The California Solution to Turkey’s Desperate Water Gambit

THO Nonresident Fellow Joseph Lombardo, PhD

Last year and into this year, worrying news reports coming from Turkey highlighted the country’s rapid depletion of its water resources, particularly involving dams in and around the province of Istanbul. This caused such a stir that the Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has spoken at length to both the engineers of Turkey’s main water agency, the Devlet Su İşleri (DSİ) or State Water Works, warning that failure to resolve the issue would prove disastrous to the country’s health. The predictable tussle between the engineers and politicians in Turkey invariably leads to discussions over the financial feasibility to even address Turkey’s ongoing water crisis. Much of these discussions had taken place towards the end of 2020. By January of 2021, it was clear that the province’s regional dams were so low, that a serious drought would be imminent by the spring. Less than three months later, the city’s water supply skyrocketed to nearly 90% in all four of the provincial dams—the Ömerli Dam, the Darlık Dam, the Elmalı Dam and Istrancalar Dam. In the country’s East, where a sustained drought has also been felt in war-torn Syria, it is clear that something must be done by Ankara to resupply fresh, running water to the region.

Which begs the question:  why is there an asymmetrical supply of water in the vast majority of the country, and what could be done to avert possible regional tensions? Turkey’s hydrological cycle in the more prosperous northeastern region shows periods of decennial droughts, followed by periods of capacity replenishment. In countries like the United States, where hydraulic infrastructure is better equipped to transport fresh water across thousands of miles of land (which includes arid desserts and mountain ranges like the Rockies) there is a more incentivized process to provide water in places like California and Nevada. During the 1970s, American engineers contracted by Ankara by the then Demirel administration, recommended that Turkey’s Eastern river basins like that of the Euphrates and the Tigris, be “decentralized”. The impetus was mainly political for the United States. The Soviets were also offering water solutions to the countries of the Global South, and so the US was forced to act in kind by adding a sort of democratizing program so that Ankara would not be swept out of the American orbit of influence. Their reasoning was that the rivers in Turkey’s East ought to be controlled on a regional basis. At the time, the Kurdish Question was beginning to be revived by the late 1960s, and so any talk of “decentralization” or regional control was, quite frankly, an offense to the relatively young Republic. 

Engineering circles working in the newly-formed State Water Works were somewhat divided over the verbiage of the American proposal, with a good deal of the engineers coming from the East themselves. Demirel ultimately rejected plans for regionalization of the Eastern river basins, preferring a more top-down approach to developing the East. Droughts, in addition to seasonal flooding of the banks of the Euphrates, were a common feature of the hydrological landscape of the area. Many of the characteristics of the great golden age of global dam-building included the centralizing tendency to have large river basins benefit the country as a whole. The flaw in Turkey’s experience, however, can be felt in that a significant amount of hydropower generated by the damming of the Euphrates went to the industrialized West. This lead to the submergence of fertile valleys in the East, and in turns, a flood of rural migrants into the nearby cities like Elazığ, which so were underdeveloped that city was unable to absorb the rapid flow of dispossessed farmers and sharecroppers. Traditional trading routes to sell produce and small crafts were nearly wiped out, if not severely disrupted. And while the state did help fund the building of factories and refineries in Eastern cities, it was by then too late. Internally-displaced migrants ended up crowding cities which lacked job opportunities, leading many to simply leave not only for Istanbul, but also Germany.

The rest is seemingly history. The evolution of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party threatened hydraulic infrastructure throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Even Syria lead by the Assad regime had their eye on aerial bombardment if Turkey continued to divert and restrict water coming from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In many ways, the veritable cottage industry of policy papers, organizations, which have highlighted the growing tensions over transboundary riparian rights offer little in the way to remediate the situation. At this point, either Ankara abides by these treaties of which they are party to, or another, more concrete solution, must be proposed. Building more dams, which has become something of a trademark for the Erdoğan administration, is not popular with locals who live within the proximity of the catchment area, and it is likely to continue to have political repercussions internationally.

One solution is to once again look at what the state of California has been advocating for on behalf of its powerful agro-industry lobby:  pump water from another region. The idea generally speaking is to siphon water from the American Midwest via the Great Lakes so as to keep California’s Central Valley fertile and productive. While the solution is not perfect—it has led to a joint Canadian-Michigan lawsuit against California—it is unlikely that given the pressures of industry and agriculture production, there is much else let to consider. Desalinization along the lines of what Saudi and its Gulf neighbors is extremely costly, much more so than outfitting hydraulic infrastructure so that the water flows freely from the Great Lakes to the West Coast. While Turkey is not nearly as water-rich as the United States, it does at least in theory, the capacity to transit water from the northeast into the southeast. The existing program of building more dams only guarantees that water be provided to a specific region, i.e., Istanbul, but not to the rest of the country. The geopolitical pressures are also too great for Ankara to dismiss or downplay. The persistent threat of terrorism and perhaps even actions undertaken by politically-unstable countries like Syria would result in the targeting of existing dams in Turkey’s East.