Problems related to international river waters occur from time to time between countries that share a river. Despite there being international legal frameworks governing these rivers, these files are being politicized by some countries, without invoking international agreements. Therefore, the countries argue with one another, while some of them encroach by building dams, which violate other states’ rights. Consequently, water represents a geopolitical card that’s waved and used by some countries to apply pressure on other states.
The Euphrates River is an international river that passes through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The river is 444000 km2, of which 37.4 percent is in Turkey, 16 percent in Syria, and 46.3 percent in Iraq. The river originates in Turkey and passes through Syria and Iraq and then drains into Shatt Al-Arab. The tensions between these countries started in the 1970s when Turkey and Syria completed projects to utilize water for agriculture and electrical power generation, which negatively affected Iraq’s share of water.
The problem of the exploitation of the Euphrates River started after World War I. Turkey received the upper reaches, Syria the middle course, and Iraq the lower reaches. Turkey constructed the Keban Dam as the first project on the Euphrates River and was completed in 1973, followed by other dams like Karakaya dam in 1986, Ataturk in 1990, GAP project and Şanlıurfa (Urfa) tunnel in 1990, and finally Birecik dam in 2000. Turkey announced that it would stop running the Euphrates River on November 20, 1989, beginning on January 13 to fill the Atatürk Dam. However, Syria and Iraq rejected the Turkish proposition and warned of the serious effects on their water flow levels, which could harm 1.5 million farmers, and more than 5.5 million living on the banks of the Euphrates. The annual flow rate of the Euphrates River was 30 billion cubic meters per year, and with the completion of the Atatürk Dam, there would be a 14 billion cubic meters shortage of water.
Turkey began building the GAP Project on the Euphrates River and held more than 16 meetings without reaching a tripartite agreement on the use of the waters of the Euphrates River. This was a result of Turkey’s opposition to any agreements or treaties regarding the river, or regulating the joint exploitation of Euphrates Water. Turkey being the source of the river, contradicts international conventions on international rivers and the principle of benefit-sharing and non-harm, and that the river is shared by Syria, Iraq, and Turkey and it’s not a cross-border river. By the end of the 1940s, Turkey diverted the course of the Queiq River. It originates from its lands and passes through Syria, supplying drinking water to Aleppo, and watering large and wide agricultural lands, that’s why the reservation of the water caused huge damage to the agricultural land.
The Tigris River, which originates in Turkey and is composed of two main parts, the Tigris Su, which originates from the southern foothills of the eastern Taurus Mountain range, and Batman Su, which feeds from the mountains bordering the lake, it is in the south-eastern territory of Turkey, after which Tigris heads to the border areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The Tigris River has five major tributaries in Iraq: Al-Khabour River, the Great Zab, the Little Zab, the Great, and Diyala. These dams cause damage to agricultural land on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where Iraq’s share of the Euphrates River is 18 billion cubic meters per year and will fall from 20.5 billion cubic meters to 10.5 billion cubic meters annually.
On the other hand, Shatt Al-Arab represents the dividing line or the political border between Iraq and Iran and is consisted of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, near the area of Garmat Ali in Iraq and the city of Al-Qarnah. Moreover, Shatt Al-Arab is approximately 204 km long and stretches from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers until its estuary in the Arabian Gulf. As for its width, it’s about 1.5 km wide near its estuary and about 400km wide in the Iraqi city of Basrah. Shatt al-Arab pours in the city of Khorramshahr, in a new tributary known as the Karun River, which originates from Iranian territory. Additionally, Shatt Al-Arab flows in a southeast direction within Iraqi territory, and on both banks, it runs as far as southeast of the city of Basrah and is said to be about 102 km long. Yet starting the city of Basrah, we find that the course is within Iraqi territory, with Iran controlling the eastern side.
Iraq has been affected by Iran’s projects since Iran is planning to build two dams on the Al Zab River to generate electricity and cultivate 20,000 hectares of agricultural land. It also built some dams on the Diyala River, affecting its annual flow, depriving the Iraqi city of Khanaqin of water, therefore forcing Iraq to open a private channel. Iran also built dams on the Karkheh, Konjan, and Dwerg rivers, which affected the amount of water coming into Iraq.
Water as a Pressure Card
The issue of dams poses a threat to the security of states that share a single international river if they are not coordinated, especially since Iran and Turkey are expanding on this issue. This prompted the Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Mahdi Rashid to hint that they would ask the International Security Council for help, in the case that Iran remains persistent on cutting off the water from the eastern areas, and if Iraq doesn’t cooperate according to international conventions. Iran is cutting off water from the Sirwan, Karun, Karkheh, and Alwand rivers in Diyala province, and has reduced flows of the Sirwan River and the Little Zab River across the Iran-Iraq border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraq suffers from a water shortage, which is a major threat to its citizens. What makes the problem worse is the construction of dams and the severe effects of climate change. According to the United Nations Program in 2018, Iraq loses around 25000 hectares of cultivable land per year. In addition, according to the Water Stress Index, Iraq is a water risk state and is ranked 40 among the countries that will experience water stress by 2040. The water stress is not a threat to agriculture or water security in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq but inflames conflicts between the Kurdistan Region and the government in Baghdad.
In the past three decades, Iran has contracted to construct 600 dams. Among these dams, projects such as the Daryan Dam have been established on the upper reaches of the Sirwan and Little Zab rivers. It aims to redirect the water from Iraq to Iran again, through the Nassoud Tunnel, which is 48 km long and was completed in 2013, alongside another tunnel with a length of 10km. It should be noted that the rivers flowing from Iran only cover one-third of Iraq’s needs; such as the Lower Zab River, which feeds Dukan Lake, which in its turn flows to feed the Tigris River, which negatively affects Iraq’s water resources. In the same context, Turkey constructed a network of irrigation and electricity dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, without coordinating with the estuary countries, Syria and Iraq.
