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Turkey In conflict With Syria, Iraq Over Waters Of Tigris, Euphrates

ISTAMBUL (dpa) – The names Tigris and Euphrates conjure up visions of plenty, fruitful valleys that brought forth ancient cultures at the dawn of civilization.

Turkey’s dreams, when it started building dams for irrigation and hydroelectric plants decades ago along the upper reaches of these famous rivers, were certainly of a new age of plenty.

For here near their sources, the great rivers flow through arid countryside that at best allowed a meagre harvest of winter cereals or served as sparse grazing for sheep and goats.

The construction of the large dams to control the water flow were, however, guaranteed to provoke conflict with the two countries downstream, Turkey’s Arab neighbours Syria and Iraq.

They protested strenuously against having the flow of these essential water sources reduced. Syria depends on the Euphrates for 90 per cent of its water, while the Tigris is essential for Iraq.

The three countries have ever since been in perpetual conflict over how to divide the water between them in a fair way, and no resolution is in sight.

Nevertheless, development experts believe the doomsday scenario of a war over water in the region “has little to do with reality”.

The last agreement governing use of the water of the Euphrates is 15 years old. Under its terms Turkey committed itself to allowing 500 cubic metres of water per second through to Syria – around half of the average flow of the river.

Syria, which has itself erected several dams across the river, among them the large Assad Dam, wants more water.

Ankara responds that its neighbours are in less need as their populations are smaller, moreover that managing the flow in the upper reaches benefits them as well.

It argues that previously Syria had to contend with floods in spring and water shortages in summer, while now it receives a relatively constant flow of water the whole year.

Turkey is well aware of the power it has through its dams. The words of Turkish former prime minister Suleyman Demirel – who openly compared water with oil – are cited regularly.

“Whoever is sitting on the source has a right that no one can take away from him,” Demirel was inclined to say.

In 1990 Damascus and Baghdad had a foretaste of the consequences should Turkey decide to turn off the tap. At the beginning of that year Turkey dammed the Euphrates almost completely for a month to start filling the first phase of the Ataturk dam.

Irrigation has, however, proved less of a boon than Turkey expected from its Southeast Anatolian Project that, with its 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric plants and 1.7 million hectares under irrigation, is expected to be completed by 2010.

Large-scale irrigation, accompanied by insufficient drainage has brought with it serious salination problems. A recent official report noted that in the region around Akcakale on the Harran Plain near the Syrian border some 15,000 hectares were no longer arable as a result.

Turkey’s huge water project has also drawn criticism outside the Arab world. Sites of historical and cultural significance are being submerged and tens of thousands of people have been resettled.

In addition ecologists are concerned at the environmental impact of large-scale dams.

The future of the Ilisu Dam project on the Tigris is now seen as uncertain. After the Swedish company Skanska and the British firm Balfour Beatty dropped out of the consortium building the dam, the Swiss bank UBS, which had been responsible for the financing, also withdrew.

They pointed at the problems relating to resettlement and environmental impact as the main reason.

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