Al Başrah Oil Terminal (ABOT), Iraq

The fierce and silent regional battle Kuwait must mediate

Quentin de Pimodan
Jan 11, 2018 · 11 min read

Water-sharing agreement must be at the heart of the Iraq Reconstruction Conference held in February in Kuwait.

Recently, Kuwait has proved efficient at playing a major role both regionally and internationally in order to mediate in the various crisis that have been shaking the Middle East.

Firstly, the country has hoped to broker a deal putting an end to the devastating GCC crisis that saw a Quartet, composed of the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and led by Saudi Arabia, cutting ties with Qatar on the 5th of June 2017, followed by a blockade. On the 4th and 5th of December against expectations, as some analysts pointed out, Kuwait managed to hold a GCC summit. The summit has been shortened and out of the six GCC countries, only Qatar and Kuwait’s heads of States were present — even if for Oman it remains not surprising that Sultan Qaboos doesn’t make the trip due to his age. The summit didn’t achieve much, particularly considering that one day before, UAE and Saudi announced the creation of a Joint Cooperation Committee, a move that has been seen as a willingness to undermine the GCC itself. Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait, said on the occasion that “We might change the system of the GCC to have mechanisms to better face challenges”. The threat is for the GCC to become irrelevant and therefore to disappear. It is said by some analysts that the GCC is dying since 1991 when the GCC has been unable to mobilize a military force to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which thus relied on a US-led coalition to liberate the tiny emirate.

Flags of GCC countries, Kuwait City, 3rd December 2017, AFP

However the sole fact of being able to host a GCC summit has been considered a great diplomatic achievement.

Secondly, Kuwait entered the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in January 2018 for a two-years term. And it didn’t take long for Kuwait to actually surface, as on Friday the 5th of January, US permanent representative to the UN Nikki Haley demanded public debate at the Security Council about the recent Iranian protests. She made a plea in favor of a support to the “Iranian people”. Kuwait permanent representative to the UN Mansour Al-Otaibi “demanded that the Iranian authorities respect the peaceful demonstrators right to the freedom of expression” but also reminded ambassador Haley “how the early protests of the Arab Spring turned sour”.

Now Kuwait is about to host an Iraq Reconstruction Conference in February. A country that after decades long wars and instabilities, needs an estimate $ 100 billion for its reconstruction. Many urgent matters are to be discussed while “donor countries and organizations are expected to announce financial contributions at the meeting from Feb. 12 to Feb. 14” the Kuwait News Agency reported. Private entities are also expected to play a major role in the reconstruction process.

Secretary general of Iraq’s council of ministers, Mehdi Al Alaq said “that heavy damage has affected oil, electricity, transport, communications and manufacturing infrastructure, as well as basic services such as water and sanitation.”

As Kuwait seeks to play mediating role in the region and seems to be willing to take strong stands, there is one particular matter that must be addressed and shall not be avoided during this Conference. The matter, of great importance, is holding much regional and internal tensions, yet must be at the core center of any discussions occurring during the Reconstruction Conference and that is the sharing of water.

Iraq Water basins

Are Tigris and Euphrates international rivers or transboundary waters?

If the question seems naïve, it in fact holds much tension. Still nowadays there is not a simple answer but rather several depending on whom the question is addressed to: Ankara, Damascus, Tehran or Baghdad.

While both rivers take birth in Turkey, they go through several countries before ending their courses in Iraq. The 2,315km long Euphrates goes through Syria before spreading along 1,000 km in Iraq.

Meanwhile the clear majority of its river basin is situated in Iraq. Out of the 440,000 square kilometers of the Euphrates basin, 45% of it is situated in Iraq as Syria enjoys only 20% and Turkey about 35%. However Turkey contributes up to 88% of its flow, Syria up to 12% as Iraq doesn’t contribute at all.

The Tigris situation is slightly different. 1,900 km long, the river basin spreads on 258,000 square kilometers shared as followed: 12% in Turkey, 2% in Syria, 53% in Iraq and 33% in Iran. Iraq is the main river flow contributor with 51%, while Turkey makes up to 40%, Iran 9% and Syria doesn’t contribute to the flow. Similarly to the Euphrates, the longest part of the Tigris runs through Iraq on 1,300 km before reaching the Gulf Sea.

