By Ethan Carlsson
The Syrian civil war has gone on for upwards of seven years now. As of February 2019, ISIS holds almost no territory, and they probably won’t be a central driving force behind the conflict. This may change the goals of foreign actors and the legitimacy of their involvement. However, the war is very unlikely to end any time soon. Rather than ending, the conflict will enter a new stage, characterised by new tensions and risks for future conflict. In a series of three articles, I want to focus on one specific tension that could shape the future of the region: the management of the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin, within Syria and between Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
The problem is conceptually quite simple. If two states rely on a single river for water supply, and one state is upstream of the other, then whenever the upstream state impacts the river, they also impact the resources of the other state. In the context of dams this means that the upstream state has the power to control how much water flows to the downstream states. If water is plentiful this is not a problem; everyone will get enough. However, thanks to increases in the consumption of water per capita and the increasingly damaging effects of climate change, water is not plentiful in the region.
The Tabqa dam, situated near the top of the Euphrates river in Syria, is the largest dam in the country and is used to supply electrical energy and water in the north. The dam has been captured by the US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and is being controlled by the Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria (DFNS). The Euphrates acts as a border between the government and the DFNS, and the river is therefore shared between the two factions. Given this fact DFNS and government interests are likely to be aligned with regard to water supply further downstream. In fact, the mutual interest in good water management along the river may even be an opportunity for peace between the two factions. There has been no major armed conflict between the factions yet, and joint management of the river could result in an easing of tensions. This has already occurred to a significant extent, and while the Tabqa dam remains in DFNS territory, an agreement with the government has led to the day to day running of the dam being handled by engineers and specialists provided by the Syrian government. Developments like this can be an opportunity for peace that local and international actors could exploit in the interest of peaceful solutions.
However, the issue is larger than Syria itself. Further upstream can be found a series of major dam projects in Turkey known as the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). Since the 70s Turkey has been developing a series of projects within Southeastern Anatolia, once completed it will include 21 dams and 17 hydroelectric power plants. As of 2018, 19 of these dams have been completed, with 13 of them producing hydroelectric energy. The project is aimed at improving the economy of what is otherwise poorest region of Turkey, and it will contribute to making renewable hydropower the fastest source of domestically produced energy in the country. So what is the problem then?
The problem is that the project is upstream of both Syria and Iraq. Unlike in situations such as that of DFNS and Syria, the river doesn’t act as a shared border, but instead flows downwards, creating an upper and lower riparian relationship. This state of affairs in water management tends to be the least conducive towards cooperation. The project is likely to affect the salinity in the water, making agriculture in the downstream countries less effective. More worryingly for a region so vulnerable to drought, it will likely reduce water flow to the downstream countries. This will in turn cause both agriculture and hydroelectricity in the downstream countries to be less effective. If there is a drought in the region, Turkey will be able to mitigate the effects by holding more water upstream, but by doing so they could cause major economic damage to the downstream countries. As climate change becomes significant this is an increasingly likely scenario, and it could lead to real risk of conflict between the countries.
The water rights disagreement
The core disagreement between Turkey, Iraq and Syria as far as the law goes, is about whether water should be managed according to reasonable and equitable use or according to a principle of no harm. It’s a disagreement about whether or not to accept the UN Convention on the Law of the non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997 (The UN Watercourses Convention).
The UN Watercourses Convention article 7 provides that states have an obligation to prevent causing significant harm to other watercourse states. This means that no state can take away the rights of another to use shared water. However, this leads to a sovereignty paradox, wherein the upper riparian is limited in their rights to use the river, because actions may affect the downstream riparians, but the downstream riparians are not limited in the same way. Turkey has therefore argued that article 7 should not limit article 5, which establishes that water use should be justified on the basis of a principle of “equitable and reasonable” use. Turkey is specifically concerned with a notion of “optimal utilisation” which can be found expressed in a number of areas throughout the act. During negotiations Turkey sought to have this principle overcome the article 7 principle of no harm in the hierarchy of rules governing the use of international watercourses. The principles governing the use of water aren’t hierarchised yet, and this Turkish jurisprudence may be influential on how the convention is interpreted even though they were not able to alter the words of the act. However, giving precedence to optimal utilisation goes very much against the interests of lower riparian states like Syria.
Turkey did not sign on to the UN Watercourses Convention, and so the treaties discussed further on, and their consequences, are more closely linked to notions of optimal utilisation. The majority of successful treaties between Turkey and its downstream neighbours are based on needs rather than rights. This means that the lower riparians have been able to argue for increased access to water resources where it is necessary to meet the basic needs of their citizens, or where it would be more economically efficient. But they have not been able to argue for a solution that would establish some kind of shared sovereignty over the water, or that would limit Turkey’s capacity to cause significant harm to downstream countries (so long as doing so would be the most efficient use of water).
Now, the benefit of this approach can be illustrated in the following way: imagine that Turkey and Syria both had 1 water efficiency and the river’s overall efficiency (this is a made-up unit of measurement) is 2 (let’s just ignore the other riparians for this hypothetical). If we can increase the overall efficiency of the river and split it by 2 between Syria and Turkey so that Turkey and Syria both have 2 water efficiency, we should do so. But if we can increase overall efficiency by 3, yet all of this efficiency goes to Turkey so that Turkey has 4 and Syria 1, then this would likely be preferable because overall, we acquire more efficiency from the water. Turkey’s approach produces more value.
Turkey already has the infrastructure needed to produce the most efficiency from the rivers. This under the current arrangement of things will mean that Turkey will generally have the better right to water. Neither Iraq or Syria is in an economic position in which they can increase the efficiency of their water usage. In Syria’s case; the Syrian government doesn’t have full control of the rivers and its dams; Syria could not improve the situation without first conducting military action. This means that Syria may never have the same level of access to water.
If Turkey is holding back water in a drought, then efficiency will cease to be convincing to the lower riparians. Furthermore, even if there is no drought, asymmetrical gains tend to act as an obstacle to cooperation, and the underlying tension probably won’t be resolved under Turkey’s conception of international law.
Ethan Carlsson is an exchange student from Australia, where he studies both a Law and an International Relations Degree. He runs a website devoted to policy development and analysis and is a contributor to the Syria Community of Practice at the Australian Council for International Development. He loves reading about political philosophy, playing guitar and cooking unhealthy food.
Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons