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Syrian Arab Republic

International water issues

An agreement was signed in 1955 between the Syrian Arab Republic and Jordan regarding the allocation of the water of the Yarmouk River, and was further revised in 1987. A recent agreement between Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic on the Asi-Orontes River has led to a share of 80 million m3/year for Lebanon and the remaining 335 million m3 for the Syrian Arab Republic.

In 1973, the Syrian Arab Republic constructed the Tabqa Dam, which was filled in 1975. The filling of this dam and the Turkish Keban dam caused a sharp decrease in downstream flow and the quantity of water entering Iraq fell by 25 percent (El Fadel et al, 2002). As a consequence Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic exchanged mutually hostile accusations and came dangerously close to a military confrontation (Akanda et al, 2007). Iraq threatened to bomb the dam. Both countries moved troops towards their common border. Saudi Arabia and possibly the Soviet Union mediated. Eventually the threat of war died down, after the Syrian Arab Republic released more water from the dam to Iraq. Although the terms of the agreement were never made public, Iraqi officials have privately stated that the Syrian Arab Republic agreed to take only 40 percent of the river’s water, leaving the remainder for Iraq (Kaya, 1998).

In 1983, Turkey, Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic established the Joint Technical Committee for Regional Waters, the aim of which was to deal with all water issues among the Euphrates-Tigris basin riparians and to ensure that the procedural principles of consultation and notification were followed as required by international law. However, this group disintegrated after 1993 without making any progress (Akanda et al, 2007).

In 1987, an informal agreement between Turkey and the Syrian Arab Republic guaranteed the latter a minimum flow of the Euphrates River of 500 m3/sec throughout the year (15.75 km3/year). The Syrian Arab Republic has since then accused Turkey of violating this agreement a number of times. According to an agreement between the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq signed in 1990, the Syrian Arab Republic agrees to share the Euphrates water with Iraq on a 58 percent (Iraq) and 42 percent (the Syrian Arab Republic) basis, which corresponds to a flow of 9 km3/year at the border with Iraq when using the figure of 15.75 km3/year from Turkey (FAO, 2004).

The construction of the Ataturk Dam, one of the Southeastern Anatolia projects (GAP) completed in 1992, has been widely portrayed in the Arab media as a belligerent act, since Turkey began the process of filling the Ataturk dam by shutting off the river flow for a month (Akanda et al, 2007). Both the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq accused Turkey of not informing them about the cut-off, thereby causing considerable harm. Iraq even threatened to bomb the Euphrates dams. Turkey countered that its co-riparians “had been timely informed that river flow would be interrupted for a period of one month, due to technical necessities” (Kaya, 1998). Turkey returned to previous flow sharing agreements after the dam became operational, but the conflicts were never fully resolved as downstream demands had increased in the meantime (Akanda et al, 2007).

As shown above, a number of crises have occurred in the Euphrates-Tigris basin because of a lack of communication, conflicting approaches, unilateral development, and inefficient water management practices. The Arab countries have long accused Turkey of violating international water laws with regard to the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic consider these rivers as international, and thus claim a share of their waters. Turkey, in contrast, refuses to concede the international character of these two rivers and only speaks of the rational utilization of transboundary waters. According to Turkey, the Euphrates only becomes an international river after it joins the Tigris in lower Iraq to form the Shatt al-Arab, which then serves as the border between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran until it reaches the Persian Gulf only 193 km further downstream. Furthermore, Turkey is the only country in the Euphrates basin to have voted against the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. According to Turkey, if signed, the law would give “a veto right” to the lower riparians over Turkey’s development plans. Consequently, Turkey maintains that the Convention does not apply to them and is thus not legally binding (Akanda et al, 2007).

In 2001, a Joint Communiqué was signed between the General Organization for Land Development (GOLD) of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the GAP Regional Development Administration (GAP-RDA), which works under the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office. This agreement envisions supporting training, technology exchange, study missions and joint projects (Akanda et al, 2007).

In 2002, a bilateral Agreement between the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq was signed concerning the installation of a Syrian pump station on the Tigris River for irrigation purposes. The quantity of water drawn annually from the Tigris River, when the flow of water is average, shall be 1.25 km3 with a drainage capacity proportional to the relative surface area of 150 000 ha (FAO, 2002).

In April 2008, Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq decided to cooperate on water issues by establishing a water institute that will consist of 18 water experts from each country to work towards the solution of water-related problems among the three countries. This institute will conduct its studies at the facilities of the Ataturk Dam, the biggest dam in Turkey, and plans to develop projects for the fair and effective use of transboundary water resources. Several talks have been held between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey, during which the two countries have decided to jointly construct a dam on the Asi-Orontes River, which originates in the Syrian Arab Republic and flows to the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey’s Hatay province (Yavuz, 2008).

The Golan Heights control the main water sources of the State of Israel. Israel’s only lake and its main source of fresh water, supplying the country with a third of its water, is fed from the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights were conquered by Israel in 1967 and have been under Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration since 1981, which however has not been recognized by the United Nations Security Council.


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