Hydropolitics: water as a weapon of war

Hydropolitics: water as a weapon of war

Freshwater gives a country geopolitical clout. Snowmelt and mountain streams swell into rivers that give Turkey control over its arid and fractious neighbours; the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau give China hegemony in South Asia; and smaller states, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, can project their voices so that they echo around the mountainsides with dominance. It’s no secret that freshwater supplies are dwindling: they have declined 40% since 1970. Water, in a world which is desertifying and aridifying faster than ever, is the resource upon which geopolitics will pivot in the coming decades.


The Tigris-Euphrates, and Turkey’s voice in the Middle East

The crescent of land (called a doab) between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers is considered the cradle of the Mesopotamian civilization, the birthplace of agriculture, mathematics, and the wheel. Allegedly, it was the site of the Garden of Eden. Today, it is an area of fragile existence, political and ecologically.

The Tigris and Euphrates river system has its source(s) in the Armenian Highlands of eastern Turkey, and by the time they flow out of Turkey the waters have passed through 22 dams, strung across the Anatolian Highlands, the centrepiece of which is the Atatürk dam. The project is known as the Southeastern Anatolian Project, (in Turkish GAP), built in the 1970s. Like so many dams, they ostentatiously provoke the downstream country, constructed only a few miles from the border, and are key element of strife in the region.

the Atatürk Dam; the ISIS flag raised over the Mosul Dam in Iraq

Both Iraq and Styria allege that Turkey has withheld water deliberately behind its dams, using water as a weapon. Of course, this is denied by Turkey, who argues than the 500 m3/s agreement of 1987 is honoured. After all, the ‘Fertile Crescent’ is supposedly the birthplace of sluice gates, irrigation channels, and cereal cultivation: sluice dams have been suggested as the lynchpins of urban culture. Unusually, however, the World Bank refused to help Turkey finance the dam, due to the perceived tension and danger it posed to downstream communities. Suleyman Demirel, a former Turkish president bared the facts at the inauguration of the Ataurk Dam:

“Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey’s rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey’s, the oil resources are theirs. We don’t say we share their oil resources, and they can’t say they share our water resources.”

It begs the question of whether trans-boundary flowing water can be a national resource to be hoarded at will. According to the theory of riparian water rights, derived from English Common Law, any landowner – including a country – whose property borders a river can use the river at will, leading to the string of recurrent disputes, variations on the same theme down the Nile, the Euphrates, the Jordan, and throughout Central Asia.  

To fill up the dam, the Turkish restricted the entire flow of the Euphrates for a month, prompting blackouts in Damascus, and rising ire downstream: the Euphrates is Syria’s only major water supply. Iraq threatened to bomb the dam in retaliation; Turkey mobilised its military, threatening to make restrictions a permanent fixture, and it currently removes a third of the Euphrates’ flow for irrigation. The present flow is closer to 200m3/s than 500m3/s, and it has become saltier as more evaporation takes place. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that its tributaries in Iran are also dammed.

Dams as weapons of war is now a common theme in the region; it’s no surprise that when ISIS invaded Iraq, they made sure to seize control of the Tabaqa, Fallujah, and Haditha dams as a priority, allowing upstream near Baghdad to flood simply to deny water downstream. Indeed, the whole ISIS radicalisation, and the origins of the 2011 Syrian civil war, can be linked back to water, drought, and riparian control as failing crops across the country displaced 1.5 million people, and inflamed the anti-government movement.

the contrast between the vibrant Ma’dan communities and the dried reedbeds and parched mud

Arguably, more shocking, however, is the use of water as a tool of weapon within a country. As part of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein almost completely drained the Mesopotamian Marshes in the Tigris-Euphrates doab. These marshes supported the group of people known as the Marsh Arabs, or the Ma’dan people: a group of Shi’ite Muslims persecuted by Hussein, further joined in the secluded oasis by rebel groups known to have links to Iran. Under the guise of land reclamation and the removal of mosquito breeding sites, Saddam Hussein diverted almost the entire flow of the Euphrates River through a canal (operating under various pseudonyms as the Glory River, The Third River, Nahr al-Aaz) into the Tigris. It caused the Hamar and Qurnah marshes to desiccate completely, turning them first into a quagmire, and then into a semi-desert, unable to support the reedbed, waterways, and traditional practices of the Ma’dan. Half a million people were displaced, and the Garden of Eden became polluted with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, it has now been restored.


Water disputes in Central Asia: the loss of the Aral Sea, and the relationship between water, agriculture, and energy

A second, more complex case study, with even more disastrous ecological consequences, is located to the north in the Central Asian region. In the 1960s, when the USSR diverted the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate the steppe belt of southern Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, water rights were not trans-boundary.  Virtually all of their water was used to convert harsh desert into cotton monoculture. 20,000 miles of canals and 45 dams channel snowmelt from the distant Pamir Mountains, and nourish the Uzbek and Turkmen cotton industries to this day despite the havoc that has been wrought on the Aral Sea.

