Water Wars and Impact in the Middle East

By THO Team Member, Sean Russell

            Geopolitics will forever be changed as the most vital resource to life becomes a cause for war. In an oil rich Middle East, Turkey has the one resource which one day will be more valuable than oil: water. 

          Climate change and the depletion of underground aquifers across the globe is soon to drive up the price of water. Situated directly atop the Euphrates-Tigris river basin, the Republic of Turkey flaunts an impressive array of rivers and thus a massive source of power production and political leverage.

          Turkey is a prime U.S. linchpin. Turkey’s strategic value does not get much attention but is crucial to the future of the Middle East. Turkey’s strongest power over the Middle East is not their military nor political influence, but rather their water. Within the next decade or two, water scarcity will become a paramount issue for countries across the world, let alone the Middle East. Turkey’s geography is its greatest resource. Along with various other internal waterways, the Tigris and Euphrates are the lifeline to Iraq, Syria, and the remainder of the Levant. Scholar Patrick MacQuarrie outlines the extent of Turkey’s water contribution, with nearly 99% of all water in the Euphrates originating from Turkey,  and 65% of all water flowing into the Tigris.

          Empowered by 21st century engineering, Turkey is capable of constructing vast arrays of hydroelectric dams. Turkey’s profile presented by the International Hydropower Association  states that Turkey is close to tapping 50 percent of its hydro-power, with another 15 percent on the way. Leaving Turkey with potential for more, with a goal of 30% energy generation to be renewable by 2030

          These dams fuel Turkey’s domestic energy production; they also give the government the option to shut the water off to the rest of the Middle East if it should ever need to do so. As a landlord leveraging their position, Turkey controls the raw lifeline of the Middle East, and can simply turn off their residents' utilities, thus redefining deterrence. 

          Now more than ever, Turkey is a vital U.S. and NATO ally. The U.S. has had a tumultuous few decades fighting wars in the Middle East. Now, the U.S has uneasy footing; does the U.S. forge ahead and continue their Middle Eastern interests, or find a way out of a seemingly endless military presence? If so, Turkey will play a crucial role.

          The indispensable role of water is nothing new in the Middle East. Dr. Jongerden and the Middle East Policy Council reference a NATO war game, in 2010 strategists imagined Syria and Iraq executing a joint invasion of Turkey. This invasion plan figured a three-year drought in Iraq and Syria, partly attributed to Turkey’s water policies. This hypothetical scenario is plausible, but with the current state of both Iraq and Syria less so. Syrian and Iraqi influence and political legitimacy is at an all time low; Turkey would have little to no friction in constructing the many hydroelectric dams it has planned on the Tigris and Euphrates. 

          With Turkey’s increasing leverage and influence over both Iraq and Syria, it would be short-sighted for the U.S. to overlook Turkey as a more active ally in addressing both ISIS and the Syrian civil war. It’s in America’s best interest to strengthen the relationship it has with Turkey, especially as Turkey capitalizes on its water advantage. The likely-hood water will be a central cause of conflict in the near future is great, hence the now popular name “Water Wars”. However, Turkey may also be in a position to minimize military conflict through political pressure and water politics. Ideally, Turkey may be the key in bringing peace to Syria and Iraq. 

Work Cited

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