Controlling the headwaters of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin gives Turkey leverage over its neighbors' water security. Turkey has talked about utilizing its water resources since the country's founding, but only since the mid-20th century has the government actively worked to develop the necessary infrastructure needed to capitalize on its advantage and boost the country's energy and agricultural sectors. Though Ankara is focused on the Islamic State's recent advancements in the region, large water management projects are potential indicators of Turkey's long-term regional role. The country hopes to maintain influence and power over its regional neighbors, but its Kurdish population on and around its southern border will act as the nation's Achilles' heel.
Though water management is not necessarily Ankara's foremost concern, in the long term, water issues will contribute to conflict with neighboring states that rely on the Tigris and Euphrates. Water management will also be a source of tension for minority populations within Turkey, especially the Kurds. The massive hydropower undertaking called the Southeastern Anatolia Project demonstrates that Turkey is willing to use water infrastructure projects to manage internal minority populations. Stratfor expects this management strategy to persist and for water to be used as a political tool domestically and abroad.
The Tigris and Euphrates river system, part of the fertile crescent of the ancient world, has historically helped make Mesopotamia a regional breadbasket. Archeological findings indicate that artificial water management of the rivers dates back to antiquity. The headwaters of both rivers begin in the mountainous Turkish region of Anatolia. The Euphrates then flows out of Turkey and into Syria, where it is joined by two major tributaries before flowing into Iraq. Roughly 90 percent of the Euphrates' flow originates inside Turkish borders. Turkey provides 51 percent of the annual water volume that eventually combines to make up the Tigris. Tributaries within Iraq's borders, many of which are located in the Kurdish region, contribute another 39 percent of the total flow; the remaining 10 percent comes mostly from tributaries that start in Iran.
Like rivers in many arid regions, flow levels for the Tigris and Euphrates vary highly from season to season and year to year. Given their erratic nature, the rivers' exact natural flow rates are sometimes debated. However, the long-term average flow of the Euphrates is around 32 billion cubic meters per year, and the Tigris' average flow is around 52 billion cubic meters per year.
Given the wide fluctuations in flow, using the rivers for irrigation would be difficult without some artificial management. This is especially true for the Tigris. Recent droughts, poor water management and population increases throughout the region have placed significant stress on the basin's water resources. Studies from NASA showed an alarming decline in water levels throughout the basin between 2003 and 2009. Considering the area's heightened water stress, efforts to further utilize the available resources, especially in upstream Turkey, will likely be met with objections from the downstream nations of Syria and Iraq, as well as from the Kurdish population in Turkey and along its borders. Thus, water availability will be a geographic constraint in the unstable region and will factor into Ankara's quest to define itself as the regional power.
The GAP Project
Construction of the Keban Dam in Anatolia began in 1966 and was completed in 1974. The project signaled the beginning of a prolific dam building period, which became the staple of Turkish engineering and which culminated in what would eventually be called the large Southeastern Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish acronym GAP. The project was the physical manifestation of research and planning conducted in the 1980s on the potential of hydropower. Originally, the project included plans for 13 irrigation and hydropower systems, including 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants on the Tigris and the Euphrates. GAP seeks to eventually provide irrigation to nearly two million hectares — an area roughly the size of Israel — throughout the region to boost the economic output of a historically poor part of Turkey.
To date, Turkey has provided the majority of the funding for the project, a reported $24 billion of its $32 billion budget. However, Ankara recently announced the cancellation of foreign irrigation deals associated with the project. GAP has also seen numerous delays in construction and investment, in part because investors are concerned that Turkey has not given enough consideration to the regional implications of its actions. The setbacks indicate that the project may be decades away from completion.
Turkey has a natural geographic advantage as the upstream nation in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, and water management projects enable the country to leverage some of this ascendancy. One of Turkey's geopolitical imperatives is to secure southeastern Anatolia, a capital-poor, parochial and introspective region that geographically lends itself to the development of independent cultures. The region is difficult to control, but it provides an ample buffer against possible attacks from the Asian continent. Managing the population of this region, especially the Kurdish areas, has been a constant struggle for Turkey.
