You are on page 1of 15

LOS ROS TIGRIS Y EUFRATES

Arnon Soffer Haifa University, Israel

Geopolitics of the Tigris and Euphrates Basin


Prof. Arnon Soffer Head, Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy University of Haifa, Israel 31905

All over the globe, in first-world societies and third-world societies, we encounter rising exploitation of natural resources to the point where it threatens our existence. Human beings are increasing their use of water, burning the earth's forests at an ever-faster rate to clear land for agriculture, using up the minerals that serve for building and industry, and of course are widely exploiting energy sources, particularly oil, gas and coal. The sea shores should be considered a resource in its own right, and it is dwindling through erosion, construction, pollution, and crowding of bathers, marinas, and the like. The intensive exploitation of natural resources affects other resources: air pollution has become critical, River water, groundwater, seawater and ocean water is polluted. We witness pollution of lakes (such as Lake Baikal, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean) or their disappearance (such as the Aral Sea and the Dead Sea). We are also watching processes that change the weather, desertification, and destruction of drainage systems. In the following we shall focus on the water resource. It has special importance in the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries because these are arid or semi-arid zones. Water resources in the Middle East are depleting day by day (this refers to ground water, rain water, and river water). This fact when combined with other factors create the threat of water shortage over a considerable part of the states in the area. This article will concentrate mainly on the Euphrates and the Tigris. The following countries are connected to the drainage basins of these rivers: Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Causes of Water Shortage

Population Explosion The population explosion is perhaps the toughest blow of all. The Third World in general and the Islam countries in this context in particular, find themselves in a process of continual population growth owing to natural increase, a process that threatens to bring them to the point of economic, social, and ecological collapse indeed to the brink of ruin. The problem is that even if the governments succeed in bringing about an immediate halt to the process in their states, some 15-20 years will have to pass until high natural increase ceases in these countries (as results of the "demographic momentum"), and the deterioration might in the meantime lead them to the edge of an abyss. Each additional person needs water for drinking, for food, for bathing and the shortage can only worsen. In other words, water is a more or less fixed resource, but its consumers are increasing. Even today, a state like Egypt cannot support its inhabitants with its own water resources by becoming one of the world's largest wheat importer. This is the same Egypt that once was the "bread basket of the Roman Empire", and even in our own times was a world famous exporter of cotton.

Efforts to Raise the Standard of Living There is a world-wide effort to raise the standard of living of the inhabitants of the globe, to increase per-capita income, and to improve the quality of life. All this necessitates (even if natural increase were to stand at a 0 percent level) utilizing more water for industry, for private cars, for food, for tourism (which consumes a relatively large quantity of water), while exploiting a resource that is, as mentioned, fixed. On the other hand, the improvement in the standard of living is related to improvements in education, and these in turn may lead to a savings in water through the transference of manpower from agricultural employment to industrial occupations (which consume less water than does agriculture). This may be expected, too, because intelligent

farmers will employ more economical irrigation techniques (droplets instead of flooding, pipes instead of canals). Such improvements can save millions of cubic meters of water.

Local and Global Droughts or Just Climate Change The issue of droughts or climate change has to be discussed cautiously. Proof exists that Northern Ethiopia and Sudan were hard hit by a difficult, prolonged drought of at least thirty years. There is also proof that the Nile discharge has very slowly been going down over the past 100 years. In light of this trend, very serious concern arises over the future of the Nile basin people. Signs exist in various regions of the world that point as it were to global processes that perhaps are leading to a warming and drying up of the planet. What is happening in the Nile basin and partially in the Euphrates Basin are perhaps, part of this threatening process. Despite these fears, proof may also be brought of the cyclical nature of the "seven good years" following "seven bad years," which is well known from the history of this region. If this is so, then perhaps all the talk is just over a passing climatic crisis. Whether it is this or not, the past four decades has seen the drying up of the Blue Nile basin; the quantity of water contained in it has so diminished as to bring about tragedy in Ethiopia and Sudan, and almost of national dimensions, too, in Egypt in summer 1988, when the water of Lake Nasser nearly reached the level of the sluices of the Aswan Dam.

