Analysis |

The Middle East's Next Conflict Is Likely Lurking in the Water

From the Persian Gulf to North Africa, water disputes are intensifying. With global warming sharpening water shortages, these 'boring,' back-channel conflicts could turn into a deluge

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A shepherd boy tends to a flock of sheep by the remains of Lake Hamrin in Iraq's Diyala province, on Friday.
A shepherd boy tends to a flock of sheep by the remains of Lake Hamrin in Iraq's Diyala province, on Friday.Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Abandoned fishing boats line the banks of the Tigris River in Iraq. In Iran, Lake Urmia, which once stretched out 140 kilometers in length, today looks more like a puddle. Trucks carrying tanks of water ply between villages in Iraqi Kurdistan, and there are protests in southern Iraq over Iran’s cutting water supplies. All these represent just a few of the smoldering flames that threaten to ignite conflict between Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

Right now, when talks to restore the nuclear agreement with Iran are on hold, the summer is approaching and, after a year of severe drought, the issue of water has taken center stage. In July, with the start of the rainy season in Ethiopia, the government in Addis Ababa is due to begin the third phase of filling the reservoir behind its enormous new Nile River dam, thereby ratcheting up the political struggle between it and the government of Egypt and Sudan.

Water is a political lever

Eight months have passed since parliamentary elections were held in Iraq. The political parties and movements that won have still not succeeded in reaching an agreement on appointing a president, much less a prime minister. The caretaker government led by Mustafa al-Kadhimi has no real authority, and the government operates under a budget never formally approved. Projects that had previously been authorized for rehabilitating and developing the country’s irrigation systems are on hold while theft and waste of water due to mismanagement and damaged pipelines continue.

Credit: QASSEM AL-KAABI - AFP

Last year, water reserves nationwide dropped by 50 percent. Iraqi experts say that if the problem isn’t addressed immediately and effectively, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are expected to dry up by the year 2040.

Iraq points the finger at Iran, claiming that Tehran is diverting the waters of the tributaries that feed the Tigris and building dams without taking into account Iraq’s needs. Last week, Iraq announced that it planned to appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, claiming Iranian violations of international agreements that allocate river and other water between the two countries.

Among the allegations, Iraq says Iran is using water as a political tool aimed at jawboning Iraq’s parliament into choosing a president favored by Tehran, as it has done in the past. Stopping the supply of water to the Basra district in southern Iraq sparked major protests that threatened the stability of the government. For its part, Iran claims that the problem is that Iraq isn’t managing its water resources properly. Tehran says it has honored all the agreements it has with Baghdad, even proposing that a joint committee be formed to periodically check how much water is arriving from Iran.

Harm to national security

While Iran and Iraq are trying to reach understandings on water issues before the onset of summer, Iran last week criticized Turkey for continuing to build dams on the Tigris and accused it of using its control of water sources to exert political pressure.

In a speech before parliament, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian aired in public for the first time the growing dispute between the two countries. He declared that the construction of Turkish dams on the Ara River, which Iran and Turkey share, “isn’t acceptable in Iran’s eyes. Building dams threatens the quantity of water Iran will get and harms the environment.” Abdollahian went so far as to claim that the dams would undermine Iran’s national security.

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, near Guba in Ethiopia, in 2019.Credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

When Abdollahian speaks about the risk to Iran’s national security, it is referring to the giant protests that broke out in Khuzestan Province in Iran’s west last July over water shortages. The protests spread to other Iranian cities and led to violent clashes between protesters and the security forces.

Iran is aware that a year ago Turkey used dams it had built on the Euphrates to reduce the quantity of water reaching Syria, which led to protests and clashes there with the authorities. Those protests, claim Iran, not only posed a threat to the stability of the Bashar al-Assad regime but to Iran’s position in Syria.

Turkey remains unmoved by Iranian allegations and has responded by accusing Iran of the same kind of violations. It claims that Iran is the one that is harming water supplies to Iraq and the Kurdish enclave there, among other things by doubling the number of dams on tributaries feeding the Tigris over the last decade.

As to charges that it has reduced water quotas to Syria, Turkey says it has kept to all the agreements it reached with Damascus in 1987, under which it is obligated to supply a minimum of 500 million cubic meters annually. The agreement, by the way, wasn’t an act of altruism by Ankara – In exchange, Syria was required to crack down on the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in its territory. Turkey regards the PKK as a terrorist organization, against which it has been fighting a bloody war since the 1980s.

Iran cannot sue Turkey for violating the 1997 New York UN Watercourses Convention, which sets water allocations among the countries through which the rivers flow around the world. Turkey never signed the agreement; all understandings about division of water between it and its neighbors are based on voluntary agreements. In light of Iran’s recent claims, Turkey has expressed a willingness to investigate them “based on scientific and rational standards” through the two countries’ Joint Water Committee.

Potentially explosive disputes

The dispute between Iran and Turkey, which had been conducted through quiet diplomacy until it surfaced in the media, shows that the two countries remain committed to a mutually acceptable solution. But hundreds of kilometers to the south, on the Nile, a dangerous confrontation between Egypt and Sudan on the one side, and Ethiopia on the other, is simmering.

A boy holds an oar while standing on a grounded boat on the dried up soil of what was Lake Hamrin in Iraq's Diyala province, on Friday. Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Two years ago it appeared that the dispute over filling Ethiopia’s Great Renaissance Dam was about to be resolved. With Donald Trump serving as mediator, the two sides reached a draft agreement under which Ethiopia would be barred from taking unilateral measures, like filling the dam’s reservoir, until a final agreement was signed. But Ethiopia regarded the terms as too favorable to Egypt and Sudan, and it refused to sign the draft. Since then, Ethiopia has completed two phases of filling the reservoir and in July is slated to embark on a third.

In the meantime, it appears that Egyptian and Sudanese efforts to enlist American pressure and force Addis Ababa to sign an agreement guaranteeing the quantities of water they need has elicited nothing more than a polite response. The White House has shown no interest in getting dragged into an affair that is likely to end in failure.

While Washington has imposed sanctions on Ethiopia in connection with its war in Tigray Province, it has to take into consideration activity by the Chinese, Russians, Saudis and Emiratis there, and it isn’t prepared to create a deeper rift with Addis Ababa on a matter that doesn’t affect its own national security.

Water disputes have long been regarded as boring because they take place behind the scenes through diplomatic channels and don’t lead to wars or violence. But, with the increasingly dangerous risks they involve, together with climate change, no one can be sure that this will remain the case in the coming decade. Desalination and the rehabilitation of water systems in many of the countries of the region, together with population increases, could reduce the risk.

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