s importance in the region. While water investors and UN officials, along with the water ministers of 29 nations, met in one of the city’s tonier districts, transnational civil society organizations convened alternative forums in opposition to privatization.

These activists are raising public consciousness about the burgeoning water partnership between capital, international financial institutions and the state. The “water barons,” as the Center of Public Integrity aptly dubs them, [5] are arrayed against the civil society groups, who, in the absence of the inter-state conflagrations predicted by intelligence agencies, are the “water warriors” of the twenty-first century.

But the most important outside influence on Turkish water policy is the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join. According to the EU’s Framework Directive on Water, member states should follow integrated water management principles with regard to shared waters, protect the ecosystems of rivers and lakes, promote private-sector participation in delivery and put prices on water services. The European Convention on Transboundary Water Resources, enshrining these precepts, was signed and ratified by member states in 1992. If Turkey joins the EU, it will automatically be bound by these laws. One important implication: Turkey defines the Euphrates and Tigris watersheds as one basin, while the EU considers them to be two. The European interpretation would require Turkey to release a much larger quantity of water to its neighbors. Ankara’s moves in the Euphrates and Tigris basins figure prominently in the various reports and assessments the EU is filing during the ongoing period of Turkish accession to EU membership.

Toward “Zero Problems with Neighbors”

2010 has arrived, and the Middle East is war-torn, but none of the conflicts are primarily about water. Nevertheless, the predictions of water wars continue to appear, if anything with greater frequency, as climate change seems to hasten the day of reckoning in water-stressed areas of the globe. Turkey enters the climate change era with its own water security diminished, but still strong in comparison to its increasingly thirsty neighbors.

The “peace pipelines” of which Özal dreamed were never built, in part because the Gulf countries feared relinquishing a share of their water sovereignty to Ankara. The anxieties of the neighborhood were deepened by the progress of GAP, particularly when Ankara rebuffed the constant complaints of inadequate water supply from Damascus and Baghdad. Much of Turkey’s policy elite, solicitous of the West, was dismissive of the eastern neighbors’ needs. Demirel, who was nicknamed “the king of dams” for his eagerness to complete GAP, captured the tone when he asked, “Is there any country that shares its oil with us?”

Since 2002, Turkey’s arrogance toward those who share its transboundary waters has softened. The Justice and Development Party (or AKP, by its Turkish acronym) initiated a “zero problems with neighbors” policy under the guidance of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. As a “soft Islamist” party made up of pious Muslims, the AKP is much more favorably disposed toward its Arab neighbors, in particular, than the “secular” and Western-oriented elite that traditionally composed the Turkish diplomatic corps. The change has been dramatic. In 1998, Turkey reportedly massed thousands of troops on the Syrian border. The trigger was Syria’s decision to harbor Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Öcalan, but tensions over the Euphrates’ waters lurked in the background. Today, the AKP acts as mediator between Syria and Israel and has canceled visa requirements for Syrians.

Then there is Iraq. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Iraq was placed under comprehensive UN sanctions, it was easy for Turkey to release as little water to Iraq as it pleased. The sanctions, in any case, devastated Iraq’s water infrastructure. US warplanes policed the no-fly zone over northern Iraq from Incirlik air base, reinforcing the decades-old regional stereotype of Turkey as a loyal vassal of Washington.

But in 2003 the AKP-controlled parliament acted contrary to type, deciding not to allow US forces to invade Iraq from Turkish territory. The Bush administration promised that Turkey would pay a price, but the flip side of the deterioration of US-Turkish relations has been much tighter economic ties with the region, including (to the surprise of many) Iraqi Kurdistan. The cooperation with the Iraqi Kurdish parties is connected to the AKP’s attempt at a “Kurdish initiative” to resolve Turkey’s own long-standing Kurdish question, including amnesty for many of the leaders of the PKK militia based in Iraq. It is too soon to say whether this policy will be successful. Should it succeed, southeastern Anatolia would be forever changed, and the fortunes of GAP would likely turn for the better. The water dispute between Turkey and Iraq remains fraught. For some years after the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq had more serious problems than its water resources, but today the drastically reduced flow from upper to lower Mesopotamia has returned to center stage. Iraq’s water minister, ‘Abd al-Rashid Latif, has traveled to Ankara three times since 2007 to ask for more water. In July 2009, Turkey agreed to increase the flow of the Euphrates as a gesture of good will, since there is no operative water sharing agreement between the two countries. Latif protested that the gesture was not nearly enough. “We all need to get a fair share,” he told the press, back in Ankara to renew his request in September. “Iraq is a downstream country. Our drinking water supplies, agriculture and electricity depend on how the water resources are managed upstream. We need to manage water properly and come to agreements.” [6]

Some in the Middle East interpret the AKP’s Middle Eastern orientation as “neo-Ottomanism,” a play to restore the sway of the Sublime Porte, because the party has revived the Turkish government’s neglected programs to preserve the Ottoman cultural heritage. The Ottoman legacy evokes mixed feelings in the Arab world, at best. The AKP’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy would seem to require that the party forget such aspirations and instead emulate the EU, if it is looking for a model of strong regionalism. Such a strong region could become a community of nations permitting free travel for people, money, goods and natural resources. With regard to water, Turkey could repackage the “peace pipeline” of the 1980s, this time for its immediate neighbors rather than for wealthy Gulf states, and this time with water conceived as a joint resource to be shared among Turks, Kurds and Arabs rather than as a birthright to be sold.


[1] Joyce R. Starr and Daniel C. Stoll, US Foreign Policy and Water Resources in the Middle East (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1988).
[2] Republic of Turkey, General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, Turkey Water Report 2009. Technical information in this article is taken from this report, accessible online at http://www.dsi.gov.tr.
[3] Joyce R. Starr, “Water Wars,” Foreign Policy (Spring 1991).
[4] Turkey Water Report 2009, op cit.
[5] International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Water Barons (Washington, DC: Center for Public Integrity, 2003).
[6] Reuters, September 3, 2009.

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