The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the most water scarce region in the world. Indeed, 61 percent of its population lives in areas with high or very high water stress and the regional endowment of global renewable fresh water resources is only about one percent. While scarcity constraints have been manifest for hundreds of years, newer challenges are currently adding hazards and complexities to the context.
About 60 percent of the surface water resources in the MENA region flows across international borders, generating and exacerbating political tensions between states in a region already marked by widespread instability. Against this backdrop, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers represent one of the most emblematic case studies. Together constituting a single transboundary watercourse system, with a topographic catchment covering around 8 hundred thousand square kilometers, the Euphrates and Tigris are the two largest rivers in western Asia. The sources of both rivers are located in the mountains of eastern Turkey, while most of the tributaries of the Tigris originate in Iran. Crossing the arid land of Mesopotamia, the two rivers stream from the Turkish highlands of eastern Anatolia to the valleys of the Syrian and Iraqi plateaus, before combining their flow at the southeast corner of Iraq and jointly emptying into the Persian Gulf.
In ancient times, the resources granted by the Euphrates and Tigris represented the sole source of livelihood for the early Mesopotamian civilizations, and the prosperousness of the water basin remained at the centre of the many riverine communities that arose in succession up to modern times. Indeed, in a region otherwise marked by water scarcity, the two rivers permitted the emergence of one of the earliest irrigation systems ever recorded, as well as the development of primitive forms of fishing and breeding activities, followed also by the advancement of transport by water and trade. The riverine communities, bound by the natural rhythms and seasonal variations of the rivers, shared the benefits granted by the watercourses for thousands of years, even after the definition of the riparian states’ national boundaries.
Nowadays the Euphrates and Tigris river system, which still represents a vital source of socio-economic development for 54 million people, is experiencing the backwash of severe water-related challenges. In the past decades, the harmonious sharing of the benefits derived from the common watercourses gave way to growing competition and recurring political confrontations over water repartition. Indeed, starting from the 1960s, the increasing demand of a rapidly growing population, combined with the rise of rival national ambitions for water use, drove the rapid implementation of unilateral and uncoordinated water development projects along the basin. Since then, the nature of relations between the four riparian countries has been shaped by the construction of controversial large-scale dams and irrigation systems and the resulting alteration of the rivers’ flow regimes. Indeed, as national water management plans progressed, discrepancies between water demand and supply emerged. Consequently, reductions of the downstream water flow – decreased by 40-45 percent since the early 1970s – and catastrophic impacts on ecosystems and livelihoods occurred throughout the rivers’ basin. Dramatic have been the consequences, for instance, for the Kani Bil spring in Iran, the biggest natural spring of the whole Kurdistan region, as well as for the Iraqi Marshes, which were once the largest wetlands of the MENA region.
Nevertheless, all parties stressed their need to achieve food and energy security, claiming the development of the Euphrates and Tigris as part of their strategic national goals. The decreasing availability of water became to be perceived as an existential threat and the four riparian states started to securitize water relations with their neighbouring countries. As a result, rigid national positions inhibited interstate water cooperation on the two rivers, and the technical negotiations carried out among the riparian countries proved to be unable to reach effective agreements on equitable and sustainable transboundary water management. Against this backdrop, water-unrelated political contentions further exacerbated the water disputes, as emblematically demonstrated by the fact that, for decades, the fluctuations in water cooperation between Turkey and Syria have been correlated with their security disputes over the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as their territorial frictions over the Hatay province.
In addition, environmental factors also aggravate the tensions between the four co-riparian countries. On the one hand, the return flows from the aforementioned intensive agricultural plans, together with the direct discharge of untreated domestic and industrial wastewater from some urban settlements along the watercourses, are driving an alarming increase of water pollution in both rivers, as well as a surge in water and soil salinity along the basin. On the other hand, erratic weather patterns and temperature increases are further reducing water runoff and aggravating water degradation, compounding the many challenges faced in the Euphrates and Tigris catchment areas. The combination of all these factors exasperates the upstream-downstream competition, at the same time affecting the internal political and social cohesion of the riparian states. The protests in the Iraqi province of Basra, erupted due to the lack of water and electricity in the summers of 2018 and 2019, as well as the registered surge in the Iraqi water-induced displaced people are indeed cases in point.
To further complicate the picture, the Euphrates and Tigris played a pivotal role in the recent violent conflicts affecting the area: the two rivers and their connected systems of infrastructure emerged as strategic assets during the Syrian civil war and the military campaign against the Islamic State (IS), further highlighting the influence of the rivers’ system in the maintenance of regional security and stability.
In this complex and multifaceted scenario, cyclical attempts at cooperation have been put into place among the riparian states, but only a limited number of bilateral protocols and arrangements have been achieved so far. In the lack of basin-wide agreements, integrated water resource management has not yet being addressed and a mechanism to regulate the potentially inharmonious claims among the riparian states has yet to be designed. The persistence of political instability and weak economic integration in the region still reflects on the governance of the transboundary water resources and inhibits effective cooperation among the riparian countries. The two major obstacles to cooperation are, indeed, the perpetuation of competitive national development policies for hydropower and agricultural production, as well as the unsteady political relations among the riparian countries. For instance, the current harsh confrontation between Ankara and Damascus in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib makes it impossible to conceive of any forthcoming collaboration on water allocation. Nevertheless, the urgency to find solutions to sustainably manage the two rivers seems more compelling now than ever. According to forecasts, in coming years the region will be subject to a temperature increase ranging from 2.5 to 5.5°C and a 20 percent decrease in precipitation, with a consequent reduction of the flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris of, respectively, 30 and 60 percent by the end of the century. The protracted absence of a shared water management framework will make it problematic to collectively address the severe environmental, socio-economic and political challenges that could arise in this perspective. Perhaps it will be precisely climate change, being a transboundary threat multiplier, to force the four riparian countries to shift from their current geopolitical zero-sum game on transboundary water management to an equitable and ecologically sound allocation of the water benefits within the basin.