Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 29

While Turkey may become a foreign oil resource sometime in the future, decades of investment in hydroelectric power are now paying off, and the country is in the extraordinary position of being able to export one of the Middle East’s most precious resources – water. According to Turkey’s planners, the situation represents both profit and peril.

The heart of the issue is Turkey’s extraordinary geographical position, which makes it a logical route for pipelines. Turkey has promoted a number of pipeline initiatives, most notably, the $3.6 billion, thousand-mile long Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that came on line last year, and numerous other projects are in the works. Oil is not the only liquid pipelines can carry however, and Tel Aviv and Ankara have announced plans to carry water, electricity, natural gas, and oil to Israel by way of a proposed Ceyhan-Ashkelon-Eilat undersea pipeline. The proposed network could link into Israel’s existing Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline (Times of India, February 10).

Interest in hydroelectric power has a long history in Turkey. In 1929 President Kemal Ataturk said, “It is imperative that the technical competence and capacity of the General Directorate of State Hydraulics Works, which is one of the main measures taken for our economy, be firmly established.”

Restrictive investment policies caused large-scale projects to languish until the mid-1980s, when the country began to face chronic energy shortages. In response the administration of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal instituted its “build, operate, and transfer” (BOT) system, under which foreign investors would provide both the capital and technology to build plants and operate them for a number of years with guaranteed revenues. Once the investment had been fully returned, investors would transfer ownership of the units to the Turkish government. Together, foreign-funded programs and indigenously developed hydroelectric plants produced 31% of Turkey’s total electrical output by 2004. Lauding the benefits of hydroelectric power, Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works Directorate wrote, “Hydroelectric power is environment-friendly, clean, renewable, able to meet peak demands, highly efficient (over 90%), involves no fuel cost, is a balancer of energy prices, has a long life- span (200 years), [and] its cost recovery is short-run (5-10 years)”(Devlet Su Isleri Genel Mudurlugu).

Turkey’s persistent efforts to develop hydroelectric power have not been entirely welcomed by her neighbors. In particular, the governments of Iraq and Syria are concerned that massive Turkish hydroelectric projects such as the Ataturk Dam, whose first two power units came online in 1992, could divert significant amounts of water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These concerns led to strained communications among Baghdad, Damascus, and Ankara. Seeking to allay those persistent fears, on February 8 Turkish Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroglu told reporters that there will be no change in Turkey’s water sharing policies, commenting, “We want to share water [with neighbors] in a fair way” (Anadolu Ajansi, February 8).

In 2004 Israel agreed to buy 50 million cubic meters of water annually from Turkey over two decades in an effort to solve its persistent water shortages. The water would have come from the Manavgat River, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea near the southern port of Antalya, where Turkey has constructed facilities capable of exporting 180 million cubic meters of water annually. However, the deal fell through in April 2006 (Haberler, April 5, 2006).

Israel has remained interested in Turkey’s water resources, and last October Israel’s National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer met Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler to discuss a feasibility study concerning a proposed undersea infrastructure corridor for transporting oil, natural gas, water, and electricity from Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan to the port of Haifa. In November they appointed a team of experts in Jerusalem to work on negotiations for the infrastructure corridor (Jerusalem Post, November 9, 2007).

Such optimistic views are not universally shared in the Turkish government, as military planners must prepare for worst-case scenarios. In the July 2007 issue of Silahli Kuvvetler Dergisi, Lieutenant Colonel Suleyman Ozmen, from the General Staff’s Military History and Strategic Assessment Directorate, wrote that, in a region parched for water resources, Turkey’s liquid assets could in fact provoke conflict with its water-poor neighbors, including Iraq, Syria, and Israel. Ozmen wrote that climate change was not only a global problem, but the biggest threat facing Turkey and which needs to be taken into consideration when amending Turkey’s national security strategy. Observing that climate change, combined with an increasing regional population will heighten the strategic value of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in eastern Turkey, Ozmen commented, “In 2025, five billion people will find it difficult to gain access to clean water. When one considers the fact that Turkey has the cleanest water resources in the region… countries like Israel, Syria, and Iraq that face serious water shortages may become threats to Turkey.”

Since 1948 the Middle East has been wracked by wars instigated over issues of land, security, and national defense. If Ozmen’s pessimistic assessments prove correct, then the violence-prone region may yet prove to be a battleground for the first of the 21st century’s resource wars.