Evolution of transboundary politics in the Euphrates-Tigris river system: new perspectives and political challenges.

Author:Kibaroglu, Aysegul
 
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Transboundary water politics in the Euphrates-Tigris river system have evolved with competitive power dynamics and cooperative institutional development. We analyze the evolution of transboundary water relations over four consecutive periods. The first period coincided with nation building in the region, when the riparian states focused on their domestic need for socioeconomic development rather than the formulation of external water policies. The second period saw the advent of competitive transboundary water politics shaped by the initiation of uncoordinated, large-scale water development projects. The third period was the most complex, given the link between transboundary water issues and nonriparian security issues. In the fourth period, the role of water bureaucracies in the reorientation of water policies from hostile to cooperative became significant. Even in the midst of the very recent political crisis between Turkey and Syria, partial institutionalization of water cooperation and growing networks of water dialogue at both the governmental and nongovernmental levels should continue to serve as open channels for easing the tensions. KEYWORDS: transboundary water politics, Euphrates-Tigris rivers, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, conflict cooperation, water bureaucracies.

THE MAIN RIPARIAN STATES OF THE EUPHRATES-TIGRIS RIVER SYSTEM ARE Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) Water disputes among them originated with moves in the 1960s by each of them toward large-scale water development projects. The initial aim of the projects was flow regulation designed to end the alteration of flooding and droughts. But ambitions in each country quickly grew to include hydropower generation and sharp increases in the use of river water for drinking and irrigation. Unilateral and uncoordinated water development projects by each party began to stress the river system's capacity. As the demand for water exceeded supply, water authorities in each country finally began reaching out to their counterparts in the others and they developed rather ad hoc processes of discussion and negotiation.

Unfortunately, above the level of the water bureaucrats, political rivalries stemming from conflicting national positions within the Cold War framework prevented any fruitful cooperation from taking root. Turkey's NATO membership and Syria and Iraq's ties to the Soviet Union did more than inhibit cooperation; they aggravated existing disputes over water and moved them progressively up the agenda of contentious issues until they were near the top for Turkey with each of the others. Ironically, despite similarly dependent relations with the Soviet Union, Iraq and Syria also were at loggerheads over water, as well as other issues implicated in their bitter regional rivalry, and there were moments when water use in the Euphrates river basin propelled the two regimes to the cusp of war. Though frequently marked by harsh rhetoric, Turkish-Iraqi relations were manageable by comparison in part because of complementary economies that induced a significant volume of bilateral trade. With the turning of the millennium, bilateral political relations between Turkey and Syria became conducive to transboundary water dialogue. In this context, contacts were established at governmental and nongovernmental levels, with the focus particularly on water and regional (river basin) development. And a series of protocols were signed to enable further cooperation.

Regime change in Iraq created both uncertainties and opportunities. Iraq joined in the trilateral ministerial dialogue on water issues and even signed separate protocols with Turkey and Syria that broadly addressed transboundary water use and management. However, the Iraqi parliament constantly criticized Turkey's use of water upstream and became vocal over claimed violation of Iraq's water rights. The recent domestic political unrest in Syria has led to the severing of bilateral political relations with Turkey and the blocking of any further transboundary water cooperation.

Against the background of often volatile relations among the three riparians, we consider the evolution of transboundary water politics in the Euphrates-Tigris river system, its competitive power dynamics, and its cooperative institutional development. We begin by describing the physical characteristics of the Euphrates-Tigris river system as the medium of complex interdependencies among the riparian states. We then analyze the evolution of transboundary water politics over four consecutive periods. The first period coincided with nation-building in the region, when the riparian states focused on their domestic need for socioeconomic development rather than the formulation of external water policies. The historical treaties signed at that time defined state borders and general bilateral political relations, and also included some clauses concerning transboundary water uses. The second period, however, saw the advent of competitive transboundary water politics shaped by the initiation of uncoordinated, large-scale water development projects. As the national water development ventures progressed, mismatches between water supply and demand occurred throughout the river basin. The ad hoc technical negotiations were unable to prepare the ground for a comprehensive treaty on equitable and effective transboundary water management. The third period was the most complex, given the link between transboundary water issues and nonriparian security issues. Mutual distrust precluded any fruitful outcome. However, this was also the phase when attempts were made to establish a joint mechanism for settling transboundary water disputes. We analyze these mechanisms, which ultimately proved incapable of resolving water and political crises in the region. In the fourth period, the role of water bureaucracies in the reorientation of water policies from hostile to cooperative became significant.

