The Wars In Syria And Iraq Are Also Water Wars… More Will Come – Moon Of Alabama
(Caption in top right corner: The coming weapon)
Foreign Affairs has a recommendable piece on the water wars between Turkey, Syria and Iraq: Rivers of Babylon.
Turkey has build many, many dams throughout the country to provide electricity but also for farming. When I traveled in the Turkish east in the 1990s many new projects, parts of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) were visible and newly dammed water was provided to the dry regions in the south-east through open channels. A lot of this water was wasted due to vaporization but also due to the choice of water intensive news crops in a hot and often desert like region.
The water newly provided to farmers in Turkey used to flow down the Euphrates and Tigris to Syria and Iraq. Three drought years in Syria, 2006-2009, induced many farmers to leave their dry field and to move to cities where they found little work:
By 2011, drought-related crop failure had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; the displaced became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and al Qaeda. Testimonies gathered by reporters and activists in conflict zones suggest that the lack of government help during the drought was a central motivating factor in the antigovernment rebellion. Moreover, a 2011 study shows that today’s rebel strongholds of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.
The situation is Iraq is similar if not worse. Major regions have lost the basis for their agriculture and the farmers ask for solutions and more support.
In Karbala, Iraq, farmers are in despair and are reportedly considering abandoning their land. In Baghdad, the poorest neighborhoods rely on the Red Cross for drinking water. At times, the Red Cross has had to supply over 150,000 liters a day. Further south, Iraq’s central marshes, the Middle East’s largest wetlands, are disappearing again after being re-flooded after Saddam Hussein was ousted. In Chibayish, a town in the wetlands that one of the authors of this piece recently visited, buffalo and fish are dying. Currently, agriculture there supports at least 60,000 people. Those and hundreds of thousands more will face great hardship as water resources continue to decline.
The lack of water is not the only reason for the wars in Syria and Iraq. But it made these countries prone to inner conflicts and vulnerable to outside meddling.
But the governments of Syria and Iraq can do little to help their farmers. While there are agreements about a minimum waterflow between Turkey, Syria and Iraq there is no ways Syria and Iraq could actually press Turkey to deliver the agreed upon waterflow.
Although current agreements between Syria and Turkey provide for 500 cubic meters per second, 46 percent of which goes to Iraq, summer flows can be far less. According to Jasim al Asadi, a hydrologist with Nature Iraq, by the time the Euphrates reaches Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, a minimum of 90 cubic meters per second is required for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use. Sometimes, the flow can be as low as 18 cubic meters per second, so unsurprisingly the marshes are receding rapidly. Before major dam construction in the 1970s, the average flow in the Euphrates was about 720 cubic meters per second. Now it is about 260 as it enters Iraq.
Nearly two-third of the waterflow Iraq used to get is gone. There is no way to replace it. Moreover what little water is currently still flowing may soon be gone too:
Turkish dams, of which there are over 140, have far more storage capacity than those downstream. And when the new Turkish dam projects are completed in the next few years, as much as 1.2 million additional hectares inside Turkey will be irrigated—an eightfold increase from today.
Given Turkey’s relatively better water health, it might be reasonable to think that it would stop building dams at the expense of its downstream neighbors. Instead, it has done the opposite, planning to complete 1,700 new dams and weirs within its borders.
Missing in the Foreign Affairs piece is another Turkish project which diverts even more water away from its southern neighbors. In 1974 Turkey invaded and since occupied the north of Cyprus. The occupied parts of the island were ethnically cleansed of Greek people and as many as 150,000 Turks were transferred from Turkey and settled on their land.
Turkey has now built a pipeline to provide water from onshore Turkey to the Turkish occupied part of the island:
A recently completed pipeline crossing beneath the Mediterranean will carry 75 million cubic meters of fresh water annually from Turkey to the northern i.e. Turkish part of the divided island of Cyprus.
The water coming through the pipelines will make the Turkish Cypriots, who already count on subsidies from Ankara for their economic survival, even more dependent on Turkey. One scenario is, therefore, that being more closely bound to the mainland, Turkish Cypriots will have less freedom when negotiating reunification with their Greek Cypriot compatriots, which will make it difficult to reach a solution.
Another Turkish project, on, off and on again over the years, are plans to lay water and gas pipelines to Israel. Israel hopes to deliver gas to Turkey and Turkey would provide water to Israel. Water that would additionally be missed in Syria and Iraq.
We need a global solution process, with enforcement instruments, to regulate natural waterflows that cross borders. The alternative is a serious of widening wars between those countries who extensively use water in their own land while downstream countries dry up.
The Turkey, Syria, Iraq situation is not the only active water war. Pakistan and India are fighting over India occupied Kashmir which holds the headwaters of the Indus river system. The Indus is Pakistan’s sole water lifeline and India has used its control over Kashmir to pressure Pakistan. The next war between India and Pakistan might be just a drought away and such a war could go nuclear.
Another water war is looming between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Ethiopia is building a mega-dam on the Nile which threatens Egypt’s main water supply. It is doubtful that Egypt will allow the dam to be finished. All these cases have already or will lead to wars between countries and/or civil wars over (the lack of) water.
The flow of water between countries is one of the few issue that need global governance. A rule book and a global judicial body which provides that all people along a water stream shall benefit from it. Mega-projects like the GAP in Turkey should be tested in front of such a court and its binding rulings should be backed by significant coercive powers.
The alternative not only may but will be intense wars over access to water.