This endorheic basin, fed solely by these two rivers, used to be the largest in the world; currently, it is at less than 10% of its former extent and volume. The Eastern Basin, almost completely devoid of water, is now called the Aralkum Desert: a desertified dustbowl, it has vastly altered the climate towards colder winters and hotter summers, an effect known as continentality. Huge salt-covered plains remain, dust toxified by weapons testing, fertilizer runoff and pesticide; the dust is kicked up by winds, creating dust storms blamed on respiratory problems, tuberculosis, rare forms of cancer, liver and eye conditions, anaemia (see Particulate matter). The child mortality rate is at 75 out of 1000, once-vibrant fishing industries have collapsed, and it is the poorest region of Kazakhstan. The remaining water, although renewed slightly in the northern basin by trapping it in the Kokaral Dike, is salinized and toxic with pesticide.

the diminishing extent of the Aral Sea; ship graveyards; the site of the future Rogun Dam in the Pamir Mountains; a map of Central Asia and its rivers

No conflicts have erupted over the Aral Sea, much of the destruction wrought before the USSR collapsed, whilst the watersheds of these rivers were under communal control; the listing and rusting ship graveyards bear witness to the consequences of water mismanagement. Consider Kazakhstan’s response to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan today if they decided to siphon almost the entirety of the Amu Darya, and pipe it across desert, such as the 1375-km long Karakum canal in Turkmenistan in which almost 50% of the water is lost to evaporation. The term ‘conflict’ might be a polite way of putting it.

Yet, this is open hostility is the situation that faces Central Asia today, although not over the Aral Sea. The second layer to this region is that Stalin left borders incised through these mountains, weakening each state by giving upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan water supplies but no oil, and downstream Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan plentiful water but no oil and gas, as well as large ethnic minority.

All Soviet cooperation has broken down: in 2012, the former Uzbek president Islam Karimov warned that if dams threatened Uzbek water supplies, it would lead to regional war, although the stance has softened following his death. He might as well have pointed a finger at Tajikistan; Tajik-Uzbek relations have been likened to an ‘undeclared cold war’, ever since the Tajik boundary was drawn by Stalin to make Tajikistan dependent on Uzbekistan for access to the outside world.  Recently, it has been exacerbated by the Rogun Dam, which will be the tallest in the world at 335m when it is completed, which will dam the Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu Darya which waters Uzbek cotton. 5 dams have already been built along the narrow gorges of the river as it descends the Pamir Mountains. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan – following blackouts as Uzbekistan levered its energy supplies as a weapon – has damned the Naryn River, the major headwater of the Syr Darya, and has already built one of 6 potential Kambarata dams along it, now producing 90% of the country’s electricity. The situation is so tense that in 2014, Kyrgyz and Tajik forces exchanged fire over a single sluice.

Uzbekistan the major player in the region cannot relinquish its control of the water irrigating its crops and feeding its people; its fear is that once hydroelectric power means that the upstream countries no longer rely on its oil, its clout will diminish. This will be exacerbated once Kyrgyz and Tajik energy replaces part of Uzbekistan’s exports to Afghanistan and Pakistan, although The Diplomat notes a slight thaw in the tension now that Miriziyoyev has become president.  


Other conflicts, in brief

What is clear is that water is a troubled resource: Egyptian-Ethiopian-Sudanese relationships are strained over the Blue Nile, with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam projected to be finished next year, and become a “fait accompli” [the Economist]. It is likely to reduce Egypt’s share of the Blue Nile, to reduce the alluvium reaching Egypt, to reduce the output of the Aswan Dam, and to dry out the Sudanese marshes.

One of the reasons that Pakistan and India contest so Kashmir so deeply is because the area gives rise to the tributaries of the Indus (the Jhelum, and Chenab), which nourishes Pakistan but begin in Himalayan Tibet, passing through Indian-administered Kashmir. If India can control the Indus, it can control Pakistan’s cotton industry and agriculture, and two-thirds of its population.

Finally, China’s advance to control Tibet also centres of water: controlling the Tibetan Plateau, called the water tower of the world, means that China can control the Yellow, Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween, Suletj, Mekong, and Indus Rivers, supplying water to 2 billion people. To cope with internal scarcity, Chinese authorities have long toyed with the idea of channel water to its heartland; glaciers are melting unprecedentedly, and China already has dams in place.

It is unlikely that conflict over water will erupt into war, yet as more countries dam rivers, abstract water for irrigation, and restrict their flow, water will be one of the most critical factors when geopolitical decisions are made, to guarantee a secure supply of the most essential human need.  
























Prisoners of Geography, Marshall, pg. 193

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