Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 64

A recent report in the business daily Referans suggests that Turkey’s hopes of using its water resources as a strategic asset to strengthen its ties with the Middle East countries are likely to be frustrated. The latest figures suggest that as the result of a combination of population increase, poor resource management and decreased rainfall, Turkey is far from being a water-rich country but is now in danger of becoming a water-poor one, with barely enough water to meet its own needs.

During the 1990s, Turkish government officials were fond of predicting that the country’s water would become a strategic resource, not only compensating for its limited reserves of hydrocarbons but–by supplying water to the countries of the Middle East–bolstering Turkey’s ambitions of becoming a regional superpower. The dams built on the Tigris and Euphrates as part of the $32 billion hydroelectric and irrigation Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) had already given Turkey a stranglehold over the two main rivers flowing through Syria and Iraq (see EDM, March 13). Turkish officials planned to supplement the GAP’s importance as a strategic asset by building pipelines carrying freshwater from Turkey to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean littoral.

After Turkey and Israel signed military training and defense industry cooperation agreements in 1996, there were also hopes that the rapprochement could be underpinned by Turkey supplying Israel with freshwater. In 2000 Turkey and Israel began negotiations to ship freshwater from Manavgat, near the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya, to Israel. In March 2004 the two countries signed an agreement by which Israel would import 50 million cubic meters of water per year for twenty years at an estimated cost of between $800 million and $1 billion.

Particularly after the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in November 2002, there was also talk of using the agreement with Israel as the basis for the construction of a “Peace Pipeline”, which would carry Turkish water not only to Israel but to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

The Manavgat agreement with Israel, however, made better strategic than economic sense and always looked as if it would be more expensive than for Israel simply to build new desalination plants. No water was ever shipped from Turkey to Israel. In April 2006 the two countries agreed to suspend the implementation of the agreement to an unspecified future date.

Even if it had been possible to persuade the various countries to bury their political differences, there had always been doubts about the economic feasibility of the water pipeline, which had been expected to take up to 15 years to build at a projected cost of $8 billion. It now also appears that, regardless of political and economic considerations, Turkey simply does not have the water to spare.

Over the past 20 years, the annual volume of water available per capita in Turkey has fallen from 4,000 cubic meters to 1,430 cubic meters, which means that Turkey now ranks among the countries with insufficient water resources. In comparison, Syria has 1,200 cubic meters per capita, Lebanon 1,300 cubic meters, Iraq 2,020 cubic meters and Western Europe 5,000 cubic meters (Referans, March 29-30).

Turkey is already beginning to suffer from a lack of water; 2007 was the driest summer in Turkey in a decade. At one point, the reservoirs that supply the capital Ankara were only 4 percent full, forcing the municipality to cut water supplies to once every three days. Inevitably, the drought also hit Turkish agriculture, which accounts for around 72 percent of water use in the country. According to recent figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat), as a result of the drought, in 2007 production of wheat fell by 13.9 percent, cotton by 10.8 percent, corn by 7.2 percent and rice by 6.9 percent (Turkish Daily News, March 31). Another hot summer is expected in 2008. As of the end of March 2008, the reservoirs that supply Istanbul and Ankara were still only two-thirds as full as they had been in March 2007 (NTV, April 2).

There are growing concerns about the quality as well as the quantity of available water in Turkey. Although the irrigation schemes introduced by the GAP have brought a large area under cultivation and increased per-acre yields, there are already signs of salinity; and the runoff from agricultural fertilizers is degrading local water resources.

Turkey’s dwindling water resources are also being polluted by industrial and residential use. Only 9 percent of industrial plants in Turkey have water purification facilities. The figure is still only 22 percent for industrial plants that discharge wastewater containing poisons and heavy metals. Moreover, only 141 of Turkey’s 3,215 municipalities have sewage systems, and fewer than half of those have purification plants. As a result, 98.7 percent of all sewage in Turkey is discharged into rivers, lakes and the sea without any treatment at all (Anadolu Ajansi, February 20).