with a possible light at the end


Ram Aviram

In the early 1990s, Turkey invested 150 million US$ in building a facility on the Manavagat River which would allow export of water by using marine transport. The investment was done without a solid agreement with any customer, but with the aim of finding customers like Israel which suffers from chronic shortage of water. The initiative was a failure – Israel never bought water from Turkey by marine transport (or through a pipeline) and to the best of my knowledge, the Manavgat facility has not been used as envisaged until this very day.

The Cyprus "Peace Water Pipeline" was easier – the customer was a "captive customer". Indeed the consideration of nations concerning the source of their water (hydro-policies, hydro-politics and economics) played a unique role in this case. (I leave out of this present short contribution the legality facet of the issue at hand, since it has been dealt with at length in previous articles).

It is obvious that Turkey wishes to export its water in order to gain both economic benefits and to exert political power.

The scales of economic point to a big question mark with regard to an investment of around half a billion US$ on a never-tried subsea water pipeline to supply large quantity to a very limited population. Though, bearing in mind the different uses, calculations in the long run might show that the price per CM is not much of a difference from the price of water manufactured in large-scale seawater desalination – the chosen option of the government-controlled areas of the Republic of Cyprus. In any case in this article we would like to focus on the hydro-political consideration that in the case of Cyprus is more dominant than the economic consideration.

Turkey, by holding its hands on the tab (becoming an "upstream" country combined with its hegemonic attitude based on economic and military strength) can threaten to turn the tap off in order to exert pressure on the recipient side. This power can only be of use at the moment on the Turkish Cypriot side and potentially on a future united Cyprus.  We can express a doubt for the immediate need for such a leverage used by Turkey over the Turkish Cypriot party given that water is law-politics, considering general harmony of interests between the two, the presence of 43,000 Turkish troops, the majority of new Turkish settlers and the overall dependency of the Turkish Cypriots on Turkey's strong support in the negotiations. In the long run Turkey might use the pipeline as a bargaining chip in the negotiations, claiming the need to be compensated for an investment in infrastructure. Turkey may claim that its investment be paid back with hard currency or energy rights. However given that the Republic of Cyprus has at its own large-scale seawater desalination scheme and therefore has an independent water supply, gives the Greek Cypriot side a strong position in the negotiation regarding this point, and it can claim  the desalination plants as a counter investment argument in any settlement agreement for a united Cyprus. In that regard, Turkey's claim will be considered mainly in the context of future "commercial" water supply agreement. By increasing the water supply to north Cyprus and as a result improving the standard of living, there may have a positive effect on the ongoing negotiations. It will apparently decrease the worries of the Cypriot Greeks over the economic burden of reunification. In any case it looks like the pipeline can only have a marginal effect over the structure of the settlement of the Cyprus issue.

However the very existence of the pipeline can serve a few positive elements that could improve the relations between the two communities in a following ways: (a) the potential connection of the water systems even in a limited scope (as done just recently with the energy grids) can serve as confident building measure and (b) once an agreement is achieved Cyprus may enjoy diversification of water sources.

In any future negotiations concerning the supply of water to Cyprus we can always turn to the Israeli case and learn some lessons. The first round of discussions between Israel and Turkey took place in the late 1990's, well before the era of desalination in Israel, although it was already the preferred strategic option. The last round was conducted as late as 2009 when Israel had already developed desalination as a meaningful source of water supply. Israel considered the option of importing water from Turkey in three aspects: (a) a viable technical way to import the water – we did not find a good solution to that question, (b) the calculated price of imported water compare to other potential sources – large-scale seawater desalination was found as a cheaper option, and (c) the hydro-political considerations – here the answer was mixed.

Two arguments lead to support the import of water: (a) back in 1999, the wish to expand the overall scope of relations with Turkey both political and economic as much as possible and (b) prior to the desalination era most of Israel's fresh water sources were shared with our Arab neighbors and under such conditions it was better to diversify the sources of water. Turkey was considered a close strategic ally. However, on the other hand strong arguments were put forward against the import of water from Turkey: (a) the reliability of a supply source which is located overseas (b) the dependency on yet another country,  (c) the good relationship with Turkey lasted only for few years (since 1991) and Turkey's strategic shift in policy against Israel's interest was a major risk for it to take (as proved correct later on), and (d) the fear that the supply of water by Turkey might be linked in the future by Turkey to other issues both political, and in the sphere of water supply to the Palestinian issue, in a way which might not be endorsed by Israel.

The conclusion of the Israel was to opt to a very limited quantity of water (only few percentages of total consumption). At later stages Israel actually signed such agreement with Turkey and an MoU on the "strategic corridor" of pipes that would transfer gas, oil and water along the East-Mediterranean coast – however none of the above was materialized.

To conclude: the risks are there that Turkey may use the water pipeline in order to strengthen its hegemony, however one should not ignore the potential contribution of the pipeline for the economic development in a reunited Cyprus - this, as weak as it may be seen at the moment, is the light at end of the pipe…


RAM AVIRAM, Ambassador (ret) is a former Director of Water Department of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former Chief of Staff of H.E. Shimon Peres, as well as former Ambassador of Israel to Greece. He is leading a prominent hydro-diplomacy consultancy dealing with management of transboundary water resources. He lectures at various universities in Israel and Greece and serves as consultant to the Rehabilitation Authority of the Jordan River.