Therefore it is easy to understand why the rivers hold much regional tension between the different countries sharing their presence. Should the rivers capacities be fairly distributed according to the countries’ contributions to the flow? Should they be divided according to the river basins superficies or the extent of the riverbeds? The figures clearly demonstrate that Iraq highly relies on both rivers as they nourish the entire country of which the majority of the agriculture is based on irrigation. They also reveal that Turkey holds the upper hand on their flows and that Iraq is dependent on the good willing of the upstream states. Making Campbell Robertson write in a NYT article in 2009: “the Iraqi government is reduced to begging its neighbors for water”.

Iraq’s destiny is so reliant on the water, that the first modern time dam ever built on the Euphrates-Tigris water system was created in the country by the Ottoman Empire in 1911. The Hindiya Barrage was located between the cities of Baghdad and Karbala before being replaced during the 80’s. It was soon clear to the mandatory powers ruling the old Ottoman Empire’s provinces, that a particular emphasis would have to be put on water sharing policies and concerted efforts should be applied. This is precisely why the secret French-British Sykes-Picot accords of 1916 that would state the future borders of the falling Empire, would dedicate a full chapter on water distribution thanks to a “guarantee of a given supply of water from the Tigris and Euphrates”.

Hindiya Barrage, Babil Governorate, Iraq

In 1923, the article 109 of the Treaty of Lausanne also stipulates that a commission would be formed between Turkey, Syria under the French mandatory power and Iraq under the British mandatory power aiming to resolve possible disputes raised by countries’ hydraulic projects. In this particular article 109, Turkey finds itself required to inform Iraq of any new planned infrastructure along the rivers, indicating yet again the delicate situation downstream Iraq is mired into compared to the two other nations. This Turkish’s obligation toward Iraq will again be reminded after World War Two through the Treaty of Friendship and Neighborly Relations, a protocol concerning regulation of water use of Euphrates and Tigris signed between Turkey and Iraq in 1946.

However these “promises” only bind those who believe in them whilst the saga continues:

· 1980, Joint Technical Committee on Regional Waters signed by Iraq and Turkey.

· 1982, Syria enters the previous Committee (last time the 3 countries will be negotiating on water issues all together).

· 1990, Agreement between Iraq and Syria about Euphrates sharing waters. Iraq can claim 58% of the waters while Syria can claim 42% of the water entering its territory.

Without forgetting that between 1962 and 1974, the three countries have been negotiating exclusively in pairs (Syria-Iraq from 1962 to 1974 and Syria-Turkey from 1962 to 1971). The climax has been reached in October 2014 when no “senior Turkish officials” deigned attend at a transboundary water conference in Istanbul while Baghdad was insisting Ankara did not respect the agreement upon which Turkey had to inform Syria and Iraq of any major water project.

As no real global agreement has been reached between the three countries on that particular matter, a legal void emerged with time and provoked many disputes if not babbling conflicts.

The Turkish project GAP, also known as the Southeastern Anatolia Project is a mastodon hydroelectric and irrigation project consisting of no less than 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants spread on both Tigris and Euphrates right above the Syrian and the Iraqi borders. The project which started as early as in the 1960s is supposed to be completed in 2029 instead of the planned 2005, and produces a quarter of Turkey’s total electricity. Besides providing with hundreds of thousands of jobs, the GAP is also said to resolve the Kurdish minority issue in the country, by simultaneously allowing regional economic development but also forcing Kurds to relocate and regroup in dedicated areas. Therefore facilitating their “control” by Ankara as the project is taking shape on the Kurdish minority held region.

Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP)

The ambition is also to make Turkey an agricultural power by irrigating approximately 1,7 million hectares. Damascus and Baghdad have been accusing Ankara not to have informed them of the project while specialists warn that once completed the flow entering Syria would go from an actual 500 cubic meters per second (the agreed quantity of water between Syria and Turkey) to 300 cubic meters per second. Hydrologists Kolars and Mitchell revealed in 1991, that the Euphrates’ natural flow would be reduced by 70% while entering Syria and would make Iraq having only 20% of its today’s Euphrates flow, preventing the river to reach its junction point with Tigris in the city of Qurna. Adding: “Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project will reduce water flow to the downstream riparians so drastically as to foment armed conflict in the basin region within the next ten years.” Meanwhile the Ilisu Dam in Turkey is expected to hold another 10 billion cubic meters of Tigris water when filled. “Since 1975, Turkey’s dam and hydropower constructions on the two rivers have cut water to Iraq by 80% and to Syria by 40%”, says John Vidal in the Guardian.

