The 20th century was the century of oil.
Will the 21st century be an era characterised by water conflict?



Savvas Iacovides

In the present state of our world, it is impossible to ignore the hundreds of thousands, or even the millions of refugees - nor the existence of the self-declared Islamic State. Both the migrants streaming into the West and the jihadists of today are the by-products of the current chaotic situation in the Middle East and the broader Middle East and North Africa: they are the result of social unrest, oppressive regimes, lack of economic prospects, unemployment, human rights abuses and also poverty. Within this climate of uncertainty and insecurity, nearly all of these issues can be connected to the shortage of water, or to its control by forces which use this resource as a political weapon and more often than not, as a means to exercise oppressive policy or an expansionist strategy.

It is important to mention that over one billion people - or one in seven people - lack access to safe drinking water. In arid and semi-arid regions of the world there has been a rapid decrease in underground water supply. The loss of our groundwater water reserves are staggering. In seven years, between 2003 and 2010, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have lost 144 cubic kilometers of their total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water of the Dead Sea.

Over the last decade, groundwater has been extracted at a rate 70% faster than in the 1990s. This scarcity or lack of water in many regions of the planet threatens to contribute to an increase in regional tensions and conflicts between States in the very near future. The 20th century was the century of oil. Will the 21st century be the century of water conflicts? 97% of this precious good is salt water (seas and oceans) and only 3% is drinking water and not accessible to everybody. A US report warned that overuse of water – as in India and other countries – could potentially compromise US national security. The Pacific Institute, which studies issues of water and security, found a fourfold increase in violent confrontations over water over the past decade.

The civil war in Syria began from a seemingly insignificant event, but one which would prove to be critical to the country: a group of young people in the southern city of Daraa, angry at the biased distribution of the area’s scare water supply by the corrupt local governor, were caught spraying graffiti that was critical of him and the Assad government. The arrest and torture of these youths was the breaking point for the existing anger between opposing groups. A similar story can be found in Yemen, where revolution began in 2011 in the city of Taiz.

Water as a strategic weapon
From Mesopotamia, once the cradle of civilization (Euphrates and Tigris rivers), to the Yellow River in China, from the Nile in Egypt to the Mekong in Laos, from Israel to Afghanistan and from Congo to Kashmir, one of the most significant triggers for future conflict, will be water. It is important to note that the first targets of Islamic State, other than its oil smuggling activities, was the occupation of areas with dams, rivers and lakes. ISIS is headquartered at Raqqah, very close to the Euphrates River, and 40 km from Syria’s largest reservoir, Lake Assad. In the hands of ISIS, water is used as a strategic weapon whereby with its territorial expansion it can impose its authority and its supremacy.

In the past, water was considered a means for potential economic growth, development and welfare. The equal and just sharing of water was regarded as an instrument of cooperation and as a catalyst for the peaceful coexistence between nations. It is argued that the change in climate conditions, the growing scarcity and decreasing access to water in many countries, most particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, will jointly be a decisive factor in wars of the future. The International Institute of Strategic Studies of London, in its annual report on global armed conflict, indicates locations around the world where clashes have already or could possibly occur in the near future over access to water.

The Institute identifies more than twenty conflicts and potential conflicts concerning water-sharing between nations upstream and downstream of cross-boundary rivers. Following the geopolitics of oil in the 20th century and its use as a political and diplomatic weapon (such as in the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the 1970s), the 21st century foresees that the geopolitics of water will affect power balances between States, potentially rearranging global international relations.

Future wars over this resource will fought over the ownership, control and the management of water.  A 2012 report on global water security prepared by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence asserted that, “during the next 10 years, many countries will experience water problems that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions” in addition to a high probability of prospective impact upon relations with the USA.

The geopolitics of water
What must be done in order for water to remain an instrument of coexistence, progress, and as a symbol of peace and for the democratic principles for nations and for people? Peter Engelke and Russell Sticklor, in their recent analysis published by the foreign policy journal The National Interest which bears the title “Water Wars: The Next Great Driver of Global Conflict?” argue that the emerging geopolitics of water are inherently complicated due to the fact that fresh water resources are distributed unevenly across the globe. They identify the great water-powers of the planet, those nations blessed with enormous renewable reserves, such as Brazil, Russia, the United States, Canada, and China. In their environmental and strategy analysis, the writers point out that even within these vast countries, water availability is not uniform; reversely, southern Brazil, the western United States, northern China, and other sub-regions face intense water stress.

Peter Engelke and Russell Sticklor emphasise that: “Far more numerous than the water powers are the water have-nots, a growing list of countries suffering through a perfect storm of rapid population growth, resource depletion, poor governance, economic stagnation, and unsettling climate change impacts. The most water-fragile among them are concentrated in a strategically significant belt stretching from North Africa across the Middle East and Horn of Africa into Central, South, and East Asia. It is in these naturally arid or semi-arid countries where water scarcity has the greatest potential to inflict serious harm”

At present, the United States of America, or any nation for that matter, has yet been able to formulate a comprehensive, specific and clear long-term policy on the management of water in light of the increasing global significance of water scarcity and its related potential risks. It is therefore quite apparent that the pending possibility of water conflicts between States - plus the potential for water-related threats or blackmail - have not yet been fully appreciated. Moreover, it is argued that the scarcity of critical and vital resources, including land, energy, water and food etc, will in all probability lead to social unrest, geopolitical conflicts and war, even possibly a third world war. Recent US reports note that climate change, that causes extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, could exacerbate the regional conflicts that are already raging around the world.