Containing the Kurds
One of the major goals of GAP is to increase economic activity and social progress in southeastern Anatolia, where the majority of the population is Kurdish. On paper, the program will greatly benefit the region by increasing employment opportunities and by funding healthcare, education and infrastructure programs. However, domestic and international environmental and heritage groups have vigorously opposed many elements of the project, especially the Ilisu Dam, because of the potential for flooding that could destroy historical and archeologically important sites and possibly displace populations without appropriate compensation. Opponents of the project also question Ankara's motivation, suggesting that GAP may be used to subvert the Kurdish identity.
While the increase in irrigated acreage resulting from the project has helped Turkish cotton production rebound to one of its highest levels since the mid-2000s, it has also increased soil salinization in the region, a development that could impact the long-term viability of the project. Furthermore, many of the economic benefits of GAP have been felt outside the region because of completed hydropower projects. (The 85 percent completion rate for hydropower projects is much higher than the 24 percent rate for irrigation projects.)
Still, it is clear that the design of some of the proposed dams along the border with Iraq and Iran is meant to make cross-border movement more difficult for Kurdish militants. Moreover, the local Kurds' resentment toward the Turkish government over their exclusion from the project and over environmental concerns continues to sow discontent.
Turkey's strategy to contain the restive Kurdish population's aspirations extends beyond its borders. The Kurdish region that overlaps Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran will be the battleground where Ankara and Tehran fight for influence over the next several years. Turkey's water management programs, influenced by political considerations, will add stress to relations with Iraq.
Historically, there has been a lack of formal agreements between Iraq, Syria and Turkey, adding a level of uncertainty to future water availability in the basin. The last formal treaty regarding water between Turkey and Iraq was made in 1946 — before the majority of the dams was constructed — and required Ankara to consult Baghdad before altering the flow of the Euphrates. In the 1980s, Turkey informally agreed to ensure Syria a minimal flow of 15.8 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Euphrates in exchange for help controlling Kurdish rebels. Syria and Iraq came to an agreement in 1990 in which Iraq would receive approximately 60 percent of the 15.8 billion cubic meters per year Syria received from Turkey.
In 1990, however, the flow of the Euphrates was reduced by more than 75 percent — an effective stoppage — to fill the Ataturk Dam's reservoir. This cutoff realized downstream nations' worst fears, making them hesitant to concede full control of the Euphrates' flow to Turkey. Since 1990, the 15.8 billion cubic meters per year requirement has, for the most part, been fulfilled, though Iraq complained in 2009 that Turkey had allowed the levels to fall below 9.5 billion cubic meters per year. Iraq also claims that 15.8 billion cubic meters per year is insufficient to sustain irrigation levels, although some studies suggest this amount is enough for the needs of Iraqi agriculture, especially if water from the Tigris is also used.
Turkish manipulation of Iraq's water supply for political gains will contribute to the broader regional dynamic. Tension will likely rise between Baghdad and Ankara over the long term as Iraq's agricultural sector continues to decline and a rising population puts pressure on the Iraqi government. Turkey's growing need for energy, which will probably be satisfied in part by the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, will enable Baghdad to bargain with Ankara over water rights. Maintaining oil exports will be essential to Baghdad's ability to hold Iraq together and to negotiate effectively with its neighbors. Water availability is unlikely to impact Iraq's ability to produce and export oil because operators are already exploring low-water and saltwater options for extraction. Even though Iraq will face significant challenges in the years ahead, substantial oil revenues will underpin the central government in Baghdad, likely preventing the country from completely fragmenting along sectarian lines.
In the short-term, as Turkey is forced to confront the issues the Islamic State creates on its borders while also attempting to assert itself as the regional power, water will not necessarily be Ankara's foremost concern. But GAP will likely continue to be one of the more subtle tools Turkey uses to assert its power in the region, to manage its Kurdish population and to shape Syria's future.
This is the fifth installment of an occasional series on water scarcity issues around the world that Stratfor will be building upon periodically.