Waging water wars on the Arab region

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 19 Mar 2020

Attempts to control river flows by neighbouring countries are threatening key Arab states with massive water scarcity and jeopardising their growth and security

Turkey’s 1,200-megawatt Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River in southeastern Anatolia, located 30 km north of the Turkish border with Syria, has been a cause of conflict with Syria and Iraq (photo: AFP)

Ethiopia and Turkey will start filling massive hydroelectric dams on the Nile and Tigris Rivers this summer despite protests from the downstream countries of Egypt and Iraq, two key Arab countries that have existed for millennia on rivers that form the lifelines for their growing populations.

Ethiopia’s and Turkey’s unilateral reservoir-filling strategies and lack of cooperation and understanding with Egypt and Iraq are raising concerns that the projects will compromise the positions of the two Arab nations, both of which rely heavily on the rivers for drinking water, irrigation and electricity generation.

While Syria is also adversely affected by Turkey’s dam-building spree, Israel’s aggressive water-plundering policy is perpetuating water insecurity for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, millions of Arabs are likely to be deprived of their badly needed water resources because of increasing water scarcity, desertification and climate change.

Conflicts over water and the search for unilateral solutions in managing international rivers seem to be haunting the Arab world, and in the cases of Ethiopia, Israel and Turkey, the construction of major dams has become a national preoccupation and given rise to fears of existential threats.

For many Arabs, these mega-water projects by three regional powers, seen as a de facto alliance of the periphery, are considered not just as strategic threats but as powerful weapons of war on millions of Arabs.

The construction of Ethiopia’s first large hydropower dam on the Blue Nile is a source of deep concern for Egypt, where it is seen as the most fundamental threat to the Arab world’s most populated country.

The stakes are especially high for Egypt as the country of 100 million people grapples with threats facing the Nile stemming from growing demand, population growth, climate change and environmental impacts.

Egypt’s population increases by one million people every six months, a soaring rate that the United Nations predicts will lead to serious water shortages by 2025.

“The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said at the United Nations last September, underscoring the threats to the country’s fair share of the Nile’s waters.

The $4.5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest, has been under construction since 2011, and the entire project is expected to be completed by 2023. Ethiopia seeks to fill the mega-dam in seven years without consultation or cooperation and coordination with Egypt, which is seeking a longer filling period.

For millions of Egyptians who live along the Nile and receive all of their water for agriculture, industry and drinking from it, the oversized dam, which has reservoirs with a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water, could drastically impact their lives if it is filled too quickly and without coordination with Egypt.

The Ilisu Hydro-Electric Dam and Power Plant in Turkey is officially scheduled to be operational in June, and Ankara has started filling the dam on the Tigris River despite protests that it will create water shortages downstream in Iraq.

The full operation of the dam would not be less devastating to Iraq, which has been suffering from the construction of other parts of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) that envisages the building of 22 dams and 19 power plants on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and their tributaries.

The $32 billion programme, launched officially in 1970, will create severe water shortages in Iraq by reducing flows in the two rivers that the country depends on for much of its water supplies.

In recent years, Iraq has witnessed a dramatic decline in water inflows, with average annual flow in the last 10 years having been equivalent to 45 per cent of the long-term average in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin.

Another threat to Iraq’s water supplies comes from Iran, which has been changing the course of the rivers that flow into the Tigris and Shat Al-Arab, taking water into newly built dams and reservoirs without agreements with Iraq.

In Syria, which receives half of its water supplies from Turkey, especially via the Euphrates, the building of the Turkish dams is having a devastating effect on the country, as most fertile land used for agriculture in Syria relies on the river.

Tensions between the two nations have been high since 1975, when Turkey started the dams’ construction and cut water flow to Syria by nearly 40 per cent. Syria and Iraq have accused Turkey of hoarding water for other than development purposes.

Subsequent devastating droughts in Syria have forced many farmers to abandon their fields and to migrate to urban centres or seek refuge abroad. There is evidence that the migration and displacement fuelled the current Civil War in Syria in which some 100,000 people have died.

In the Palestinian Territories, Israel has laid hands on Palestinian water resources since it occupied the West Bank in 1967 through its de facto discriminatory policy that prevents Palestinians from maintaining or developing their water infrastructure.

In the West Bank, Israel’s policy of hoarding is expressed through the Joint Water Committee set up according to the 1993 Oslo Israeli-Palestinian Agreements.

