Thursday, October 01, 2009

Water and Future Wars

Patrick Wrigley has an excellent article on how water suppliers are straining relations between Turkey and Iraq. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers both start in Turkey. With growing strains on water resources, Turkey can put Iraq behind the 8-ball should they choose to do so. Turkey needs the water. Iraq needs the water. But Turkey has it first. It's likely we can expect this to be a leading issue of contention between these two nations in coming years. Syria also has rights to some of this water and will also play an important role in these conflicts.

Turkey needs the water for both crops and dams. The more water used and impounded in Turkey, the worse the situation for Iraq and Syria.

With 40% of Turkey's water potential coming from trans-boundary waters, the country's future water security and its relations with its southern neighbors rests on this very policy. The government continues to argue that this is an opportunity for international cooperation rather than conflict. However, according to Erkin Erdogan, project coordinator for ecological issues at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Istanbul, "As far as I can see, it [negotiation] is not working. Conflict with the Kurdish government [of northern Iraq] is ongoing. They say they have good relations but it is not the case. Several times Iraq has made quite harsh press announcements. The possibility of solving the problem is not that great. Turkey wants to use all its advantages."

This issue is certainly not new. In 1990, president Saddam Hussein demanded that Turkey increase the water flow through to Iraq to 700 cubic meters per second. The Turkish president, Yildirim Aktuna, declined the request, which led to the suspension of a security protocol between the countries. However, the issue has now taken on added urgency. Iraq has been afflicted by a crippling drought at a time when water flows from Turkey are diminishing.

Many analysts believe that the development of a series of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers would severely undermine Syria and Iraq's access to water. According to Erdogan, "One of the main issues with the Ilisu dam is the issue of hegemony. It will let the Turkish government control the Tigris River and will have a bad affect on the other countries. This is a mechanism to control the water in the region."

The Turkish government argues that it is constantly seeking solutions to trans-boundary water issues. However, for Ankara, the Euphrates-Tigris basin is seen as the key to the country's future energy needs and to the socio-economic development of the southeast of the country. Meanwhile, for Iraq, the land between the two rivers, a symbol of the country's abundant natural heritage is slowly turning into a badge of want.

But it's not just in Turkey and Iraq that we may see these problems. Mexico and the United States have long-standing issues over the Colorado and Rio Grande. The Nile runs through several countries before getting to Egypt. The Danube and other European rivers have cross many borders as well. Particularly in a place like Iraq, water shortages could combine with other instabilities to lead to war, terrorism, totalitarian government, and other very bad outcomes. Water issues should be a top U.N. priority in coming years because the 21st century could easily see water become a major reason for warfare.