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Trouble Downstream | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A view of the Euphrates river during sunset in Raqqa province, east Syria, May 15, 2013. (REUTERS/Hamid Khatib)

A view of the Euphrates river during sunset in Raqqa province, east Syria, May 15, 2013. (REUTERS/Hamid Khatib)

A view of the Euphrates river during sunset in Raqqa province, east Syria, May 15, 2013. (REUTERS/Hamid Khatib)

While the fighting in Syria rages on, another threat to its people is steadily growing—one that may worsen the struggles of today and haunt the entire region tomorrow: thirst. Specifically, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, waterways that have been at the heart of the lives of the inhabitants of their banks for centuries, may come to be the source of desperate international disputes in the future if action is not taken now.

By the time a future Syrian government develops a trans-boundary water strategy, there may be very little water left. Even as the violent political conflict rages, effective diplomacy based on international water law can reduce the water conflict’s devastation and put into place mechanisms to mitigate the coming flare-ups.

The Issue

Water politics may be one of the last concerns of the Syrian and international diplomatic community at the moment, but the war compounds the effects of a water conflict that already shatters the rivers and people alike, creating a crisis that would be any other state’s first priority. Today, the Euphrates barely reaches her sister, the Tigris, north of the Iraqi city of Basra at a site claimed as the location of the Garden of Eden, and the flows are too salty to grow anything with, much less drink.

Some blame climate change for the drying-up of the waters, but it is human activity in a highly politicized economy that is responsible. The flows have been over-exploited following neoliberal reforms in Syria, and are dammed thoroughly throughout Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

This type of water conflict poses a challenge often identified but rarely acted upon: the mitigation of long-term issues during times of crisis. Theory suggests efforts should be focused on at least keeping the issue in check until the crisis subsides, through honoring established principles. In the Tigris and Euphrates River basin, this means pushing for all parties to follow the principles of sustainable water management and fair water-sharing. Like the rivers themselves, however, attention is diverted.

The Obstacles

Upstream, Turkey and Iran are capably engaged in “hydraulic missions”—policies to tame and exploit water resources followed at different times by almost every national government around the globe, and with particular zeal by those keen to name new water bodies after their queens and statesmen, or with local populations to appease. Downstream, Syria and Iraq completed their own hydraulic missions decades ago, but the potential benefits of the hydro-electric and irrigation schemes have long since dried up.

In Syria, the hydraulic mission culminated in 1973 in the iconic Tabqa dam and its reservoir, Lake Assad. The dam—the devastating social costs of which were brilliantly documented by Omar Amiraley in his film, A Flood in Ba’ath Country—became a central part of the 1970–2000 Ba’ath government’s policy of national agricultural self-sufficiency.

Though widely derided by international consultants for relying on state-owned farms, the policy depended upon and ensured a degree of sustainable use of water for irrigation. In 2000, the current government replaced it with private land tenure, neoliberal market reforms and the modernization of irrigation schemes. More crops were quickly produced with less water, but the easy profits ensured the farms expanded until more water was used than ever before. Government oversight of the sector was open to corruption, and the affluent landowners soon pumped beyond the resource’s limits. Concurrently with the drought winters of 2007 to 2010 and the very poor economic situation, the land and water reforms contributed to pushing hundreds of thousands people to the cities. In hindsight, this can be read as another drop in the bucket of social tensions that were building up just prior to the revolution.

There is little wriggle room for mismanagement when your powerful upstream neighbors are fully engaged in their own hydraulic missions. The Turkish GAP project will see twenty-two dams completed on the rivers’ headwaters by 2023, according to the latest schedule. These are to provide about 4% of total electricity consumption (at 2011 rates) in nearly fossil fuel-free Turkey, and enough irrigation water for 20% of its arable (and as yet unplanted) land. The twelve dams already completed most directly affect Syria, with the remaining planned and currently under construction more likely to impact on Iraq.

The consequences of the dams will be in the same order of magnitude as the benefits. Some of these are felt within Turkey—witness the Kurdish and environmentalist resistance to the Illisu dam soon to flood Hasankeyf. But most are felt downstream, as when Turkey cut the flow of the Euphrates for a month in 1989 to fill the reservoir of the Atatürk Dam. Tensions were reduced at the time, following a negotiated agreement of Turkish water releases to Syria, though the quantity was not founded on any principle, and was a persistent issue in the official water discussions held infrequently until recently.

