Who Owns Transnational Water?

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By Kendra Patterson – “Neither Syria or Iraq can lay claim to Turkey’s rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like…. They cannot say they share our water resources.”

–Turkish President Suleyman Demirel at the opening of the Ataturk Dam (25 July 1992) on the Euphrates River, which flows into Syria and Iraq.

Recent dire predictions about the future “water wars” the Middle East will surely experience due to growing water scarcity, increasing populations, and worsening pollution of existing water sources have in part helped prioritize the issue of water and water management at the international level-most recently, at Davos 2008. There is no question that water has become an important part of the global security discourse.

Military conflict, or threatened conflict, has occurred over all three of the Middle East’s major transnational river systems-the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Jordan-as states in the region have grappled with fulfilling their visions of modern development and sovereignty. The last fifty years have seen major infrastructure projects such as dams and river diversions on all these rivers that have changed, sometimes significantly, the amount of water available to downstream riparians. Turkey has built enough dams to shut off the entire flow of the Euphrates into Syria, which it did do in 1990 for a period of four weeks while it filled the Atatürk Reservoir.

The 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses codified an international water law for shared rivers, stating that rivers must be used by their riparians in an equitable manner, and in particular that an upstream riparian must not do anything to the river that substantially changes or harms the downstream portion. This Convention is lacking in three ways. First, it has no enforcement mechanism for accountability. Second, it does not address the importance of the link between national water policy and the end users of water at the local level. Third, it does not apply to a significant source of shared water: aquifers (underground water). As populations in the region continue to grow these aquifers will become even more important, and without a change in the way water is viewed and managed, they could become the next “rivers” over which future conflict occurs.

In the last decade Middle Eastern countries have increasingly been incorporating into their national water policies a new water management tool called integrated water resource management (IWRM), which emphasizes sustainable and cooperative use. IWRM is based on the philosophy that all uses of water are interconnected, and that ecological, social, and economic considerations should get equal attention in its management. It is more flexible than the 1997 Convention in that it allows states to adapt its concepts to both rivers and aquifers, and at the local as well as the national level.

Because it focuses on equitable use, integrated management may also prove to be useful in international disputes over shared water. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), set up in 1999 by nine Nile Basin states, has been cited as a model of international cooperation. Based on IWRM concepts, it uses a top-down/bottom-up approach, coordinating the “shared vision” of the NBI member states with “action on the ground” through clear channels of information sharing and multi-level stakeholder cooperation. The NBI’s “shared vision” does not focus on allocation of, or who owns, the Nile waters. Rather, the group’s stated purpose is to foster regional peace and security through sharing the socioeconomic benefits of developing the river cooperatively.

Water will become a more contentious issue in the Middle East as the water crisis worsens in the coming decades, and the 20th century paradigm of water being a “matter of sovereignty” will only exacerbate conflict. By its nature, IWRM addresses the concept of sovereignty over water through institutionalizing cooperative and sustainable use. The NBI can be seen as a sign of an evolution toward a new paradigm of international water management that recognizes water as a integral part of regional security. However, old attitudes are slow to change, and it remains to be seen if the question of who owns transnational water resources will inform future conflict in the region.

Photo by Kel Patalog:

Kendra Patterson is a Research Associate with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.

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