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International water issues
About 615 km, or one-fifth of the total border length of 2 950 km between Turkey and other countries, is formed by rivers: 238 km with Bulgaria and Greece, 243 km with Armenia and Georgia, 76 km with the Syrian Arab Republic, 58 km with Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1927, Turkey and the USSR signed a “Treaty on the beneficial uses of boundary waters”, in which they agreed to share the water on an equal share basis. A joint Boundary Water Commission was established (without legal identity) to control the use of the frontier water. In 1973, the two governments signed an additional “Treaty on the joint construction of the Arpaçay or Ahurhyan storage dam”. After the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), Turkey and Greece signed several protocols regarding the control and management of the Meriç River which flows along the border between Greece and Turkey.
Concerning the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers a similar protocol was established in 1946 when Turkey and Iraq agreed that the control and management of the rivers depended to a large extent on flow regulation in the Turkish source areas. In addition, Turkey agreed to begin monitoring the two rivers and to share related data with Iraq. In 1980, Turkey and Iraq further specified the nature of the earlier protocol by establishing a joint Technical Committee on Regional Waters. After a bilateral agreement in 1982, the Syrian Arab Republic joined the committee. Turkey unilaterally guaranteed that it will allow 500 m3/s water flow (15.75 km3/year) across the border to the Syrian Arab Republic, but no formal agreement has been obtained so far on sharing of the Euphrates water. Problems regarding sharing water might arise between Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq because, according to the different scenarios established, full irrigation development by the countries in the Euphrates-Tigris river basins would lead to water shortages and solutions will have to be found at basin level through regional cooperation.
The construction of the Ataturk Dam, one of the GAP projects 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 informed in good time that river flow would be interrupted for a period of one month for reasons of “technical necessity” (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, a number of crises have occurred in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, amongst other things as a result of 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 the two rivers and only speaks of the rational utilization of transboundary waters. According to Turkey, the Euphrates becomes an international river only 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 the lower riparians a right of veto 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 April 2008, Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq decided to cooperate on water issues by establishing a water institute consisting of 18 water experts from each country to work toward the resolution of water-related problems between 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 (Yavuz, 2008).