Resources & Climate

Sustaining the Fertile Crescent: Mind the GAP

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Growing populations, soaring demand, mounting environmental pressures, and potentially unsustainable development programs risk imposing untenable burdens on the freshwater resources of the Tigris-Euphrates basin.


By David Michel – The Tigris and Euphrates rivers formed the cradle of early civilizations. Their course embraces the Fertile Crescent where irrigation and agriculture began and the Mesopotamian empires arose.  Mesopotamia’s modern descendants in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq still critically rely on these fabled waters. This very dependence, though, increasingly threatens the rivers themselves. 

Growing populations, soaring demand, mounting environmental pressures, and potentially unsustainable development programs risk imposing untenable burdens on the region’s freshwater resources. The Tigris-Euphrates has become a “closed” basin; total water withdrawals for human uses already equal or even exceed long-term flow balances and ecosystem needs.  Little to no spare capacity remains.   By some accounts, the uncoordinated development plans of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq would together demand an impossible 149% of the Euphrates’ water.  Yet no collective agreement governs river flows or allocations among the three nations.  On the contrary, on several occasions one or another has mobilized its army against a neighbor over water.  Turkey, Syria, and Iraq must now find ways to establish mutually beneficial and cooperative basin management mechanisms if the ancient “land between the rivers” is not to become a land of conflict between riparians.

All three states have undertaken significant infrastructure works to harness the Tigris-Euphrates for national development.  In particular, 34 dams in Turkey, 7 in Iraq, and 1 in Syria furnish irrigation, hydropower, flood protection, and drinking water to populations across the basin.  Dam projects – and the capacity they confer to control the flow of the river – however, underlie much of the persistent hydropolitical strains that plague the region.  Both the Tigris and Euphrates rise in the mountains of eastern Turkey before entering Syria and then Iraq.  On average, Turkey provides 90% of the water running in the Euphrates and about half of the Tigris. Downstream, Iraq depends on external water flows for 53.5% of its total supply while Syria’s “dependency ratio” is 72.3%.

Tensions flared as soon as Turkey and Syria completed their first dams on the Euphrates in the mid-1970s.  By impounding water to fill the dams’ reservoirs, the two upstream states pared supply to Iraq by 25% in the midst of a searing regional drought.  Iraq accused Syria of usurping a third of the river’s flow and threatened to bomb the offending structure. Both countries marshaled troops along their common border. 

In 1977, Turkey unveiled its Southeastern Anatolia Project (GüneydoÄŸu Anadolu Projesi, GAP), a multi-decadal plan to construct 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric plants, and corral water supplies sufficient to irrigate 1.8 million hectares, equivalent to almost 10% of the country’s surface.  Ankara deems the project essential to the social welfare and economic integration of the nation’s least developed provinces.  Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, blame Turkey’s water diversions for recurring water shortages. 

With little direct leverage over Turkey’s upstream projects, Syria and Iraq resorted to proxy measures.  Syria especially long wielded support for the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a counterweight to Ankara’s implicit ability to manipulate the Euphrates – a link rendered explicit  in 1987 when the two countries signed dual protocols by which Turkey guaranteed Syria an annual average minimum flow on the Euphrates while Damascus pledged to cease backing the PKK.  Nevertheless, Turkey frequently failed to comply and Syria soon renewed its assistance to the Kurds, precipitating serial political crises and military showdowns until, under threat of armed intervention, Damascus expelled rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1998. 

Today, the GAP remains contentious and unfinished. As one of only 3 states to have voted against the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (versus 103 votes in favor), Turkey officially affirms unfettered rights to utilize the waters originating within its borders.  Syria and Iraq contend Turkey’s insistence on hydrological sovereignty violates its obligations not to harm downstream riparians.  But neither country currently possesses sufficient clout – or bargaining chips – to counter an assertive Turkey’s rising regional power.  Iraq, freed of Saddam Hussain but weakened by internal turmoil, has been inwardly focused on reconstruction.  Internationally isolated, the Assad regime cannot afford to affront an important interlocutor.  (To be sure, Syria and Turkey recently broke ground on a “Friendship Dam” they will jointly operate on the Asi, a river flowing into Turkey from Syria.  But Ankara has shown no signs it would accept similar arrangements allowing the neighbors to co-manage projects on rivers flowing out of Turkey.)

Nevertheless, pursuing the GAP as originally designed increasingly appears to conflict both with the project’s intended domestic objectives and with Ankara’s stated foreign policy of “zero problems with the neighbors.” In Turkey, the dams so far erected have flooded some 400 villages and displaced 200,000 people, mostly Kurds.  Largely as a result, international funders have withdrawn, deferring the deadline for completion from 2010 to as late as 2047. In Iraq and Syria, popular recriminations against Turkey’s alleged water diversions have grown as persistent drought drives rural families from parched lands they can no longer profitably farm into increasingly crowded urban centers.  Indeed, Iraqi legislators in May 2009 voted to block all agreements with Ankara unless their country received a larger water share.[1]

Many experts doubt the GAP’s long-term political and environmental viability.  Analyses simulating the water demands from the full array of planned installations concluded completing the design would decrease flows in the Tigris and Euphrates by 25% and 32% respectively.[2]  Global warming could further strain the basin’s water resources.  Spring and summer snowmelt in the mountains of eastern Turkey accounts for 60-70% of total annual river runoff.  Yet climate change may considerably diminish the winter snows that nourish the Tigris-Euphrates.  Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Forests suggests snowfalls in eastern Anatolia could decline by up to 2 meters (snow water equivalent), implying substantial subsequent shifts in streamflows expected to feed irrigation schemes and turn hydroelectric turbines.[3]

Turkey, Syria, and Iraq are each highly susceptible to any reduction in water availability in the Tigris-Euphrates.  For Turkey, the two rivers represent more than a quarter of the country’s surface water flows.  Iraq and Syria are even more vulnerable as they already use 85% and 83% respectively of the renewable freshwater resources actually available to them.  In ancient Mesopotamia, Hammurabi’s Code recorded the world’s earliest water laws, establishing obligations to properly maintain common water works.   Present day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq must now similarly establish inclusive, collective arrangements to cooperatively manage their common water resources to sustain the Fertile Crescent.


Photo Credit: Circular irrigation on the Tigris River in Iraq, April 2009 (US Army photo by Sgt. Ian Terry)


[1] Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy 17, no.1 (2010); UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, “Mission to Syria from 29 August to 7 September 2010,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 7 September 2010.

[2] A. Tilmant, J. Lettany, and R. Kelman, “Hydrological Risk Assessment in the Euphrates-tigris River Basin: A Stochastic Dual Dynamic Programming Approach,” Water International 32, no.2 (2007).

[3] Republic of Turkey, First National Communication of Turkey on Climate Change (Ankara: Ministry of Environment and Forestry, January 2007); A. Arda Åžorman et al., “Modelling and forecasting snowmelt runoff process using the HBV model in the eastern part of Turkey,” Hydrological Processes 23, no.7 (2009).


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