Is the Middle East really in a water crisis? We can answer this question by comparing water supply in the various countries (based on average many-year data) with the present demand for water, and also by comparing water demand forecasts in the near future. Such a comparison will give us the best indication of the magnitude of the approaching crisis. The issue of water demand in the near future is not simple: it is contingent on the strategy to be adopted by the states of the region. This can be one of two strategies, the first of which we may term "business as usual". This views water as a vital resource for the existence of millions of farmers in the region, who will continue to grow

their usual crops, even if they are "water guzzles" such as rice, sugar-cane, avocado, bananas, etc. They will go on with the same irrigation methods as in the past, usually flood irrigation. By this strategy water prices will continue to be close to zero and the same for all users, as is the case nowadays in most of the Arab states. The second strategy may be termed "economic" or "rational". It sees water as a production element and agriculture as driven by market forces. Water has a price, so presumably it will not be used to grow tropical water-thirsty crops in the desert, and an effort will be made to reduce the number of those who live off agriculture. This strategy will prevent a water crisis. Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq are unable to adopt the second strategy in the foreseeable future because of their large populations and high natural increase rates. These populations are incapable of making the required change in the water economy. All these states must therefore continue with the first strategy, at least for the time being, and try to move gradually over to the second. Regarding the Tigris and Euphrates basins, is no crisis for the time being. In the future, the danger of a crisis in the Euphrates basis looms over Syria and Iraq. The Tigris basin, by contrast, does not show signs of a water crisis. The hydropolitical system of the Tigris and the Euphrates would allow special arrangements for using their water. For example, one state could use the water of one of the rivers and allow another state to use the other river's water. For this purpose the three states would be obliged to negotiate and find ways of using the rivers' water in common. But relations between Turkey and Syria and between Turkey and Iraq are tense, and the relations between Syria and Iraq are hostile.

Flow Regime The topographical difference between the two rivers creates a difference in their flow regimes. The rivers flow regime is described in Table 1 and Figure 1.

Fig. 1: Monthly Discharge of the Euphrates (1950-1966) and Tigris (1931-1966)

Table 1: Average Yearly Flow in the Euphrates-Tigris and Tributaries (Bllion m3) Tigris at Mosul Great Zab Little Zab Tigris at Fatha Adhaim Tigris at Baghdad Diyala Tigris at Kut
Sources: Brawer and Karmon 1968: 28; Ubell 1971: 6-7; Beaumont et al., 1988: 356; Bilen, 1994; 103; Kolars, 1994: Soffer,1999,2006: According to Bilen (1994), Tigris at Mosul is 23.2 billion m3.

21.048 13.520 7.950 36.931 1.550 39.108 5.400 31.334

Euphrates at Keban (Turkey) Euphrates at Yusuf Peshe (Syria) Euphrates at Hit (Iraq) Euphrates at Nasiriya (Iraq)

20.1 30.0 25.97 14.1

Table 1 demonstrates the great importance of these tributaries in the flow of the Tigris basin, because they provide more than 50 percent of the discharge. However, just as the discharge of the Tigris increases from tributary to tributary, it rapidly decreases along its source owing to the intensive use of the river water.

Discharge The Tigris discharge is greater than that of the Euphrates. The average annual discharge of the Tigris near Baghdad is 1240 m3 a second (39.1 billion m3), while the average annual discharge of the Euphrates near Hit is 710 m3 a second (25.9 billion m3). The total discharge of the Euphrates, as understood by hydrologists today, is between 30 and 32 billion m3, but it changes from year to year. The smallest annual discharge ever measured was 14.9 billion m3 annually, and the largest was 56.4 billion m3 annually. The Tigris also varies in its discharge from year to year. The average annual figure at Kut is 31 billion m3. The largest annual discharge ever measured was about 58.7 billion m3, and the smallest discharge was about 16.86 billion m3.

Meeting Points Between Hydrology and Politics in the Tigris and Euphrates Basins A fair division of the water must be accomplished according to the needs of the states. Turkey and Syria are greatly in need of hydroelectric power. Turkey and Syria need water for irrigation to reclaim large areas of land for their growing populations. Until recently, Iraq needed water for irrigation, but this situation could soon change because Iraq has large amounts of oil, which could be used to boost industry and so curtail agriculture. A fair division of water would allocate about 40 percent to Turkey, about 50 percent to Iraq, and about 10 percent to Syria. This distribution based on discharge, historical rights, and existence of other resources requires cooperation among the riparians, which would ensure not only an equitable division of the water but also its quality. However, in reality the three states do not cooperate, and the upstream states (Turkey and Syria) make use of their advantage over the downstream state (Iraq). Iraq is a downstream state of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But it has another advantage; in case of need, it can transfer water from the Tigris to the Euphrates and back again. (In fact, Iraq is now completing construction of a project to transfer water from the Tigris to the lower Euphrates) .