The GAP Dam project, which includes 22 dams and 19 electricity generation stations, the largest dams in Turkey, gives it control over the flow of water in the Tigris River. The dams on the Euphrates River represent a major threat to Iraq’s water security, as Tigris, Euphrates and their tributaries play a significant role in the agricultural life of Iraq.
Turkey refused to sign a binding agreement on the sharing of the water of the Tigris river and continues to adopt the idea that Tigris and Euphrates rivers are transboundary rather than international. The problem is that the concept of a transboundary river is essentially an inland or local river, and is therefore subject to the absolute sovereignty of the state from which the river originates and that it encroaches on the borders of that state. Hence, the fact that it is an encroachment and a cross-border boundary does not affect the absolute authority of the source state, that is, Turkey wants to have absolute sovereignty over these rivers as the source state, even though Iraq has had historical rights for thousands of years of the water of Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Additionally, Iraq’s name has always been associated with the two rivers that it was even named Mesopotamia, referring to them. To add further Iraq’s ancient civilizations in Sumer, Babylon and Assyria originated from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The Turkish objectives that they wish to achieve from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are not only economic goals but include objectives like influencing the Mashriq countries, Syria, and Iraq by controlling the water and maneuvering Iraq through exchanging oil with water. Turkey having control over the water and selling it in the Mashriq area, such as the Turkish Peace Pipeline Project, grants Turkey an active and influential role in the Middle East regime.
Water has now become a pressure tool in the hands of Turkey, which has threatened to cut off the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers if Iraq doesn’t use the Turkish Ceyhan oil export line. Iraq cooperated and used the Turkish Ceyhan port, even though it owns other ports in the Arabian Gulf. Turkey has also imposed conditions on Iraq to increase its share of water. One of the conditions was allowing Turkish companies to invest in Iraq in the fields of building and construction, which earned Turkey a sum of $2 billion annually in 2014.
Turkey is also playing on factionalism, using water as a pressure tool in case the Iraqi position conflicts with it. Most of the power and water plants in Kurdistan are Turkish, as well as the presence of Turkish companies operating in the industrial, agricultural, and service sectors, and military bases aimed at combating Kurdish opposition organizations. Turkey signed an agreement in 1987 to increase Syria’s share of water by 800,000 cubic meters annually, in exchange for fighting anti-Turkish Kurdish forces in Syria and allowing Turkish aircraft to airstrikes on Kurdish strongholds inside Syria.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted on 21 May 1997. The Convention included a clause on “the duty of international cooperation between the states of the shared watercourse in the regular exchange of data and information, the declaration of measures affecting the status of the watercourse and the notification in the case of hazards and prohibitions.”
The international character of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, per the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Article 109 provided for acquired rights to be preserved through an agreement between the states concerned. The treaty was preceded by an agreement between the United Kingdom and France by the 1920 Treaty of Paris. Article 3 provides for the establishment of a joint commission to examine in principle any project that the Syrian mandate authorities wish to undertake on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which would reduce water imports from both rivers when they enter Iraqi territory.
The three countries’ governments sought to establish a legal framework that would enable them to all equally benefit from the water resources of both rivers. There is a Convention of Friendship and Good-Neighborliness between Iraq and Turkey, 1946, which stipulates that Iraq has the right to undertake any projects on the two rivers that will ensure the natural flow of water to control the floods within Iraq and Turkey and that the costs of these projects will be borne by Iraq.
Multilateral agreements have already been concluded between Syria, Turkey, and Iraq in the years of 1962/1963/1966/1967 to find an appropriate way to exchange information between the parties concerned on the status of each river and the nature of the projects that each party seeks to establish. A protocol on economic and technical cooperation between Turkey and Iraq was signed in 1971 and ensured that the Turkish authorities would undertake the necessary consultations with Iraq during the development of a tank-filling program to ensure that Iraq’s water needs were secured.
Both Syria and Iraq signed an agreement in 1990 to determine their respective share of the Euphrates’ water resources at the Turkish-Syrian border. Moreover, Syria’s share was set at about 42 percent and Iraq at 58 percent. The Iraqi Government objected to the Turkish-Syrian agreement that was reached in 1987, which set the quantity of water at the Turkish-Syrian border at 500 cubic meters per second.
On the other side, Iraq and Iran signed the 1847 Treaty of Erzurum between the Ottoman State and Persia intending to regulate the navigation of the Shatt al-Arab and the right of Iranian ships to free passage. In 1913, the so-called Istanbul Protocol was signed through amendments to the Treaty of Erzurum, where Iraq made concessions to Iran, including subjecting the islands in front of Abadan to Iranian sovereignty. Additionally, the Ottoman State ceded part of the water of Shatt Al-Arab, and the borders became in the middle of the sea course.
However, the three parties didn’t reach a collective agreement to all benefit from the water resources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This is one of the reasons behind the tensions in the relations between the countries, and a source of national security threat to the two estuary countries, Iraq and Syria.
In conclusion, water is a geopolitical card that Turkey and Iran are waving to pressure Iraq in other files to achieve their interests and objectives. This violates international conventions and threatens Iraqi national security. The international community should adopt a serious stand regarding water issues to achieve global security, especially in light of the studies that conclude that the next wars will erupt over water.