Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin

28 August 2012 Ryan Wilson Research Assistant FDI Global Food and Water Security Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Since 1975, Turkey’s extensive dam and hydropower construction has reportedly reduced water flows into Iraq and Syria by approximately 80 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.
  • Approximately 90 per cent of the water flow in the Euphrates and 50 per cent in the Tigris originate in Turkey.
  • Low flow rates in Iraq have allowed salt water to infiltrate nearly 150km inland from the Persian Gulf.
  • Lack of international agreement is hampering progress on a deal between Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
  • Turkey has accused Iraq of poor water management practices, which, it says, are exacerbating Iraq’s water crisis.
  • Tensions between these countries remain high because of the issue of water management.


The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, originating in Turkey and cutting through both Syria and Iraq, have experienced drastic reductions in water flows in recent years due, primarily, to Turkish hydro-engineering and regional droughts. This is of significance for Iraq, which has historically prospered because of the rich agricultural harvests based on water supplies sourced from these waterways. Turkish initiatives aimed at massively expanding their exploitation of the water from the two rivers have coincided with severe droughts in the region and resulted in a burgeoning water-shortage crisis in Iraq. This problem threatens an environmental catastrophe. Political negotiations between the three countries have so far fallen short of reaching agreement on providing the necessary increases in flow rates to address the deteriorating situation in Iraq.


Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin was effectively managed. After the collapse of the empire in 1922, and the establishment of the independent states of Turkey, Syria and Iraq, these rivers became a shared resource with the potential for conflict. Iraq has historically been the predominant user of water from these rivers and a large network of Karez, or man-made underground irrigation channels, has existed there for centuries. This was not a problem in the early and mid-twentieth century, as Turkey and Syria did not develop expansive systems using dams and irrigation. When this began to change in the 1970s, however, Iraq’s claim to the bulk of the basin’s water resources was suddenly under threat.

The world’s population is increasing rapidly and the Middle East has some of the fastest rates of population growth. With Iraq and Syria experiencing a fourfold increase and Turkey doubling its population since the 1960s, it is clear that all three countries have experienced rapid growth in demand for the resources used by their people. Turkey has taken bold action on this front, with its decision in 1975 to undertake the Southeast Anatolia Project

Tigris-Euphrates River System

Figure 1. Source: https://explow.com/Tigris-Euphrates

 (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP); a massive dam-building scheme that envisages the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants across the Tigris-Euphrates basin. The scheme requires hundreds of kilometres of irrigation canals and is expected to cover 75,000km² – almost 10 per cent of the surface area of Turkey. GAP is approximately 60 per cent complete and much of Turkey’s increase in water use has already occurred, creating significant reductions in the flow of water in downstream areas of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. One projection states that, when completed, GAP will reduce the flow of water into Iraq by approximately 80 per cent and into Syria by about 40 per cent. This has spelt bad news for Iraq, as their historic levels of usage have been based on being the predominant user of these water resources. With Syria also beginning to construct dams along the Euphrates River, declining flows into Iraq have reached a crisis point.

Potential for International Conflict

Turkey’s decision to begin the construction of GAP drew immediate criticism from both Syria and Iraq. Both countries knew the extent of this project meant they would inevitably experience reduced availability of water resources and this resulted in significantly heightened tensions in the region. The completion of Syria’s Tabqa Dam in 1975 brought Syria and Iraq to the brink of war, as this coincided with the start of GAP and with a drought in Iraq that created serious shortages of water resources. In 1990, Turkey mobilised its forces when it cut the Euphrates to fill the Atatürk Dam, temporarily reducing water flow into Syria and Iraq by 75 per cent. Iraq threatened to blow up the dam, which led Turkey to threaten to cut off the water flow to Syria and Iraq completely.

Tensions between these countries remain high because of the issue of water management. A number of droughts in Iraq in recent years has increased the likelihood of conflict in the future as years of duress caused by water shortages are making the Iraqi people increasingly desperate. With projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicating a changing climate and the potential for a permanent decrease in rainfall, add in rapidly increasing populations and all the ingredients required to create major conflict in the future exist.

Turkey will continue to construct GAP with an expected completion date of 2017. Once finished, it is projected to withdraw up to 70 per cent of the Euphrates’ water, which is likely to lead to a further deterioration in Iraq’s, already dire situation and exacerbate the strained relations between the two countries. Earlier this year, Iraq threatened to take its case for an increase in water flows from Turkey and Syria to the UN, a significant escalation in the rhetoric between the three countries. This may be a precursor to an increasingly aggressive stance by Iraq towards its northern neighbours. As water is the most fundamental and crucial resource to sustain life, the seriousness of water shortages in Iraq inflicted by Turkey and Syria cannot be underestimated.