From here on I will deal with reality and not theory. I will consider unilateral use of water, lack of cooperation, and unfair distribution, all of which create tension and disputes and in the future could lead to violent conflict. From the 1950s onward many water projects were founded on the Tigris and the Euphrates. At the beginning of the 2000s construction was still at its height. However, there is no cooperation among the states, and each state has built its own projects, especially multipurpose ones for electricity, irrigation, flood prevention, and storage. A vicious circle was thereby created in which the damage caused was greater than advantages gained. Figures 2, 3, 4, 5 show the large extent of development projects in all three states, and the storage capacity of each state is enormous (taking acccount of the dams and the depressions that have been completed and those planned). Turkey's storage capacity on the Euphrates is about 90 billion m3 (the actual storage capacity used by Turkey is about 47. 6 billion m3). Syria's capacity is 14 billion m3, and that of Iraq is about 100 billion m3 (including the salty depressions and storage dams). The states do not trust one another, and therefore they attempt to satisfy their own water needs within their own borders. In doing so they harm each other and violate the ILC(International Law Commission) agreement on the fair and reasonable division of water. Supply and Demand for Water in the Riparian States: Conclusion If Turkey completes its GAP program and Syria even partially completes its own projects, it will be necessary to calculate whether a shortage of water in the Euphrates and Tigris may be expected and whether the shortfall may be balanced in one river at the expense of the other. Table 2 shows that until 2010 there will be surplus water in the Euphrates and the Tigris, because the projects will take longer to implement than expected. In 2010 a shortage of water in the Euphrates may be expected, and this will oblige Iraq to transfer surplus water from the Tigris to the Euphrates. Between 2020 and 2030 a situation may arise in which there will be a shortage of water in the Euphrates and the Tigris, owing to the great demands in their three riparian states.

Fig. 2: The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers: Annual Discharge and Water Projects

10

Fig. 3: The GAP in Southeast Anatolia

Fig. 4: Irrigation Areas and Water Projects in Syria

11

Fig. 5: Iraq - Land Uses Table 2: Demand and Supply of Water in Euphrates-Tigris Basins 1985-2020 (billion m2) Euphrates Country Turkey Syria Iraq Total demand Supply Balance 1985 1.0 4.0 14-20 19-25 30-32 +13+5 2005 15 6 15 36 30-32 -4 -6 2020 18-20 8-10 6-17 32-47 30-32 0-15 1985 0 0 37-42 37-92 52 +15 +10 Tigris 2005 6.0 1.0 45 52 52 2020 8 2 30-35 38-43 52 +10 +6 Euphrates + Tigris 1985 1 4 51-62 56-67 82-84 +26 +17 2005 21 7 60 88 79-81 -9 -7 2020 26-28 10-12 36-52 72-92 79-81 -11 +7

12

Relations and Agreements on Water among the Tigris and Euphrates Riparians Lack of cooperation among the states and absence of mutual consideration in developing water projects naturally bring about serious crises. The first of these erupted in 1974, when Turkey filled the Keban Dam reservoir and Syria filled the Tabqa Dam reservoir at the same time. As 1974 was a dry year, the flow of the Euphrates in Iraq stopped. The Arab League's attempt to mediate did not work, and Iraq called up its army and concentrated it on the Syrian border; Syria hastily released about 200 million m3 of water from the Tabqa Dam. A second crisis, less serious than the first, occurred in 1983, when the level of the Tabqa Dam reservoir dropped, and Syria blamed Turkey for it. The third crisis,the most serious one occurred in 1990, when Turkey stopped the flow of the Euphrates for a month. Syria and Iraq suffered a water shortage. However, not only has the quantity of water that each state receives raised controversy, but so has the quality. Despite the repeated and varied protests of Syria and Iraq concerning Turkey's plans, Turkey--continues to promote the GAP program, but has also initiated coordinating meetings among the three riparians. During the crisis of the early 1990s it became clear that water issues play a political, not just an economic, role. During this crisis, Turkey promised that if Syria acceded to its political demands, Euphrates water would resume its flow. If Syria did not, Turkey warned, the interruption of the flow would long continue. The relationship among the three states is very intricate. They are connected not only by water rights, water division, and water quality, but also by complex historical and political factors (Figure 6).

