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News Syria: Parting the Waters

Syria’s rivers gave birth to civilisation. The country’s longest interstate river, the Euphrates, has been irrigated since 4,000BC and played a crucial role in forming the Fertile Crescent, together with its sister waterway the Tigris. Power over these waters has produced conflict since antiquity: 4,500 years ago control of the irrigation canals on the Euphrates sparked war between the ancient Sumerian states of Umma and Lagash marking, in effect, one of the earliest recorded water wars.

In the modern Middle East, Syria’s position is unique in that it has a stake in three of the region’s four largest transboundary rivers. These consist of the Euphrates, which rises in the mountains of eastern Turkey, flows through Syria and joins the Tigris in Iraq to form the Shatt Al-Arab before emptying into the Arabian Gulf; the Asi-Orontes River, which springs north of Baalbek in Lebanon, flows through Syria into Turkey before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea; and the Jordan River which originates in Syria and Lebanon and flows to the Dead Sea and includes the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers, as well as Israeli-occupied Lake Tiberias and the water resources on the Golan Heights. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the Euphrates-Tigris and Asi-Orontes basins accounted for 50 and 20 percent of Syria’s water withdrawal respectively, making their management of vital interest to the country.

A number of agreements have been struck with Syria’s neighbours to manage the country’s numerous transboundary river systems. To the north, in 1987 Turkey agreed to guarantee Syria a minimum flow of the Euphrates of 500m3 per second, amounting to some 15.75km3 of water per year, until a final water sharing agreement is signed. Two years later Syria and Iraq struck a deal, with 58 percent of the Euphrates’s waters going to Iraq and 42 percent going to Syria.

To the south, Syria and Jordan agreed to build the Unity Dam on the Yarmouk River in 1987. Under the agreement, Syria’s share of the water from the 100m m3 dam is 6m m3 when it is filled to capacity. The quota decreases proportionately in accordance with the volume of storage. Since the dam was finished, however, disputes over water have continued, generally involving Jordan accusing Syria of not allowing enough water to flow into the country. Another round of protests from Jordan early last year resulted in both countries agreeing to install devices to measure the quantity of water in the river. According to Jordanian media reports, Syria also agreed to halt agricultural activity on its side of the river.

In 1994, Syria and Lebanon reached a water sharing agreement regarding the Asi-Orontes River. Under the deal, Lebanon receives 80m m3 of water per year if the river’s flow inside Lebanon is 400m m3 or more. The figure is adjusted downwards relative to the reduction in flow. Wells in the river’s catchment area that were already operational were allowed to remain in use, but no new wells are officially permitted.

Drawing up firm water sharing deals between Syria and its neighbours will be no easy task. A comprehensive deal on the Jordan River basin is tied to the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli peace process. Syria’s water agreements with Lebanon have held to date, but of greater interest is the Euphrates-Tigris basin, Syria’s single most important water resource.

At the heart of any future water sharing arrangement between Syria, Turkey and Iraq will be Turkey’s South-Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a massive damming and irrigation programme launched in 1980 which has already resulted in an estimated 50 percent drop in water flow to Syria. Controversial from the start – the World Bank refused to provide funding for it – the project envisages the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydropower stations, bringing some 1.7m ha of land under irrigation.

The Turkish government also voted against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses in 1997, the first global water law which seeks to protect, preserve and manage waterways around the world. Syria, on the other hand, was one of the first countries to back the convention. While the agreement is not yet halfway to getting the 35 countries necessary for its ratification, Turkey’s objection to the convention – it was one of only three countries to vote against it – dramatically highlights its deep reluctance to enter into long-term binding international agreements on water.

Despite such obstacles, local analysts say forming an internationally binding water deal is not mission impossible. They say deepening political and economic ties between Damascus and its neighbours, particularly Turkey, will ultimately pave the way for the adoption of more robust water sharing agreements.

An organisation such as ETIC offers another way forward. The initiative, founded in 2005 by a group of scholars, retired diplomats and high-ranking officials from Syria, Turkey and Iraq, uses ‘Track II diplomacy’ to support collaboration in the ET region. One component of the initiative is the establishment of a data inventory that aims to collaboratively manage water and other resources in the ET region to improve the lives of those who live in it.

“The objective is to establish a database for the ET region, harmonising the data materials available in the three countries in a uniform way, which can then be put to use by researchers, university professors, students and governments institutions,” Rifai said.

Acknowledging that Syria and its neighbours do not see eye to eye on water, Bunni nevertheless believes that a regional consensus on water sharing is emerging.

“Currently there are disagreements,” he said. “Each of the parties has its own point of view regarding the sharing of these resources. But as we continue our dialogue, these points of view are drawing nearer to each other.”


Euphrates-Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC)

Contact information John Dagge
News type Inbrief
File link
Source of information Syria Today
Keyword(s) transboundary water resources
Geographical coverage Syria,
News date 11/01/2011
Working language(s) ENGLISH