Use of Water as Political Leverage

In 1987, Turkey and Syria came to an agreement over water sharing. This ensured that Turkey would maintain a flow rate of 500 cubic metres a second where the Euphrates River passes into Syria. In return, Turkey asked for Syria’s cooperation on the issue of Kurdish rebels residing in Syrian territory. This has created a dangerous precedent, as water scarcity is set to increase and the political leverage wielded by Turkey will consequently increase in turn. Ongoing struggles between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists may become an international conflict in the future, if Turkey manipulates either Syria or Iraq (or both) into dealing with Kurdish populations within their borders in return for guaranteed supplies of water.

Major Turkish and Syrian Dams that Reduce Downstream Flows

Atatürk (Turkey)
  • Completed in 1990 on the Euphrates River
  • Almost led to armed conflict between Turkey and downstream countries Syria and Iraq
Ilisu (Turkey)
  • Under construction on the Tigris River
  • Due for completion in 2015
  • Strongly opposed by Iraq due to projections of significant decreases in downstream flows
Tabqa (Syria)
  • Completed in 1975 on the Euphrates River
  • Largest dam in Syria
  • Created severe objections from Iraq and almost led to armed conflict between the two nations

Turkey’s GAP

Figure 2. Source: https://www.kurdishherald.com/issue/005/article03.php

Intrastate Implications

The continual decline in water flows in the lower Tigris and Euphrates has led to the infiltration of salt water from the Persian Gulf into the Shatt Al-Arab River in Iraq. Iraq has set an acceptable level of 1,500 parts of salt per million – which is highly saline, but still suitable for date palm agriculture – but recorded levels up to 40,000

parts per million in 2009, at the peak of a severe drought, and 12,000 parts per million since then. The situation has deteriorated so significantly, that, in 2009, for the first time in memory, the salt water reached beyond Basra, Iraq’s biggest port city, to Qurna, nearly 150km inland at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This has decimated agriculture that relies on the waters from the Shatt Al-Arab, as well as freshwater fisheries on the river. Crops, livestock and the iconic groves of date palms in this area have all had to be abandoned by farmers. This has led to the forced migration of around 30,000 people from the southern Marshlands area northwards. A 2009 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report also found that 100,000 Iraqis have fled their native communities since 2005 due to water shortages. If this trend continues, regional tensions in Iraq are likely to increase, as areas already stressed by faltering economic development, will be forced to deal with an influx of citizens from areas ruined by salinity and water shortages.

Iraqi and Syrian Dams

Figure 3. Source: https://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9364000/9364044.stm

The same UNESCO study found that 70 per cent of the Karez in Iraq that were providing water in 2005 were dried up and abandoned by 2009. This has placed a further 36,000 people at risk of being displaced and shows the severity of the decrease in water levels, as these Karez are ancient and consistent sources of water that have nourished populations in the area for hundreds of years. The report also found that water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates have fallen by more than two-thirds and warned that these vital lifelines could dry up completely by 2040.

The decline in water flows has also led to decreased agricultural yields. Iraq reported its worst cereal harvest in a decade in 2009, indicating that with a decline in water supplies comes a potential food security problem. Projections for 2012 are for record high levels of imported cereal crops due to lower domestic production. The drying up of Iraq’s Southern Marshlands also represents a major environmental problem. Once the Middle East’s largest and most ecologically diverse wetlands, they are now on the brink of collapse. An increase in water levels after the ousting of Saddam Hussein has been followed by a return to critical levels just a few years later. They provided up to 60 per cent of Iraq’s inland fish catch until the early 1990s; however, catches have declined by 50 per cent since then because of the decreased water levels.

Iraq has stated that the required river flow in the Tigris, Euphrates and Shatt Al-Arab rivers is 500 cubic metres a second; but it has been measuring an average of just 150 cubic metres a second, which illustrates the dire position facing the country. Turkey promised Iraq a flow rate of 400 cubic metres a second at the World Water Summit in 2009, but so far this promise has not been fulfilled.

International Negotiations and Legal Framework

Despite numerous attempted negotiations between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, there has been little progress. Agreements between these countries date back to 1926, with The Good Neighbourliness Agreement between Turkey and French Syria, outlining Syria’s water rights, and the Treaty of Friendship and Neighbourly Relations between Turkey and Iraq, under which Turkey agreed not to change the flow of the Euphrates or construct waterworks without first consulting Iraq. This treaty has been mostly ignored by Turkey in recent decades and is perceived by the Turkish government as irrelevant in today’s economic and political context.

