On May 29 Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan publicly denied newspaper reports that Ankara had offered water to Syria in return for engaging in indirect peace negotiations with Israel (CNNTurk, May 30).
In recent months, Turkey has been acting as an intermediary between Syria and Israel, relaying proposals and counter-proposals between the two countries’ governments in what it hopes will be the first stage in a process that could eventually lead not only to direct negotiations but a lasting peace agreement (see EDM, April 29).
Babacan blamed opposition parties inside Turkey for trying to undermine the reputation of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by spreading rumors that it had effectively attempted to bribe Syria into returning to the negotiating table by offering it Turkish water.
“Discussions between Turkey and Syria about water are most definitely not an element or a part of the peace negotiations that we recently initiated,” said Babacan (CNNTurk, May 29).
At least some of the speculation, however, appears to be coming out of Israel rather than domestic opposition parties inside Turkey. On May 26 the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ran a report quoting Alon Li’el, the former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, as claiming that in the event of a comprehensive peace settlement, Syria would be prepared to allow Israel to continue to use water from the Golan Heights in return for Turkish water.
“Only recently, the Syrians officially told the Turks that they are prepared to let Israel continue to use the water sources on the Golan Heights after a withdrawal on condition that the Turks compensate them with water supplies and assistance in setting up desalination plants,” Ma’ariv quoted Li’el as saying. “I visited Turkey a few weeks ago, and I know from my talks with senior officials there that the subject is on the agenda. In question would be a significant increase in Turkey’s water supply to Syria and a Turkish readiness to sell us a large quantity of water as well” (Ma’ariv, May 26).
There has even been speculation that Turkey could revive its plans for a “Peace Canal.” When they were first discussed in early 1990s, the plans envisaged the transportation of Turkish water to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the territory currently administered by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and perhaps even Saudi Arabia (Ma’ariv, May 26). More recently, in 2004, Turkey and Israel signed an agreement under which Israel would import 50 million cubic meters of water per year from Turkey for a period of 20 years. Implementation of the agreement was indefinitely postponed in 2006, however, not least because it would be cheaper for Israel simply to build more desalination plants (see EDM, April 4).
Regardless of whether Li’el’s claims are true, there is no doubt that Syria is eager to receive more water from Turkey, particularly from the Euphrates, which rises in Anatolia before flowing through Syria and Iraq. Under an agreement signed in 1987, Turkey guarantees a water flow of 500 cubic meters a second to Syria. However, Damascus has long argued that it needs more water in order to support its growing population.
The headwaters of the Tigris, which, together with the Euphrates, are Iraq’s main source of freshwater, are also located in Anatolia. Iraq has also long complained that it is not receiving enough water to meet its demands.
In March 2008 the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman announced that Turkey, Syria and Iraq had agreed to establish what it described as a “water institute,” which would seek to formulate proposals to address disagreements among the three countries over the sharing of water resources. The newspaper claimed that the “water institute” would consist of 18 experts from each country and would become operational in April 2008, prior to presenting a report on its work at the Fifth World Water Forum, which is due to be held in Istanbul in March 2009 (Today’s Zaman, March 12).
However, Iraq at least is clearly not prepared to wait that long. On May 27 the central government in Baghdad announced that it was sending Water Resources Minister Latif Rashid to Turkey and then to Syria to appeal to both countries to increase the amount of water they allowed to flow downstream to Iraq (Agence France Press, May 27).
There is little doubt that Turkey is currently facing a water crisis of its own. There are already concerns that low water levels in the dams used for the country’s hydroelectric power plants will result in electricity cuts in summer 2008 (see EDM, May 29). There are also increasing indications that a lack of water will result in another decline in agricultural production in Turkey this year. In 2007 production of wheat fell by 13.9 percent and corn by 7.2 percent. On May 30 the daily Zaman quoted agricultural organizations in the province of Konya, which has long been regarded as Turkey’s breadbasket, as predicting that the 2008 harvest is likely to be 30 to 40 percent below the levels of 2007 (Zaman, May 30).