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Book review: Water threatens to disrupt Iraqi-Kurdish-Turkish relations

Diminishing sources of clean water and rising demand could increase tension between Baghdad and Erbil, as well as Baghdad and Ankara, a new book says

Water has been a headache for Iraq since the late 1970s, when Turkey began building huge dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the southeast of the country for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. The dams reduced the flow of the two rivers beyond the Turkish border, raising fears in Baghdad as well as Damascus that Ankara might one day turn off the tap.

Turkey is certainly able to control how much river water Iraq and Syria receive (the Euphrates flows through Syria before reaching Iraq). With Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan still in the mood for expansionist adventures, Syrian and Iraqi leaders might well be justified in feeling nervous.

Iraq is particularly vulnerable. The country relies on renewable water sources originating outside its border for over 60pc of its needs. But there are domestic supply concerns too.

Marcus DuBois King, a professor at George Washington University, points out in a chapter he contributed to a recently published book* that water could be a further irritant in relations between Baghdad and Erbil. There is a perception in the south, says DuBois King, that “the Kurds are overusing the waters in their territory—a perception that could further erode the tenuous working relationship that now exists between the capitals that are historically sceptical of the other’s motives”. “In the most extreme circumstances, this situation could invite Iraqi military intervention,” he warns.

Another problem is that water quality is “in a general state of decline”. “As water becomes more polluted and scarcer, a concerning dynamic is emerging carrying implications for internal stability in Iraq,” DuBois King cautions.

A lot of Iraq’s worries would go away if it could reach a supply agreement with Turkey. But the two sides have very different views on ownership of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Turkey claims absolute sovereignty over the water, while Iraq and Syria argue their right to equitable utilisation of it.

Weaponising water

Iraq and Syria have signed the UN Watercourse Convention of 1997, which requires signatory states to avoid causing significant harm to other co-watercourse states, but Turkey has not signed it. Ankara’s attitude to Iraq may have been best summed up by a former premier, Suleyman Demirel—“water resources are Turkey’s and the oil is theirs; since we do not tell them, ‘look, we have a right to half your oil,’ they cannot lay claim to what is ours.”

While Turkey, Syria and Iraq have thus far avoided open war over the two rivers, water is increasingly being weaponised in regional conflicts. Tobias von Lossow, of thinktank the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, describes in his chapter how Saudi air strikes on Yemen “have been repeatedly attacking water installations”. Incidents of water weaponisation in Yemen, and in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, suggest that “this is becoming a ‘trend’ shaping present and future warfare and war-making in the Middle East”.

War is not the only danger. NGO the World Resources Institute forecasts that nine Middle Eastern states will be extremely highly water-stressed by 2040. These include six major hydrocarbon producers (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). Will the water run out before the oil?

Water and Conflict in the Middle East, in the course of eight contributed chapters, looks in detail at the difficulties the region faces and analyses the trends. In the current era of climate change and burgeoning geopolitical conflicts, this book is very definitely one for our times.

*Water and Conflict in the Middle East, Hurst & Company, by Marcus DuBois King (ed.)

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