There was not another significant agreement formed until 1987 when Turkey agreed to maintain a minimum flow of 500 cubic metres a second into Syria. Iraq and Syria also established a bilateral water sharing agreement in 1990, but there is still no significant bilateral agreement between Iraq and Turkey, which is the source of much of the tension regarding water sharing in the region.

This is the key factor that needs to be addressed. Iraq feels largely aggrieved at its treatment by Turkey, and its apparent lack of consideration for Iraq’s wellbeing. Iraq underlines its long historical use of the Tigris and Euphrates water resources as the basis for its rights to sufficient access to these waters. Turkey, however, considers that approximately 90 per cent of the water in the Euphrates River and 50 per cent of the water in the Tigris originates in Turkey and that it is therefore its resource to do with as it pleases.

Former Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel summed up Turkey’s position in a statement in 1992: “We do not say we share their oil resources. They cannot say they share our water resources. This is a right of sovereignty. We have the right to do anything we like.” This difference in opinions as to the rightful use or ownership of the water is at the heart of the continued disagreement between Iraq and Turkey. A trilateral emergency summit in 2009 did not yield any progress, with Turkey citing a 46 per cent decrease in rainfall over the previous three years as justification for denying Syria and Iraq’s requests for increased flows.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses is the only truly global framework for dealing with disputes over waterways crossing international borders. The convention requires that a state sharing an international watercourse with other states should use that part of the watercourse in its territory in a manner that is equitable and reasonable vis-á-vis the other states sharing it. It also requires that states take all the appropriate measures to avoid causing significant harm to other states sharing an international watercourse. While these objectives are somewhat vague and potentially contradictory, they at least offer a framework for negotiation. It is unfortunately a framework that has not been accepted by the global community, as the required number of signatories for the implementation of the convention has not been reached. Because of its potential to create international moral and diplomatic pressure on specific nations, however, acceptance and ratification of this convention remains an important goal. Both Syria and Iraq are signatories, but Turkey remains a notable absentee from the convention. Not only this, but they were one of three nations to actually vote against the resolution to adopt the convention, along with China and Burundi.

Possible Avenues for Change

As Iraq does not have the political influence to affect change in Syria and, more importantly, Turkey’s policy decisions, it must press its rights via international law. On the basis of its extensive and protracted historical use, Iraq may have a case to obtain an international ruling in its favour.

The development of Iraq’s oil resources is perhaps the most effective long-term strategy to help it achieve increased access to water. Iraq is believed to have the world’s fourth largest reserves of oil and 90 per cent of the country is yet to be properly explored. Once this resource is effectively utilised, the Iraqi government will have a significant bargaining chip in its negotiations to secure greater access to water resources from Syria and Turkey.

Turkey has long been quick to point out Iraq’s inefficient use of its water resources, citing years of neglect under Saddam Hussein and poorly planned canal systems that leak precious water out of water infrastructure and direct it to places that do not need it. The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources had its yearly budget raised from a measly US$1 million under Saddam Hussein, to US$150 million in 2004 and this rose to just over $US1.1 billion in 2011, showing that Iraq is committed to increasing efficiency in managing its water resources. Turkey, however, insists that Iraq must show that it has improved its use of the water available to it before appealing for more from them.

What can Australia do?

As Australia is not a major world power, or particularly involved in regional issues in the area, there is limited scope for an Australian contribution to help solve these water management issues. Despite this, there are actions that could be taken that would increase pressure on Turkey to be more accommodating to Iraq’s water requirements. These include signing the UN convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, and encouraging the UN General Assembly to give a mandate to an appropriate UN agency or programme to lead efforts to raise awareness and promote the entry into force and implementation of the convention.

The semi-arid nature of many Australian regions has led to the development of significant expertise in the area of water management. In light of this, Australia could also perhaps provide academic or technological support to Iraq in the development of more effective water management strategies.


With rapid population increases in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the issues of access to water and water management are likely to become progressively more critical. If the United Nations, along with the three countries involved, ignores or fails to take responsibility for the resolution of these issues, the situations in Iraq and to a lesser extent Syria, will become increasingly dire. This may well lead to conflict in the future and to avoid that outcome, it should be seen as an urgent matter that needs to be addressed both seriously and with resolve.

For more coverage of international water security issues, see the Future Directions International report:“Water Crises: International areas at risk”.



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