Yet, as the rivers continue their course across the region, tensions rise. In the late 1960s, Syria built the Taqba Barrage on the Euphrates, creating Lake Assad, holding around 12 billion cubic meters of water. According to Georges Mutin, the total Syrian’s restrain of water is set to reach 13 billion cubic meters, diminishing yet again Iraq’s flow. As if it was not already enough, Iran, which hosts some Tigris’ tributaries, entered the game in 2009. For 10 months, the country entirely cut the flow of the Karun River supposed to discharge in the Iraqi Shatt Al-Arab south the Shias-inhabited city of Basra, all the while Iran is boasting about backing their interests.

“Iraq will witness more shortages in water resources after Turkey and Syria develop their irrigation projects.” (FAO-Agriculture sector note, p-11).

In his November 2014 article, Peter Schwartztein even asserts: “For more than a decade, politicians in Baghdad have done little as Turkey and Iran pursued accelerated dam-building programs upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries. The nearly unbroken years of violence after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the political stalemate stemming from antagonism between the nation’s Shiite and Sunni leaders have weakened its institutions and minimized its leverage over its regional rivals.” He also reveals that Iraqi officials affirm that Iran has “blocked or diverted 22 of the 42 waterways that pass from its territory into Iraq”.

Tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) and the central government Iraq is also adding to the country’s most worrying water situation as major tributaries to the Tigris River run through the Kurdistan region before reaching Baghdad. Iraqi environmentalist Azzam Alwash praises: “use water for something that unites us” while insisting the Kurdistan and the Iraqi government should abandon construction of dams. He adds: “my concern is that if we don’t reach some kind of water treaty, agriculture is going to die in the land in which it was born. As things stand, it’s a when, not an if”.

The KRG has threatened Iraq to cut water supplies for internal political reasons as much as for regionally-caused reasons when Iran itself has considered stemming the flow of water entering Kurdistan.

These facts give body to Andrea Cattarossi’s (MED Ingegneria) statement at the Sulaimani Forum in 2014: “If the water issue is not taken seriously, Iraq has no more than 7 to 10 years before it runs out of fresh water”.

Sulaimani Forum in 2014

The threat to Iraq’s fresh water independence comes from the outside as much as it comes from the inside. Like Hamza Hassan Shareef, adviser to the Iraqi National Security Council accuses: “we’re facing a very critical period. There are many reasons for this, but it’s mostly because of neglect and aggressive policies of our neighbors”.

Reaching a water-sharing agreement between riparian States is key to resolving many issues that are both internal to Iraq and regional, along the courses of Tigris and Euphrates. Therefore, the priority should be to bring Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq around the negotiating table all together and not separately. The issue emerging from the denomination of “transboundary” or “international” waters regarding the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers should be settled definitely. Also Turkey should reduce or at least include the downstream States in the implementation of its GAP project. States or entities hosting tributaries to the rivers, such as the KRG or Iran, should also inform the countries of any cut, reduction and change made to the tributaries. A minimum water flow requirement should be reached while acknowledging the needs of every state sharing the waters of the rivers.

That is why Syria’s waters interests must be championed and protected by the international community considering that no party in Syria will “suit” all the foreign countries involved in the Syrian conflict. In other words, as the countries that make the international community’s main forces are currently unable to even sit around the negotiation table, the UN must itself take the responsibility of negotiating on Syria’s behalf and that of future generations to ensure that the country receives the proper amount of water, particularly on the Euphrates, from up-stream Turkey. Downstream Iraq’s situation highly depends on it. Any failure to provide Syria with the minimum 500 cubic meters per second (the agreed quantity of water between Syria and Turkey), will germinate a domino effect onto Euphrates’ flow entering and crossing Iraq.

This February Iraq Reconstruction Conference in Kuwait should pave the way for such a water-sharing agreement and thus avoid what Robertson described in the NYT in 2009: “At a conference in Baghdad — where participants drank bottled water from Saudi Arabia, a country with a fraction of Iraq’s fresh water — officials spoke of disaster.”

(Note: parts of this article first appeared in RIEAS Research Paper №172, “The dams war — How water scarcity helped create ISIS and why combating it would undo it”, December 2016.)

Quentin de Pimodan

Written by

If I were to endorse everything I retweet I would become schizophrenic, which I'm not yet. Therefore: retweets ǂ endorsement...

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade