The water crises in Turkey, Syria and Iraq


Samreen Aamir Bari

Water is more precious than oil


Water is a precious resource which is gradually getting scarcer. More than half of the world population will be living with water shortage within 50 years because of a worldwide water crisis, according to a report issued by the United Nations Environment Program


It is a prediction that future wars will be of different kinds… resource wars. As a result of globalisation we are experiencing differences and inequalities around the world and as a result growth in abuses of human rights and violence and eagerness to expand territories have taken the basic right from poor nations, the people are fighting for basic needs.

World watch Institute have pointed out that water will be the center of new conflicts According to them things like IMF and world bank backed privatisation policies flawed big dam projects, etc, have caused further tensions, protest and violence.

Water is a precious resource which is gradually getting scarcer. More than half of the world population will be living with water shortage within 50 years because of a worldwide water crisis, according to a report issued by the United Nations Environment Program. In other words, it is highly unlikely that there is going to be enough water for everybody unless the necessary steps are taken at regional and global level.

Years of war, inconsiderate water supply management, un checked population growth, ill- advised agricultural policies and backings that encourage consumption have turned a basically dry part of the world into an avid consumer of water. Water crisis is playing a vital role and main cause of dispute between the countries of the Middle East in recent years.

As a matter of fact all the Middle East countries are comparatively downstream riparian countries and lack water resources. Therefore there is a natural convergence as these states like to hold the power and maximum authority on available natural water resources.

The issue started when in 1970s Syria and Turkey started utilising the waters of the Euphrates by large scale irrigation and hydroelectric power generation projects. These mega projects certainly damaged the traditional water supply. By keeping this point we can say that the dams are perceived as threats not as means to store water.

Professor Mehmet Dalar from Abant İzzet Baysal University’s department of international relations says that 20 billion of the Euphrates’ 36 billion cubic meters of water, and a full 20-30 billion of the Tigris’ 45 billion cubic meters of water, pour completely unused into the sea.

Here we will discuss the water issues between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s Position

Contrary to general perception Turkey is not rich in fresh water resources and it does not have excess water capacity, yet in comparison to its neighbours it has more water resources.

Water facts

Turkey’s average annual runoff is about 186bn cubic meters (m3). The amount available for consumption from this capacity is mere 110bn m3 including 12bn m3 of ground water. Taking into consideration Turkey’s population of 60 million, the quantity of water per capita will be 2890m3. Countries regarded as rich in water resources have 8000-10,000m3 of water per capita per year. In other words, the available water per capita in Turkey is about one-fifth of the water-rich countries. The impression that Turkey has excess water derives from the fact that it is not at present in a position to fully utilise its water resources. Today Turkey utilises only 25.9bn m3 of its available capacity of 110bn m3 the remaining portion is not surplus to Turkey’s requirements, but an amount which cannot yet be allocated to its needs.


For Iraq water is more precious than oil. Iraqi government is trying their best to handle this situation and to make water available for their people but like in other administrative areas they are failed to prove to their capabilities this issue is also unresolved up tillnow.

Current estimates of water available for Iraq are 2,400 m3 per person per year. With the exception of Turkey, Iraqis have more water available to them than their neighbours. The destruction of vital infrastructure as a consequence of conflicts and lack of capital investments have resulted in the deprivation of many Iraqis from access to potable water and basic sanitation facilities


Syria is divided into 14 governorates. Syria’s national water balance is already facing a water deficit. The renewable water resources of 15,208 Mm³ are exceeded by a total water consumption of 17,669 Mm³, which results in a water deficit of 2,461 Mm³ or 14% of total water consumption in 2004. In 2001, 59% of the population and 61% of the irrigated area were located in river basins that were characterized by a water deficit.

The total annual available regulated water resources in Syria are about 14218 million cubic meter and the total annual use was about 17566 MCM which results in 3348 MCM water shortage, the actual domestic water production in 2008 was 1183 MCM and the population in Syria at the end of 2008 was about 19.9 million inhabitants.17 Consequently, the annual water consumed per capita equals 59.45 m3

Water resources

The Euphrates River originates from Turkey and flows through Syria and Iraq .It joins the Tigris in Iraq and becomes the Shatt-al-Arab waterway which flows into the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates is composed of two main tributaries, the Karasu and the Murat, both originating in Eastern Anatolia and having numerous smaller tributaries. In northern Iraq the Euphrates form the western boundary of the area known as Al Jazira. To the South east the muddy lands between the Tigris and Euphrates was the site of the glorious Babylonian civilisations of ancient times. The Euphrates is important solely for its water supply.

The river is source of political tension, as Turkey, Syria and Iraq all compete for the use of its waters for irrigation and the generation of hydroelectric power.

88.7 per cent of the total water potential of the Euphrates basin originates in Turkey and the remainder, only 11.3 per cent, originates in Syria. Iraq’s contribution to the runoff is nil.

The construction of dams on the river has greatly reduced the water inflow the Southeast Anatolia project of Turkey involves the construction of 22 dams and 19 power plants because of these mega projects the amount of water to reach Syria and Iraq will definitely decrease.

The optimum use of water quality is being hindered by Turkey’s dams. Syria is also using too much of river’s water. Syria and Iraq are threatening Turkey to pose military action if they increase the amount of water they are taking from the river.

The Tigris, originating from Hazar Lake, forms a 40km-length of border between Turkey and Syria. After crossing Iraqi territory it joins the Euphrates to form the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in Iraq and then flows into the Persian Gulf. Its main tributaries in Turkey are the Botan, Batmansu, Karpansu and the Greater Zap rivers. Turkey contributes around 51.8 %of the Tigris’ flow, with Iraq contributing 49.2% and Syria contributing nothing at all. The irregular water flow from the tributaries makes the Tigris a very unstable and unreliable river, in terms of annual flow and flood.

Turkey and Syria are, respectively, the upstream and the midstream riparian’s in the Euphrates River basin. Turkey has accused Syria of backing the Partiya Kerkarani Kurdistan (PKK), a terrorist Kurdish organisation aiming at the establishment of a Kurdish state in southeastern Anatolia, and will not agree to fix a flow quota of at least 700 cubic meters of water per second (m 3/s). Syria, on the other hand, permits the PKK and its leader to have shelter in its territory. It perceives Turkey as aiming for regional hegemony by aligning with Israel and controlling the water flow of the Euphrates. The relations between the two countries are highly conflictual. However, if a riparian allows unilaterally, the surviving player could use the river with no major opposition. This constitutes the benefit of unlimited use of the Euphrates’ waters, an insufficient source to satisfy both Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) and the future Syrian needs in energy and agriculture.

Syria never recognised Turkish sovereignty over Hatay (the Sandjak of Alexandretta); this region was part of French-mandated Syria, and it decided, as an autonomous entity, to be a part of Turkey in 1939.

A direct implication of this territorial issue concerns the Orontes river: The Orontes flows through Hatay, and Turkey is the downstream and Syria the upstream riparian. Yet there exists no satisfactory agreement over the Orontes River; one reason for this is that an agreement over the Orontes would imply that Syria recognises Turkish ownership of Hatay.

Turkey and Syria still continue to pull each other without having settled the issues of water and terrorism; diplomatic negotiations between the two riparian’s have not resulted in agreements satisfying both sides.