The Euphrates River - The Politics of Water
November 1999

Commentary by Rick Francona

Euphrates River The Euphrates River, or the Furat in Arabic and Turkish, flows from its origins in Turkey through Syria and into Iraq. At the city of Al-Qurnah, it joins the Tigris River to form the Shatt Al-'Arab, which flows to the Persian Gulf and forms Iraq's southern border with Iran. The entire length of the Euphrates waterway is just under 3000 kilometers. Just as the waters of the Shatt Al-'Arab impact the politics of Iran and Iraq, the waters of the Euphrates impact the politics of the three nations who share the river. While the Euphrates River flows through the three countries, most of the water, about 88 percent, originates in Turkey, and the remainder from two rivers that enter the Euphrates in Syria. There is virtually no water added to the river in Iraq. 

Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project 

Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project, known by the Turkish acronym GAP, is causing concern in Syria and Iraq about the future of their access to the waters of the Euphrates. GAP, a concept as early as the 1930's, was begun in 1997. The project includes more than 20 dams and 17 electric power plants, which will eventually supply over half of Turkey's electricity requirements. However, filling the reservoirs behind these dams will reduce the flow of water downstream to Syria and Iraq. For example, the Ataturk Dam, which is the fourth largest dam in the world, will create a reservoir of over 11 trillion gallons. The Turks began filling the reservoir is 1990, stopping the flow of the Euphrates for a month. Although the Turks released water from other dams to compensate for the reduced flow, both Syrian and Iraq complained. Turkey blamed Syria for not properly managing the flow to Iraq, but the impact was made clear that the GAP was a major concern to the two Arab countries. 

Engineers from Syria and Iraq claim that the Ataturk Dam will reduce flow from the Euhprates by 40 percent to Syria and by 90 percent to Iraq. These levels are somewhat lower than the flows guaranteed by the Turks to Syria in a 1987 agreement (about 400 cubic meters per second versus the 500 cubic meters as specified in the agreement). 

Syria-Turkey Dispute 

Syria considers the Euphrates River to be its principal source of water. Many observers consider the disputes over the level of flow of the Euphrates to be the primary cause of conflict between Damascus and Ankara. In the early to mid-1990's, the water flows from Turkey to Syria were decreased enough to stop operation of seven of the ten turbines at the hydroelectric plant at Tabaqah, causing severe power outages throughout the country, including the capital city, Damascus. At its worst in the summer of 1993, portions of Syria outside Damascus had power for only three to four hours per day. 

Ankara charges that Syria had supported the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, or at least provided the terrorist organization with a safe haven for cross border operations. The Turks believed that the Syrians used support of the PKK as leverage in its water negotiations. Syria, of course, denies the charge, but there appeared to be a pattern of cross-border PKK activity coincident with decreases in the flow of water from Turkey to Syria. 

Syria-Iraq Dispute 

In 1974, Syria began its own series of water projects on the Euphrates with the inauguration of the Al-Thawrah (Revolution) Dam at Tabaqah. When the Syrians began to fill the reservoir that has become Lake Asad, the flow of the river to Iraq was reduced by to as little as 25 percent of the normal rate. Iraq moved troops to the border with Syria and threatened to bomb the dam. Syria responded with the deployment of large numbers of aircraft to counter any Iraqi air action. Diplomatic activity by the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia defused the situation peaceably. Since then, Iraq has seen the levels of water reaching its borders decrease. Not only has the quantity decreased, but also so has the quality of the water. Turkish and Syrian water projects take water from the top and middle flows of the river, where the water has less salinity and turbidity. The water reaching Iraq is less suitable for agriculture. Yields have decreased as salinity has increased. 

The future? 

In October of 1998, the Syrians and the Iraqis decided to coordinate their actions on the Euphrates (and of less importance to the Syrians, the Tigris) water issue with the Turks, putting aside other political differences. At the meeting, the two countries decided to boycott companies involved in the GAP. They coincidentally condemned the military agreement between the Turkish and Israeli armed forces. Turkey will continue its GAP development; it is too large of an investment. Technically, the Turks are still ensuring that the flow of the Euphrates meets the minimum levels per its agreements with Syria and Iraq, but these levels are insufficient to meet rising Syrian and Iraqi future needs. Although the PKK has been severely crippled with the arrest of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, Syria will still finds ways to pressure the Turks. Iraq will continue to suffer with little recourse.

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