The Euphrates and Tigris river basin is one of the most important water basins in the Middle East, where a semi-arid and arid climate dominates. Within the basin, Turkey is an upstream country, as both rivers originate in Eastern Anatolia, while Syria and Iraq are located downstream.
Starting from the1950s, the three riparian countries began to improve water resources as part of their development objectives. Among the various transboundary water basins existing in Turkey – representing almost 35.6% of the country’s existing water potential – the Euphrates and Tigris basin has the largest water and hydroelectric energy potential. In view of this, starting from the 1960s, Turkey decided to develop the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), and started building dams on the Euphrates and Tigris, such as the Karakaya and the Ataturk dams.
The GAP is one of the most prominent irrigation and development projects in the world. The project was initially designed as a hydropower generation and irrigational development program while, in the late 1980s, it evolved into an integrated regional development project to increase socioeconomic prosperity in the Southeastern Anatolia Region.
Twenty-five percent of the country’s water potential is located in the GAP region. Twenty-two dams and nineteen hydroelectric power plants were planned to be constructed within GAP. With the completion of the GAP, an area of 1.06 million hectares is expected to be irrigated and annual production of 27 billion kWh hydroelectric power is targeted. This would meet a large share of the energy demand in the country.
The construction of the GAP dams on the Euphrates river led to objections by Syria and Iraq. Yet the dams built by Turkey in the deep valleys of the Upper Basin, where there is relatively low evaporation, help to prevent floods during rainy seasons and ensure a regular water flow along the basin
To date there is no trilateral agreement signed by the all the riparian countries to jointly manage the basin. However, between 1960-1980 the three countries held unofficial meetings and exchanged information on technical issues under initiative of Turkey. Since 1980, these meetings have become official under the name of “Joint Technical Committee Meetings”. The Protocol on economic cooperation signed between Turkey and Syria in 1987 was an important turning point in terms of addressing the transboundary water issues affecting the basin. The protocol was agreed upon to be a temporary legal document until the achievement of a final agreement on the allocation of the waters of Euphrates among the three riparian countries. With article 6 of the protocol, Turkey committed, during the filling-up period of the Ataturk Dam reservoir, “to release a yearly average of more than 500 m3/s at the Turkish-Syrian border and in cases where monthly flow falls below the level of 500 m3/s, the Turkish side agrees to make up the difference during the following month”. Within the framework of a bilateral agreement signed between Iraq and Syria in 1989, the two countries agreed that 58% of the water released by Turkey from the Euphrates would be allocated to Iraq.
In parallel, another protocol was signed between Turkey and Syria in 1987, this time on Turkish security concerns about Syria ceasing support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a terrorist organization. Despite this, in the 10-year period after the signing of the 1987 protocols, Syria continued to support the PKK. Turbulence between Turkey and Syria on water issues continued until the signing of the Adana Security Protocol in 1998, which enabled Turkey and Syria to reach an agreement and laid the foundation for large-scale cooperation ranging from trade to tourism. Moreover, in 2001, a cooperation protocol regarding water resources was signed between the GAP Regional Development Administration and Syria-GOLD (General Organization for Land Resources).
Turkey-Syrian relations further developed in a positive way between 2000 and 2011. This enabled the two countries to approach water issues from a cooperative perspective. In 2009, Turkey held high-level strategic cooperation meetings with both Iraq and Syria. In this framework, a joint dam between Turkey and Syria on the border on the Orontes River was decided to be constructed. This collaboration raised the belief in public opinion that the water issues in the Middle East could be solved with cooperation. Unfortunately, the “Friendship Dam” project was suspended due to the conflict that broke out in Syria in March 2011.
Similarly, a “Memorandum of Understanding in the Field of Water” was signed between Turkey and Iraq in 2009. The protocol included direct references to cooperation on water resources management, the modernization of irrigation systems and the protection and improvement of water resources in the Euphrates and Tigris.
Although water has often been considered as a source of cooperation by the riparian countries, it has often been wielded as a precondition by downstream countries to maintain transnational relations in different fields, ranging from economy to security. Iraq and Syria put pressure on international organizations and conducted media campaigns to prevent the Turkish construction of the Ilısu dam in the 1990s, to be built on the Tigris River for electricity production. The construction of the dam was completed in 2018. Nevertheless, by request from Iraq, the impoundment process was postponed several times. As underlined by the Turkish authorities, Turkey takes the Iraqi concerns on this issue into consideration. The filling process began in July 2019. During this delay, Turkey was unable to produce electricity and suffered a significant financial loss. The Turkish policy on its transboundary waters tries to promote cooperation and the principle of “not to cause significant harm”.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI
 Ali Ihsan Bagis (1997) Turkey's Hydropolitics of the Euphrates-TigrisBasin, International Journal of Water Resources Development,13:4, 567-582, DOI: 10.1080/07900629749647
 United Nations Treaty Series 87/12171, 17/7/1987.
 Aysegul Kibaroglu and Waltina Scheumann, Euphrates-Tigris Rivers System: PoliticalRapprochement and Transboundary Water Cooperation, (2011) A. Kibaroglu et al. (eds.), Turkey’s Water Policy, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011, pp.290