Water, we all acknowledge, is a precious commodity. In the arid Middle East, this is even more true than elsewhere. Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Mark Zeitoun, a water specialist, notes that the major rivers in the northern Middle East all run across national borders and that complicates an already complicated issue. A country may wish to build a dam for purposes of power generation or irrigation, but the water it takes from rivers close to the headwaters is unavailable to those who live downstream. Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel… all of them are involved in conflict, if not war, over the waters of rivers that run through their countries.

Of course, it’s not just the northern Middle East. Egypt is having trouble dealing with Ethiopian desires to build a dam on the Blue Nile, for instance. Some in Egypt see this as a casus belli and threaten to go to war with Ethiopia. Nor is the issue particular to the Middle East at all… damming and extracting water from the Colorado River, which starts in the American Rocky Mountains and ends in the Gulf of California, in Mexico, has been feeding international dispute for generations now.

I think there’s no doubt that water and access to it will be major causes of international friction for the remainder of this century.

Trouble Downstream
Mark Zeitoun

While the fighting in Syria rages on, another threat to its people is steadily growing—one that may worsen the struggles of today and haunt the entire region tomorrow: thirst. Specifically, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, waterways that have been at the heart of the lives of the inhabitants of their banks for centuries, may come to be the source of desperate international disputes in the future if action is not taken now.

By the time a future Syrian government develops a trans-boundary water strategy, there may be very little water left. Even as the violent political conflict rages, effective diplomacy based on international water law can reduce the water conflict’s devastation and put into place mechanisms to mitigate the coming flare-ups.

The Issue

Water politics may be one of the last concerns of the Syrian and international diplomatic community at the moment, but the war compounds the effects of a water conflict that already shatters the rivers and people alike, creating a crisis that would be any other state’s first priority. Today, the Euphrates barely reaches her sister, the Tigris, north of the Iraqi city of Basra at a site claimed as the location of the Garden of Eden, and the flows are too salty to grow anything with, much less drink.

Some blame climate change for the drying-up of the waters, but it is human activity in a highly politicized economy that is responsible. The flows have been over-exploited following neoliberal reforms in Syria, and are dammed thoroughly throughout Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

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