Defining the Political/ecological Threshold for the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers

By Kolars, John | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Defining the Political/ecological Threshold for the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers


Kolars, John, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


PROFESSOR TOMANBAY'S ARTICLE presenting Turkey's approach to the utilization of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers demonstrates the keen nationally focused attention brought to the problem by each of the three riparians sharing the two rivers. Essays on the same subject by either Syrian or Iraqi authors would present equally persuasive yet nationally focused accounts of the situation.

While Tomanbay's essay emphasizes the "Right of Sovereignty" to water originating on Turkish territory, other strong legal claims to the water of rivers shared by several riparians are based upon the concepts of the "Right of Prior Usage" and the "Right of Equity." All three types of claims are recognized by the international community. When concerned riparian litigants cite two or all three, as in the present situation, deciding among them compounds the problem. Taken in combination, the water demanded by the three riparians would exceed the actual flow of the Euphrates in the year 2040 by at least 2.0 bcm/yr (Ozal and Altinbilek, Table 8; Kolars and Mitchell, Figure 11.1 for a similar predication).

Continued disagreement over the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, as exemplified by Professor Tomanbay's article, is the result of changes in "the location of water management activity and the type of water controls (which have been) introduced" (Beaumont, 171). Such changes, after centuries of stasis, have been abrupt. Before the introduction of gasoline pumps for cotton production in the 1950s there was little Syrian utilization of Euphrates' waters (Kolars, 1994, 135). "Irrigated hectarage on the Euphrates, Orantes (Asi), and Khabur leaped from 284,000 ha in 1956 to 583,000 ha in 1957" (Sanlaville and Metral, 231). By 1970 160,000 ha in the Syrian Euphrates valley, largely in the hands of private entrepreneurs, were under irrigation (Treakle, 19). As a result, Syria, the middle riparian on the Euphrates, bases its strongest claims on the principle of equity, for not only does it need water from the river for a major portion of its irrigated agriculture, but also faces severe domestic water shorta ges. Aleppo already depends upon Euphrates' water piped from Lake Assad, while similar shortages in Damascus and Homs must in the future be met by inputs from the same river.

Farthest downstream, Iraq posits prior usage as its claim on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Inhabitants of Mesopotamia, essentially modern Iraq, have used the rivers for a period of 7,500 years. Though over the millennia irrigated agriculture has been intermittent and varying in intensity, from the nineteenth century on increasing irrigated hectare has depended upon the twin rivers. By 1984, Iraq, according to government sources, annually was using 48.3 billion cubic meters of river water (Shapland, 107-109).

The abrupt changes in the use and amount of water needed by Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have given little time for a solution to be found which is acceptable to all three riparians, nor do continuing developments promise quick answers. The following discussion suggests that a broader approach to the river and their basins(s) (see below) might be able to cut this new, seemingly unsolvable Gordian Knot.

While the political impact of such changes has been dramatic (Biswas, et al, 1997, Chap. 2, and Naff, 1994), the ecological consequences of these developments have been for the most part overlooked (Richardson, pp. 36-47). The following discussion also posits that the sustainable ecology of the rivers must take precedence over the demands of any of the riparians. If not, all three will suffer.

Three elements must be recognized in order to find an ecologically sustainable way out of this seeming impasse of claims and counter claims. These are: facts (verifiable descriptions of events upon which all parties agree), interpretations of such facts, (i.e., nationally influenced perceptions), and acts (developmental activities based on such interpretations). …

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