Whether by direct control, hoarding or expanding its settlement programmes, Israel continues to deprive millions of Palestinians of access to a regular supply of clean water while stripping their land in the West Bank.

Moreover, Israel is hoarding water in reservoirs on the borders with Jordan and Syria, taking water from the Yarmouk River and depriving farmers in the two Arab countries of badly needed water for agriculture.

The civilisations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia grew up along the banks of mighty rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris. Elsewhere, Arab political and cultural centres emerged on fertile soils in the mostly desert Middle East.

Today, for the first time millions of Arabs who rely upon these rivers to provide drinking water, agricultural irrigation, power generation and transportation fear a potential threat to these lifelines upon which they depend.

The existential threat is coming from the undeclared periphery alliance that exists between Ethiopia, Turkey, Iran and Israel, which has traditionally been a strategic concept to create a security environment countering Pan-Arabism.

What combines the four countries together in the water issue is their determination to aggressively continue with their water plans in full disregard of the interests and the future of the Arab countries in question.

Ethiopia, for example, has been dodging agreements with Egypt on cooperation on the management of its dam programme for mutual benefit and in accordance with the principles of international law.  

Its latest signs of defiance were the suspension of the negotiations, its refusal to sign a US-proposed deal on the filling and operation of the dam, and its decision to unilaterally start filling the reservoir in July.

Nothing indicates Addis Ababa’s tone of challenge more than Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gedu Andargachew’s recent remarks that “the land is our land, the water is our water and the money by which the Renaissance Dam is built is our money, and there is no force that can prevent us from building it.”

Turkey is no less defiant. Its leaders have assumed the absolute sovereignty of Turkey over the water within its territory. They have always asserted Ankara’s free hand to do as it likes with those waters.

Turkey’s strategic goals behind the water policies followed by subsequent governments was summarised by remarks made by Suleyman Demirel, Turkey’s former president, on 25 July 1992 at the opening of the Ataturk Dam, the lynchpin of the GAP project.

“This is a matter of sovereignty. We have the right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey’s; the oil resources are theirs. We don’t say we share their oil resources, and they can’t say they share our water resources,” he said.

A close examination of Israeli water policy shows how Tel Aviv’s water system was built on depriving the Palestinians of access to water in what amounts to “water apartheid.”

Even the so-called “Deal of the Century” proposed by US President Donald Trump in January that backs the Israeli annexation of the West Bank gives Israel full control of water in the envisaged Palestinian entity.

In a sense, Israel’s water policy towards the Palestinians, which deprives them of access to sufficient water supplies and makes them water-dependent on Israel, is tantamount to a tool of colonisation and ethnic cleansing.

While the Arab world faces a wide range of major internal and external challenges, the problem of water scarcity could be its most daunting.

While each Arab country is expected to confront the problem as a matter of its socio-economic, development, political and strategic concerns, the Arabs need to forge a collective water strategy to counter the threats coming from surrounding nations.

Efforts have been made, whether through the Arab League Ministerial Water Council or non-governmental groups, to deal with the water-shortage problem, but they have fallen short of meeting critical challenges within the Arabs’ geostrategic position in the broader Middle Eastern context.

Unfortunately, most Arab governments have approached the problem in a state of near denial for decades, underlining their usual poor unity and limiting the impact of their joint actions in international and regional diplomacy.

Given the Arab League’s history of doing too little, the rhetorical support given by the Arab states to Egypt, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinians is insufficient and is unlikely to help in formulating the effective Arab water strategy that will be essential for the Arab people’s common interests, development needs, prosperity, stability and national security.

Such a strategy should adequately address the water crisis in some Arab countries triggered by the one-sided policies followed by non-Arab powers in the region and posing a threat to the entire Arab world.

Turning this ambitious goal into a strategy to confront water conflicts requires a sober assessment of the Arab countries’ critical challenges from their neighbours and the interests that can be mobilised for a necessary long-term agenda.

It is clear that these challenges require political solutions and effective diplomatic tools in order to resolve issues with neighbouring countries while advancing the Arabs’ interests.

The Arabs simply want to ensure that water projects for development should not come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, peace and stability and their long-standing relationships with their neighbours.

This is a challenge that Ethiopia, Israel, Iran and Turkey should also heed in order to resolve arguments over water peacefully, ensure proactive regional cooperation, and prevent potential conflicts.

The writer is a veteran Iraqi journalist who specialises in Middle East affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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