The War over Water

Could water be the next oil? Is it probable the middle east will go to war over the control of water source?

4,500 years ago the soldiers of Lagash and Umma, city states near the fork by the Tigris and Euphrates, went into a fierce battle. The Umma’s king had drained the irrigation canal leading from Tigris. With chariots and spears, the ruler of Lagash left these 60 men dead on the bank of the canal. History is already repeating itself.

100s of centuries later we have Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria now the kingdoms that control the vast river of Tigris and Euphrates.

Turkey, Syria, and Iraq are co-riparian states. Iran comprising parts of the Tigris basin. Since the 1960s, unilateral irrigation plans altering the flows of the rivers, coupled with political tensions between the countries, have strained relations in the basin. Disputes have prevented the three governments from effectively co-managing the basin’s rivers. Although cooperation efforts were renewed in the 2000s, these have yet to result in a formal agreement on managing the basin waters.

The Euphrates and Tigris (ET) originate in Turkey and flow toward Iraq, the river Euphrates river flows across Syria and Iraq. Turkey handles 90% of Euphrates water flow, Syria and Iraq 30%. In 1960, after thousands of year of peaceful sharing, the co-riparian states came close to war over the lack of water flow. There have been spurts of cooperation between them during 2000, but political and outside influence has had a negative impact. The UN predicted the flow of both rivers becoming 30% and 60% scarcer by the end of the century. This means the efficiency and cooperation of the co-riparian states crucial.

The large number of factors which play a part in the eruption of the conflict shows that grievances over water management are not the only sources of conflict in the ET Basin. This also shows how Turkey, as upstream state, could instrumentalise water to pressure states located downstream. After a period of acute tensions between the co-riparian during the 1980s and 1990s, the late 1990s-early 2000s witnessed a significant improvement in the relations amongst the co-riparian states and enabled the reactivation of cooperation over water management (Kibaroglu, 2014).

There are 263 trans-boundary lakes and river basins that cover almost half the earth’s surface. 145 states have territory in these basins and 30 countries entirely in them. There is 300 trans-boundary aquifers serving 2 billion people who depend on groundwater for irrigation, crops, and drinking water. Some of these areas are already suffering from scarcity of water.

Fishing pollution and poor irrigation management exploit’s the lakes and rivers, surrendering them to drastic repercussions for the sustainability of water supply. This causes tension from the impact felt on the other side of the border. 

The CEP supports countries by building up environmental administration and transborder’s participation. Enhancing implementation of the UNECE environmental commitments and developing the region to maintain their natural resources. The objective is to diminish the overall pollution and climate damage whilst overseeing the integration and socioeconomic policies.  

The United Nations and world leaders are conscious of the potential complication with access to water where there is trans-boundary access. In 2015 they made this a priority. Officials highlighted that inadequate access to water could lead to economic and political instability. Israel and Palestine have been at war over water access for years.

A prime illustration of what could easily be the future is significant to the continuous battle between Israel and Palestine. Israel has been using water to control their neighbours. By redirecting the river Jordan, the red sea has likewise plummeted, also affecting the Palestinians. The Palestinians have to pay Israelis for their water which is a portion less than 1000 cubic metres per body and technically it is theirs by rights.

Outlined laws that derive from historical measures support co-riparian state to co-operate and share water access. This is imperative with the impending shifts in climate change precipitation. Arid countries that rely on annual rainfall are already suffering the consequences in these changes. They created these laws with the aim to avoid conflict and war. The UN convention on Non Navigational Needs of International Watercourses summarized this in 1997. Although the Court of Justice repeatedly reiterated this customary international law. Israel is showing no acknowledgment or development from their side of the strip

Many countries are highly dependable on water sources from other countries. Eleven of these countries are in arid or semiarid regions of Africa and the middle east. With climate change and the population of the planet growing so fast, they expect that by 2025 there will be far less water and far more people. Less than 1000 cubic metres per person. This is the average expected amount per person for a healthy life.

Africa farmers are migrating as drought kills off their stock and crops. Other communities have experienced drought too: Yeman, Syria, South Africa, India, the list continues. The droughts cause famine as the crops fail. What these regions are experiencing is an extensive change in precipitation through greenhouse gas, climate change and the continuous political relations over the control of the rivers.

Syria’s president displayed similar offences in 2011 when water was not adequately shared among his people; Yemen and Syria have both experienced horrific draughts in former years. One from 2006 to 2011 where the bare minimal rain they had was not nearly adequate to sustain the communities drinking or irrigation water.

Water access has been exploited and used in wars and skirmishes throughout history. We have the United Nations and Geneva Convention laws of war, but as the evidence suggests, they have ignored these. The fact remains, controlling access to water or destroying a water supply is a war crime. Both Yemen and Syrian populations suffered when rebels deliberately contaminated the water supply with diesel. The city had to use the emergency reserve resulting in even less water supply.

If the experts are correct, India, Thailand, Malaysia, will be engulfed by the ocean. Food and drinking water will become limited. It will displace billions of individuals from their communities. We expect that the scarcity of water to make it more valuable than oil, In addition, this will drive the price up, So it is imperative we save it now whilst working on the potential problem of shared access. More reservoirs need building and stop fracking, which drains the water resources and causing earthquakes. There needs to be more awareness in the western countries to save water at every opportunity.

Current water supplies call for protection, the need for fair distribution. State laws require recognition and need to be adhered to. Water shortage is already having a devastating impact on billions of people. This should be the driving force that carries us all to focus on unifying. This alone should offer prospect and hope for stability for us all in the future. There is enough food and water for us all if we just share.


Considering the importance of agriculture for Turkey, Syria and Iraq, this degradation of soils and waters would put more pressure on local populations (Erikson and Lorenz, 2013). In addition to these environmental impacts, the UN predicts major temperature increases in Turkey – 2 to 3 degrees Celsius – by the end of the century (Ibid.). This could cause a reduction of the Euphrates flow by 30% and of the Tigris flow by 60% by then.

To conclude, although the relations amongst the co-riparians had become more cooperative since the beginning of the 2000s, cooperation over the management of the ET Basin has now stalled. Considering the impacts of climate change predicted by the UN and the increasing environmental degradations in the basin, it is critical to find solutions to mitigate these effects in a region where livelihoods rely heavily on agriculture.

Categories Uncategorized
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close