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News Turkey puts an end to water wars thesis in the Middle East

Until several years ago, international strategists would argue that a war over water resources would inevitably emerge in the Middle East. But the recent change in Turkey's international water policy seems to discredit this thesis.

Turkey has adopted a fair sharing model for its surface water that leaves the country, thereby solving the problems it had with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Bulgaria, Georgia and Greece over water management. Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu, speaking to Today's Zaman, said, "No war over water resources will emerge in the region."

Eroğlu stated that as one of the countries affected by global warming to the greatest extent, Turkey has changed its water strategy, despite the fact that it faces significant water scarcity problems in several regions. Turkey's new strategy can be defined as fair sharing and cooperative usage of water resources. Moreover, Turkey will stop its projects for the sale of several water resources such as Manavgat River. Turkey will implement a system of water transfers between water basins and use its every water resource to this end.

The minister summarized the change in Turkey's water policy that relates to its neighbors as follows: "Instead of having problems over water with our neighbors, we prefer developing joint projects. We have gradually solved all problems. Contrary to what some people claim, no longer will a war emerge over water resources in this region, but people may still find lame reasons for waging wars. We believe that the water resources in the region can be effectively used to satisfy the water needs of the region."

Turkey's problems with its neighbors concerning the surface waters leaving its borders are long-standing problems. In the past Syria and Iraq frequently filed official complaints to the United Nations about Turkey's construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, arguing that Turkey failed to release sufficient water from these dams. Another problem with Syria had to do with the Asi River in Hatay. This river originates in Syria, but flows into the sea from Turkish territory. Syria would occasionally release high amounts of water which would cause floods in the Amik plain in Hatay and this would offend Turkey. Turkey had a similar problem with Bulgaria concerning the Meri+ğ River. Moreover, Georgia would frequently warn Turkey because of the +çoruh River, which originates in Turkey, but flows into the sear in Batum city of Georgia.

How were problems solved?

Turkey had the greatest problems with Syria and Iraq concerning the cross-border surface waters. Turkey decided to change its water policy during the World Water Congress, held in Antalya in March 2007, and first solved its problems with Syria. Turkey saw that whenever it had talks with Syria, France was also involved the talks, and whenever it had talks with Iraq, the UK and the US were also involved the talks, and this made it more complex in finding a solution. Therefore, Turkey requested bilateral talks with its neighbors. When they accepted Turkey's offer, the problems started to gradually be solved.

Turkey made the first agreement on cross-border surface waters with Syria. The warm relations with Syria started after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to this country, and the two countries decided to develop a joint project for constructing a dam on the border where the Asi River passes. Under this project, 70 percent of the dam's water capacity will be used by Syria while the remaining capacity will belong to Turkey.

In response to Syria's complaints of not receiving sufficient water from the Tigris and Euphrates, particularly during hot summers, Turkey offered to conduct a joint study by a committee of scientists. The committee found out that in summer water levels of both rivers decrease to the point of drying up. However, Turkey continues to release a constant volume of water from its dams, thereby providing water at all times to Syria.

Turkey also gave Syria scientific support in the determination of irrigable lands near these two rivers. Syria launched a project for the irrigation of these lands with a sprinkler system and found out that the current levels of these rivers would be sufficient. Furthermore, the scientific committee found out that evaporation in Syria is at high levels, and Syria does not have suitable terrain for storing water, therefore it would be more reasonable to store water in Turkish territories. Accordingly Syria was convinced that Turkey's construction of more dams would in the long term be beneficial also to Syria. Eventually, Syria stopped objecting to the Ilısu Dam, the foundations of which were laid last year by Prime Minister Erdoğan.

As reported by Eroğlu, Turkey had similar talks with Iraq and managed to also convince the Baghdad administration. But after the US occupation in Iraq, relations with this country changed. Although Turkey freely provided know-how on water treatment to Iraq, the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq did not want to cooperate with Turkey concerning cross-border surface water.

With mutual understanding and cooperation, Turkey managed to solve its problems on water with Georgia. The high output from the +çoruh River would cause considerable damage to the lands near Batum, Georgia, and this would consequently create problems between the two countries. Both countries, being partners in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and natural gas pipeline project, agreed that these floods could only be prevented with a dam constructed in Turkish territory. The Muratlı Dam, constructed on the +çoruh River, solved this problem.

Turkey employed the strategy it used with Syria in order to solve the Meri+ğ River problem with Bulgaria. Thus, Turkey offered to construct a dam jointly with Bulgaria. Both countries agreed to construct a dam called Suakacağı on the Meri+ğ River. The dam's designs have been completed and its construction will start in 2008.

Despite having fewer problems with Greece, Turkey is also developing joint projects with it in order to prevent floods in the Ergene basin. These projects will also serve to build mutual trust between the two countries.

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News type Inbrief
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Source of information The Journal of Turkish Weekly
Keyword(s) water war
Geographical coverage Turkey
News date 30/10/2009
Working language(s) ENGLISH