13

Fig. 6: Geopolitical Circles in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin

Principles for Fair Water Division in the Tigris and Euphrates Basin In considering how to allocate the river water fairly, one must review all the relevant factors in water distribution: the relative contribution of each state to the rivers' flow, each state's climate, each state's historical rights to water use, alternatives to water use, other resources within each state, wasteful use of water, as well as the possibility of developing water projects without harming the other riparians. These factors are represented in Table 3. However, the picture presented in the table highlights the difficulty of adopting a position on the allocation of water to Iraq. On the one hand, Iraq has a high income from oil, and therefore its dependency on water could decrease, particularly as its use of water for irrigation is extremely wasteful. One might advise Iraq, therefore, to reduce its agriculture and develop its industry, thereby easily solving its water problem without harming its economy. On the other hand, other data indicate that in socioeconomic terms it is a developing country, and its population is highly dependent on water.

Table 3: Criteria for Water Allocation in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin

14

Criteria Share in area of Euphrates (%) Share in area of Tigris (%) Water contribution, Euphrates (%) Water contribution, Tigris (%) Water contribution, Tigris tributaries (%) Climate

Turkey 28 12 87 100 27-37 Mostly Mediterranean

Syria 17 1 13 90% arid or semiarid

Iraq 40 78 39-46 70% arid

Others 15 Saudi Arabia 9 Iran 24-27 Iran

Present utilization (2006) (billion m3): Euphrates Tigris GNP per person 2004 Other resources and potential 15 4-6 6390 Industry, minerals, tourism, agriculture, except in the east 5-8 ~3 3620 Oil, agriculture other than the Euphrates basin 7-10 37-42 1500 Oil and gas

What conclusions should we draw from this paradoxical state of affairs? Turkey is the primary contributor to the river's flow; it still has a high rate of population growth and a large population, and it wants to develop the resources that will allow it both to feed its growing population, and to export food. Although Turkey is a developed country the eastern part is backward and requires energetic development. This is necessary to connect the region's population, which is mostly Kurdish, to the western part of the state and to integrate it with the rest of the country. Equally crucial is hydroelectric power, as Turkey has neither oil nor gas. Turkey, therefore, does have the right to utilize the rivers' water. The question is the quantity it should be allotted. As the owner of the water sources Turkey is entitled to request a quantity equal to that of its two neighbors, that is, about a third of the rivers' flow, or perhaps even a half. Syria is trapped in a grave economic situation. From a socioeconomic perspective, Syria is a developing country, and it cannot eliminate agriculture. It is dependent, therefore,

15

on Euphrates water, both for agriculture and for hydroelectricity. Its proven oil potential will apparently suffice for about ten years, and then Syria will need thermal electricity and hydroelectricity. If the three states were to sit around the conference table, imbued with goodwill to conclude their water distribution dispute fairly, they would probably come up with the following agreement. The Euphrates would be divided principally between Turkey and Syria, most of the Tigris water would go to Iraq, and a small part of it would go to Turkey. Thus, each riparian would receive its fair share. In the spirit of ILC Accords. Turkey would postpone the development of the Tigris and only develop the Euphrates. Turkey should be content with utilizing the Tigris for electricity only, allowing Iraq to use all the water for its needs; this would compensate Iraq for conceding the Euphrates, and it could even transfer water from the Tigris to the Euphrates, where water will be lacking. Such a division, of course, would obligate Iraq use its water more economically. For its part, Syria would receive all the Euphrates water that Turkey allotted it, would exploit the Balikh and the Khabur, and would draw a small quantity of water from the Tigris. If Syria did not have to allocate water from the Euphrates to Iraq it would not suffer a water shortage. Such a solution meets the ILC principles, at least for the next fifteen years, but will the Middle Eastern states accept it? In reality, the three states do not cooperate and are not abandoning their ongoing grandiose plan for irrigation and dams. If development continues, it is possible that in the years 2010-2020 a serious conflict will erupt among the countries over water distribution in the two rivers, or one or two of the states will be forced to curtail their projects because of the wastage involved.

This article is based on the books: A. Soffer, 1999, Rivers of Fire the Conflict over water in the Middle East, Boulder: Rowman and Littefield and A. Soffer, 2006 The Conflict over water in the Middle East, Tel-Aviv: Am Oved (Hebrew).