Crystal Unclear: The Challenges of Water Politics in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Due to its importance, water is a double-edged sword. In addition to water's life-giving properties, it acts as a major source of conflict in areas that have a limited supply. Middle Eastern countries have had to divide water sources while ignoring all political boundaries, which has generated a great deal of hostility. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, which share the Tigris-Euphrates water, and Israel and Palestine, which share the Jordan River basin, are cases illustrative of the relationship dynamic among riparian states and of the effect a scarcity of water has had in the greater Middle East.

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Although cooperation of the riparian states is crucial in settling water conflicts in the Middle East, inequalities among the involved states render successful cooperation a difficult process, especially when the countries are left to their own accord. Still, sharing water through multilateral agreements would provide the simplest solution to the disputes over water. While incorporating technology is another possible solution to the water problem, almost all technological solutions to water scarcity are either too expensive or too risky, due to the potential for water shortage. Four individual inequality types amongst riparian countries--geography, resources, economy and military capacity--have kept fair water-sharing agreements from becoming a political reality. Some of these inequalities can and should be addressed.

Inequalities in Geography

There are many inequalities among the disputing riparian states that make cooperation between the stronger and weaker states difficult. One of these inequalities is that of geographic location. Usually the upstream riparian has advantages over the lower riparian states. This is clearly seen in the case of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Turkey is the upstream riparian of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Syria and Iraq, meaning that Turkey controls the headwater of the two rivers. This significantly boosts Turkey's political position, since Ankara has a say in how much water will flow down to the lower riparian states. With the ability to decide the amount of water that will be distributed among the three neighboring states, Turkey's regional influence increases drastically.

Geographic location affects more than just the political positions of the riparian states. Downstream riparian states are greatly affected even by projects that take place outside of their borders, since those projects might decrease the amount of water that flows into their lands. Starting as early as the 1970s, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have had major difficulties in designing a working solution to sharing the Tigris-Euphrates water. The most recent and enduring problem has risen from Turkey's ambitious project called the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which plans on building 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations and irrigation systems on the Euphrates. Eight dams were completed by 2005. Additionally, Syria is also taking on an extensive irrigation project to cover almost 773,000 acres of land. Such projects have devastating implications for Iraq, the downstream neighbor. After the completion of these projects, it is expected to receive almost 50 to 80 percent less water. Not only will Iraq see a reduction in its quantity of water, but it will also face a reduction in water quality due to field drainages and industrial pollution in the upper states. Because of its advantageous geographic location, Turkey can use the Tigris-Euphrates water without much concern for its downstream neighbors. Encouraging cooperation in such an unbalanced context is difficult, as Turkey wants to maintain its regional influence and ambitious damming projects.

In the Jordan River basin, Israel also exercises political supremacy over other riparian states due to its superior geographic location. According to Frederick Frey and Thomas Naff, Israel uses water as an instrument for "establishing and maintaining control over a majority population in the interests of a minority group. …