As the concrete continues to pour into the river headwaters, however, even such an imperfect agreement may be envied. It has taken downstream Iraq over a decade since the US–UK invasion to firm up the required diplomatic strategy to negotiate on the issue of trans-boundary waters with Turkey. Hoping for a sudden end to the conflict, and expecting a similar delay in Syria, a water strategy would not be in place before 2025—several years after the last dam is complete, and two decades after the profits of the earlier dams become entrenched.

In any case, a future Syrian government will face several other water woes. It will have to decide, for instance, whether to push on with the dam planned on the El-Assi/Orontes River just upstream of Iskenderun/Hatay province. With Syria upstream on the river this time, the Ba’ath and Justice and Development Party governments had agreed in April 2011 to begin construction of the Friendship Dam—named with no hint of irony that month. The move might have officially settled the longstanding territorial dispute by granting effective Syrian consent to Turkish control of the province, but the future government may well face more organised internal opposition were it to proceed with the dam. Alternatively, it could reach for fair water-sharing principles in a step to resolve both the territorial and water conflicts.

Challenges on the Jordan River will resurface as well. Access to, and possible pollution of, the Lake of Tiberias proved a central element during the negotiations over the Israeli-occupied Golan in the late 1990s. Asymmetric Syrian withdrawals on the Yarmouk tributary to the Jordan, meanwhile, are a source of increasing tension for the Hashemite Kingdom, obliging negotiation of a reduced and more equitable Syrian share, preferably within the context of a Jordan River basin-wide agreement.

Few within Syria have the luxury to contemplate these future tensions, of course, with the country currently caught up in the throes of war. The Tabqa dam was captured by the rebels a few months ago (fortunately, it has not been attacked by either side at time of writing), water services in Aleppo and other urban centers are more disrupted than usual, and the rivers themselves have been robbed of their life-sustaining nature—used in equal, if tragic, measure to grow emergency food and dump bodies. Those of us spared the violence have no excuse to remain passive, however, and can reduce the coming cataclysm by spotting future paths and acting where possible now.

The Future

International water law and EU regulation may be the best crutch the future Syrian government can reach for. Syria’s 1998 accession to the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) makes any government well placed to invoke its formula for fair water-sharing. This is based on equitable (not equal) shares for “reasonable” use between states, mechanisms for dispute resolution, and justice for future generations.

Support for the Convention and its dispute resolution clauses is growing, with the UK’s expected accession this summer likely to be the tipping vote towards it coming into force. But there is typically little support for the laws from well-placed upstream states. Turkey openly prefers direct or Track II bilateral negotiations and offers water resources management training for Iraqi and Syrian professionals. Recent transnational academic and NGO efforts also generally ignore what the legal principles have to offer, while UN and World Bank diplomacy efforts are focused instead on benefit-sharing approaches—which, of course, can work only after negotiations have started. These standard approaches are of little use in times of turmoil.

But promotion of fair water sharing can begin now. Turkey would in any case, be subject to the much more stringent regulations of the EU Water Framework Directive, were it ever to become a member state. Water resource managers throughout the Tigris and Euphrates basin would do well to learn from the mistakes of Europe; the regulations only came about after industrialized European governments and nations decimated their own people and rivers.

An important burden falls on local and expatriate Syrian students: to prepare for future challenges through specialized training in water resource management, and especially in environmental law and diplomacy. They will be the ones to develop the post-war water strategy on national and trans-boundary waters over the coming decades. At some point, alliances with Iraq and other states supporting international water law will also prove effective tools, particularly in creating opportunities for sharing international benefits that will surely emerge.

The parallel role of the international community is equally clear, and much more feasible. Firm international support for the UNWC at every turn will not halt the dam-building, but may help soften the blow and buy time for downstream farmers and states to adapt. Fair water-sharing principles could be integrated into basin-wide diplomacy efforts (which would include Iran), and these should be maintained for years with little expectation of immediate or observable results.

If the UNWC and fair water-sharing norms are discredited or ignored by influential players, the result is entirely predictable. We will have failed again to mitigate completely foreseeable long-term environmental disasters, and will be obliged to deal with the equally certain continued regional devastation. The people in Syria will be obliged to cope with the troubles downstream alone.