Water Pressure

By Feuilherade, Peter | The Middle East, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Water Pressure


Feuilherade, Peter, The Middle East


TURKEY HAS NOT yet given up hopes that its water diplomacy towards its Arab neighbours will pay dividends. At a recent international water conference in Ankara, a minister of state, Mehmet Golhan, made a bid to revive his country's offer to build the so-called Peace Pipeline, which was intended to provide fresh water from rivers in southern Turkey to nine Arab states.

Golhan said the project would contribute to current efforts between Israel and the Palestinians to create a new regional economic order in the Middle East. Turkish diplomats are hoping that with the start of negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the project can be resuscitated, if only in part.

"As Israel and Palestine bury their swords, Turkey believes that a reassessment of the Peace Pipeline project should be made by all the countries it would serve. The true meaning of the project is to prove that water can be an element of cooperation by creating a mutual dependency on water, thus contributing to peace and stability," Golhan said. The Turkish minister reiterated, however, that his country felt no obligation to satisfy all the water needs of downstream countries from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which have their sources in Turkey.

Observers say that the Gulf states have already ruled out the Turkish project as unfeasible on economic grounds. "Gulf water and electricity ministers have decided not to go ahead with it. We found that one gallon from that project will cost five fils (1.36 cents) while one gallon of desalinated water costs one fil (0.27 cents)", according to the UAE minister of water and electricity, Humaid Nasser al Owais.

The real reluctance of the Gulf states to commit themselves to Turkey's water project stems from long-standing security fears of over-dependence on the goodwill of the upstream states involved, particularly Turkey. One policy statement the Arab states will not forget is the remark by Turkey's former prime minister - now president - Suleiman Demirel, who said at the inauguration of the Ataturk Dam in July 1992 that the region's water resources belonged to Turkey, just as its oil belonged to the Arabs. "Since we don't tell the Arabs, look, we have a right to half your oil, they cannot lay claim to what's ours," Demirel warned.

One alternative to the costly Turkish project - which Ankara has estimated would currently require funding in excess of $21bn - is a proposal by Lebanon to supply the Gulf states with water from its rivers through a 1,500-kilometre pipeline, at an estimated cost of only one-third of the Turkish scheme.

The Peace Pipeline - still nostagically referred to in Turkey as the brainchild of the late President Turgut Ozal - was intended to pump some six million cubic metres of water a day to the eastern Arab states.

The idea was to provide drinking water at a price which was a fraction of the cost of desalinated water, via a pipeline network with an estimated life of around 50 years.

A 1989 article in the Turkish Review by Seyfi Tashan, director of Turkey's Foreign Policy Institute, spelt out the scheme's underlying assumption. "Because of its route, the project requires co-operation and understanding among almost all the states of the [eastern Arab world], for the projection of the pipeline, its maintenance and operation. It will mean, in effect, peace among these various countries."

Now that the scenario appears closer, a London University water resources specialist, Professor Tony Allen, believes that some aspects of the Turkish proposal remain viable. As he points out, it was intended to serve many customers, not just the Gulf states. Its main direction was due south, to Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

The disaffection of the Gulf states with the idea is predictable, because of the pipeline's intended route through their northern neighbours and the long-standing fear that Turkey could turn the taps off in future in the event of political disputes - even though Turkey has so far given every assurance that it would not behave irresponsibly in this respect and risk jeopardising its relationship with the Arab world. …

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