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Water sharing in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin

Dursun YILDIZ answered questions of REVOLVE Magazine on water sharing in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin

An interview with Dursun YILDIZ


1. How would you assess the state of water resources in the Euphrates-Tigris basin today?

The water resources of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, is under pressure due to rapidly increasing population, the agricultural and industrial pollution and inefficient use of water in the region. A reasonable amount of water is sufficient for three riparian countries. But the regimes of these rivers are irregular. That is why these rivers’ water should be stored. Dams built in Turkey helped the flow of water in Euphrates-Tigris basin to be more regular. For Syria, Iraq and Turkey the problem is not the sufficient or insufficient volume of Euphrates-Tigris rivers water totally in the basin . The real problem is the efficient management of trans-boundary waters between three riparian countries.

2. There is no binding agreement between Turkey-Syria-Iraq on water sharing in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. Why is this? What are the key differences in the positions of the three riparians?

Among Turkey-Syria and Iraq, there is no binding agreement to share Euphrates-Tigris rivers water. However there exists bilateral agreements between Turkey- Syria and Syria-Iraq. The main reason of non existence of a trilateral binding agreement among riparian countries is the lack of trust and insufficient interdependency relations in this region. Foreign relations is still based on power politics among Middle East countries. In the Middle East, interdependence is considered as a lost of sovereignty. The main differences between the positions of these countries are that in one hand Turkey gives priority to allocation of water. On the other hand, Syria and Iraq suggest equal sharing of water. Turkey puts forward that the Tigris and Euphrates basin should be treated as a single basin and the natural variability of hydrological conditions has to be considered in water allocation. The two other countries oppose these arguments.

3. If a binding agreement were to be signed between the three riparians, what should it look like? How, for instance, should the shares of the different countries be established and how should one ensure that water flow data etc. are openly shared?

It is obvious that signing a binding agreement for the water allocation between the three riparians is important . But this wouldn’t solve every conflict.Because of that agreement frame must be larger on the base of cooperation . Therefore the binding agreement which can work efficinently would be a flexible agreement based on sharing of benefits of water more then sharing of amount of water itself . In the region the efficient water use and sustainable water and land resources management must be vital important matters for all countries. Determine the amount of sharing water and indicate it in an agreement can’t be a sustainable solution without providing efficient use of water. Implementation of sustainable water development and management priorities by all riparians is more important then agreement rules.A joint technical comittee can be established to collect and evaluate water data. Water flow measurement stations can be operated together and real time measured values can be shared easly. Recently an agreement was reached between the riparian countries on this subject.

4. Despite several Memoranda of Understanding and initiatives like the Euphrates-Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC), which seek to promote cooperation over water sharing, the riparians still disagree on the amount of water that each side is releasing/receiving. How can such differences be cleared up?

The basic way to do that is to develop the interdependency between countries, it will help to eliminate the lack of confidence between them.Water demand must be considered as “optimum water demand” in the basin . The best way to eliminate the disagreement about amount of water that each side is releasing/receiving, is not only calculating the water amount precisely but developing the water and soil resources efficiently in the basin. If the negotiations are done only about water quantity, it will be difficult to reach a sustainable solution on this issue. Therefore, on the basis of technical studies, confidence-building measures for efficient water use are needed to clear up such differences. In order to create sustainable cooperation in the region, the existing actors need to change their behavior, their policy and they have to change their way of thinking. The international relations has been changing in the world as well as in the region. Technological development also provide more acceptable solutions to problems. The socio-economic and socio-cultural development in the riparian countries will also help to realize to vital importance of efficient water management in the region.

5. Water availability in the Euphrates-Tigris basin is in decline and droughts are becoming more frequent, yet each of the three riparian countries continue to expand irrigated surface area. Do you think such projects are viable? How do you see the future of agriculture in the ET region?

It is obvious that dry periods in the Tigris and Euphrates basin will increase the water stress . Large amount of water is used for irrigation in the region.Therefore, most efficient irrigation methods and most efficient land use are key priorities for the future of agriculture in the region. Therefore, it is more convenient that the three countries should develop their own irrigation areas considering results of a joint technical studies in the basin scale. Otherwise, such projects will not be viable. Furthermore, these irrigation systems would be as a source of constant conflict which will damage the cooperation development. Riparian countries must be aware of problems and vital importance of taking measures beforehand at a basin scale. Tigris and Euphrates water use must be taken into account as a basin scale with the base of cooperation not conflict. Therefore, future of agriculture in the Tigris and Euphrates basin will depend on efficient cooperation to use of water and land resources in the basin. In these countries agricultural production is important for food security policy. However Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) can be accepted as a regional project of agricultural production. Based on water, all benefits of this project can be shared across the entire region.

6. A UN press release on World Water Day quotes a recent international report warning that “the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could completely dry up by 2040 because of the compounded effect of climate change, reduced upstream supply, and [an] increase in domestic and industrial use.” Do you think this is accurate and what measures need to be taken to prevent this from happening?

I think that in 2040, if some measures aren’t taken , inefficient use of water might be more effective than those of other negative effects in the basin. The scientists have different opinions and explanations about the effect of climate change. Full development of GAP irrigation can increase use of water. This can cause somehow decrease of water released to downstream countries in extremely dry periods. But Turkey took a radical decision to use water-pipe systems for most efficient water use in the GAP Region. I do not think that the increase in domestic and industrial use, would be very effective in this regard. Therefore, the results of this scenario can not be realized completely but partially.These problems could be prevented in the three countries with the technical cooperation. Due to the rapid technological progress, it is possible to make hydrological predictions and water measurements more accurate than in the past. It also facilitates collaboration possibilities. In summary, to alleviate the impacts of these results it is primordial to enhance the water and land resources development in the region and enhance the management of technical cooperation. However, actors has to change their policy depending on the situation, their behavior and their way of thinking to cooperate. In the region the international relations is recently in a positive change process. However, turmoil in the region also experienced.

Therefore actors act as “first-line conflict preventers” by resolving problems before they arise.

7. How do you see the future of the ET basin, both from a socioeconomic and water resources point of view? What will life in the ET region be like in 50 years?

The water resources of Tigris and Euphrates basin can be a peace cooperation matter in the future. The first condition to do that is non-regional powers do not implicate to this issue. The second condition is that the Tigris and Euphrates water has to be used not for all Middle East water demand but only water demand of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. GAP is an integrated regional development project based on water of the Tigris and the Euphrates. When the interdependence relations and cooperation increased, the strategical importance of this project in the region will be better understood.In a visionary way, GAP must not be considered as a conflict cause project in the region. It is a peace and stability creating project. GAP is a project that will be effective on the balance and stability of the entire region. It is also a key project of the region in the development of social economic aspects. In 50 years, living standards in Tigris-Euphrates Basin would be much more developed concerning socio-economic and socio-cultural aspects. In this sustainable level of life two renewable resources will play an important role: water and sun (energy).