Control over strategic cross-border rivers and waterways is set to become increasingly crucial for the survival and national security of various nations in the Middle East and Africa. Many observers and pundits are now analyzing the significant chance that conflicts over control of these water bodies could spark war. The ongoing row between Egypt and Ethiopia over the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) on the river Nile is one such case. Turkey’s increasing drainage of water flowing through its territories into both Syria and Iraq is another example. This action could bring drought and power shortages to already suffering economies of the two neighboring countries and is in violation of international conventions governing the passage of water through shared rivers. Both situations could plausibly ignite armed conflict over vital water supplies.
Turkey: Shutting Off the Taps of the Euphrates and Making Syria and Iraq Suffer
Whenever it has deemed necessary, Turkey has demonstrated no hesitation since the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011 in playing any cards, including enforced water scarcity, to achieve political goals. They have done this regardless of consequences suffered by the Syrian population Ankara claims to support and defend. In recent weeks, Turkey has dramatically cut down the amount of water through its wall of dams on the Euphrates to both Syria and eventually Iraq where the river ends in Shatt al Arab on the Persian Gulf.
In a flagrant violation of international law as well as agreements signed between the two nations according to relevant conventions concerning shared rivers, Ankara has freed an average of a mere 150 cubic meters per second, instead of the 800 (cmps) it had originally pledged to supply Syria with. The impact has been severe on the river basin, farming, irrigation and electricity generation in both Syria and Iraq. The very people Erdogan claims to be defending have fallen victims of Ankara’s inhumane water tricking measures.
The scenario of 2013 in Syria’s economic capital and largest northern city of Aleppo seems to be repeating itself today. Then, the Aleppo city and province, close to the Turkish borders, suffered long months of thirst and hardship as a result of Turkish water policies. This is in addition to Turkey’s unabated support of terrorist and radical groups occupying large chunks of the city as well as most of its countryside.
Erdogan’s Provocative and Punitive Water Policies Raise Tension, Threaten War
“What Turkish politicians say is one thing, and what they practice against the Syrian population is something completely different”, said Dr. Kamal al Jafa, Syrian political and strategic analyst in a special report from Syria to Egypt 360. “Turkey is trying to use the water as a card to blackmail its neighbors, especially the Kurds in Syria, so it often resorts to repeatedly cut down water supplies through both the Tigris and Euphrates over which Ankara has built several dams”, al Jafa added.
Water levels in both river basins have recently hit record lows, and once thriving riverside farming areas and fishing grounds are quickly being drained out due Ankara’s virtual closure of the water tap, largely controlled by Ataturk Baraji on the Euphrates, the largest dam of its kind in Turkey situated in the Adyaman, Şanlıurfa Province, which became fully operational in December 1993. The HEPP of the Atatürk Dam is the biggest of a series of 19 power plants of the so-called GAP (Southeast Anatolia Project). The dam has led to a big reduction of Syria’s share of the river, less than a quarter of the internationally agreed upon levels. A similar scenario with Iraq followed Turkey’s building of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris river which cut off almost 50% of Iraq’s legitimate share of the river.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s ruling predecessors had embarked on similar water policies in 1990s, which then led to Iraq’s late President Saddam Hussein threatening Ankara with military action unless it revoked its punitive water policies. His negotiating team with the Turks then consisted of group of high-ranking military officers, symbolic of the gravity of the water issue. A similar response this time around is not highly likely due to Iraq’s and Syria’s state at the moment; yet an escalation of sorts cannot be completely ruled out, given the dire consequences of Ankara’s actions which are in breach of the two international agreements signed in 1966 and 1997. These are bilateral agreements between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and Turkey’s actions contradict basic humanitarian norms and considerations.
Turkey is one of the world’s richest countries in water resources, with over 635 dams within its borders. Yet, Erdogan is backing down on a binding deal reached between late Turkish leader Turgut Ozal (1927-1993) with both Syria and Iraq, which pledges an annual supply of 5.75 billion cubic meters of water to both nations equally.
Could Water Wars Engulf the Middle East?
The intertwining linkage between water issues and their strategic impact on economies and survival of whole nations is perfectly demonstrated by the raging row between Egypt and Ethiopia over GERD. The conflict came up following the latter’s intransigence regarding the building of the dam despite US and some Arab Gulf nations financing packages. Instead Ethiopia moved to fill up the massive GERD lake on the Nile, creating a water scarcity situation which threatens Egypt’s life line and very existence. The threat of military action as a last resort should diplomacy fail highlights the degree of tension and danger generated by the turbines of water warmongers on both the Asian and African continents.
For, while Turkey and Ethiopia seem adamant to use the water card for political ends against their rivals or potential enemies, no nation can afford the luxury of standing idle by, watching their economy, national security, future and even very existence crumble before their own eyes. Unless water manipulating leaders in Turkey and Ethiopia come to their senses, major regional conflicts could soon erupt, thus turning one of God’s biggest blessings, the essence of life on earth, water, into a catalyst for more wars and conflicts.
More than ever before, water is proving to be a more important an asset than even gas and oil. Those who possess or control the keys to water supplies possess the key to the future of whole nations and possibly that of mankind as a whole.