In the decades since the disputes over water first began, the state has been the major player in the formulation and implementation of transboundary water policies. The discourse and practices of the state bureaucracies--the water technocrats in the various ministries--and foreign office diplomats of the riparian states have evolved during the prolonged water dispute and this, in turn, has played a significant role in changing the nature of transboundary water relations. In the last section of this article, we therefore consider water relations among the riparians, paying particular attention to the role of water bureaucracies in the reorientation of water policies from hostile to cooperative in the early 2000s. We scrutinize the policy-learning processes of bureaucracies, paying particular attention to the shift from securitized negotiations to a functional approach.

We conclude that, even in the midst of the recent political crisis between Turkey and Syria, partial institutionalization of water cooperation and growing networks of water dialogue at both the governmental and nongovernmental levels have continued to serve as open channels for easing the tensions. After all, severe water shortages due to mismanagement, misuse, and prolonged drought conditions can be addressed satisfactorily only at the river basin level, with all the riparians concerned in attendance. Come what may, the dialogue on water should be kept open. The situation strongly suggests the need for joint efforts to assess and coordinate planning and management in order to harmonize basinwide development, in which, in addition to water sector demands (energy, agriculture), in-stream flows, and ecosystem protection should be taken into account.

Rivers of Common Geography and History

The two greatest rivers of the Eurasian landscape, the Euphrates and the Tigris, originate in one climatic and topographic zone and end in a quite different one. The basin is characterized by high mountains to the north and west and extensive lowlands in the south and east. (2) The catchment areas of both rivers have a subtropical Mediterranean climate with wet winters and dry summers. The rivers are in spate in spring when the snow melts and is augmented by seasonal rainfall, which is at its heaviest between March and May. The summer season is hot and dry, resulting in extensive evaporation and low humidity during the day. Evaporation increases water salinization and water loss in major reservoirs in the three riparian countries. (3) Because the water is not present where (on farmland) or when (in summer) it is most needed, the riparians have launched large-scale irrigation projects, which have become the main bone of contention in transboundary water politics since the late 1960s.

The Euphrates and its tributaries drain an enormous basin of 444,000 [km.sup.2], of which 33.0 percent lies in Turkey, 19.0 percent in Syria, and 46.0 percent in Iraq while the Tigris and its tributaries drain an area of 387,600 [km.sup.2], of which 15.0 percent lies in Turkey, 0.3 percent in Syria, 75.0 percent in Iraq, and 9.5 percent in Iran. Both rivers rise in Turkey, scarcely 30 km apart, flow through Syria and Iraq, and join to form the Shatt-al-Arab waterway north of Basra in Iraq before discharging into the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates is a long river (3,000 km), around 41 percent lying in Turkey, 23 percent in Syria, and 36 percent in Iraq. Iraq accounts for most (77 percent) of the Tigris (1,850 km), followed by Turkey (22 percent) and Syria, which has 44 km of the main river channel, forming its border with Turkey (about 36 km) and Iraq (about 8 km). (4)

The mean annual flow of the Euphrates is 32 km3, of which about 90 percent originates in Turkey and the remaining 10 percent in Syria. (5) As for the Tigris, the average total discharge is 52 [km.sup.3] per year, of which approximately 40 percent comes from Turkey, with Iraq and Iran contributing 51 percent and 9 percent, respectively. (6)

Iraq derives the majority of its freshwater...

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