Turkey’s policy
One country that viewed water, even decades ago, as a potential and powerful political weapon and not as an instrument of peace, was Turkey. Since the 1930s, the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, envisaged the exploitation of water not only as a means of development of Turkey’s south-eastern regions, but also - as has been proved over time - as a political weapon for the blackmailing of its neighbours. This year the construction of another huge dam over the Tigris River with a capacity of 10 billion cubic meters of water and at a distance of 30 km from the Syrian border, will be completed. This dam is the last in a series of 22 dams that make up the massive infrastructure of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP in Turkish).

As a direct consequence of the Turkish dams and the consequent decrease in the water flow of Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the livelihood and the survival of millions of people in Syria and Iraq are endangered. For instance, Iraq’s oil industry requires 1.8 billion cubic meters of water annually. After the completion of all 22 dams, Turkey shall be in the position to use the water of Euphrates and Tigris rivers both as a political and as an economic weapon against its neighbours. This imperialist and emerging neo-Ottoman policy is an integral part of the framework of a foreign policy envisaged and designed by Turkish President Erdogan and his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The Republic of Cyprus since its creation in 1960 has been subject to the aggressive foreign policy of Turkey. As is well known, using the excuse of the coup d’etat of July 1974 by the Greek junta against President Makarios, Turkey invaded Cyprus and has since then occupied 37% of the island with a well-equipped army of 43,000 men. In 1983, Turkey was the only state to recognise the self-proclaimed and illegal “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC). In addition to the tens of thousands of settlers that have been brought from Anatolia since the invasion to colonise the northern occupied part of the Republic of Cyprus, a Member-State of the UN and the EU, Turkey recently carried out another illegal act of direct and implied colonization. On 17 October 2015, the Turkish government and President Erdogan unlawfully inaugurated a water pipeline from Turkey to occupied northern Cyprus, claiming that this pipeline shall supply water to the Turkish Cypriots for irrigation and water supply purposes, ostensibly for the next 50 years.

Turkey's illegal act
The project was constructed by the Water Department of Turkey, at a cost of 1.6 billion Turkish Liras, and includes 23 km of terrestrial pipeline in Turkey, 80 km sea transition of which 66.5 is suspended pipeline and 3 km in the occupied part, from Vasilia village to a dam in Panagra village. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cyprus made the following announcement:

“The water connection between Turkey and the Turkish occupied areas through a subsea pipeline violates international law, as well as the laws of the Republic of Cyprus, and is an illegal act which aims at integrating the occupied areas with Turkey, to further consolidate the occupation and to maximize Turkey’s influence and control over Cyprus. The illegal water connection constitutes yet another Turkish fait-accompli which occurs during a very critical phase of the negotiating process of resolving the Cyprus problem. With this action, Turkey reinforces its presence in the Turkish occupied areas, not only through maintaining ownership of the water that will be transferred to Cyprus, but also by dictating the terms of its management.”

The significance of Cyprus
The illegal pipeline constructed by Turkey to illegally supply water to the occupied northern part of the Republic of Cyprus, falls within Turkey’s long-term strategic plans. The current Prime Minister of Turkey, Davutoglu, in his well known book “Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position” (Poiotita Publishing House, Athens 2010), points out that “the significance of the Cyprus problem from the Turkish viewpoint can be considered basically on two main axes” :

  • The first has a social dimension, and pertains to the importance of protecting of the Turkish community of Cyprus. It is Turkey’s historic responsibility to consolidate the security of the Muslim Turkish community on the island.
  • Secondly, is the significance of the geographical position of the island from a geostrategic point of view. This perspective is of vital importance, irrespective of the human element of the island i.e. even if there were not a single Turkish Muslim present, Turkey would have to maintain a Cyprus issue. “No country can stay indifferent to such an island, placed at the heart of its vital space (…).”  Thus, Turkey is obliged from a strategic point of view to be interested in Cyprus, regardless of the human factor.

Breach of agreements
It is understood that with the illegal water pipeline towards the occupied northern part of the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey:

  • First, is the use of water to reinforce the dependence of the occupied areas and the Turkish Cypriots
  • Second, this annexation consolidates the occupation of the northern part of the Republic of Cyprus in breach of the international agreements and the UN resolutions;
  • Third, the use of the illegal water pipeline by Turkey to impose its positions during the process of finding a solution to the Cyprus problem, pending over the last 41 years;
  • Fourth, the transport of water from Turkey to the occupied northern part of the Republic of Cyprus directly affects the property and territorial aspect of the problem, two of the sticking points in the current negotiations for the solution of the Cyprus problem.
  • Fifth, it reinforces the designed demographic transition by Turkey of the occupied areas, and it is expected to also negatively influence the national, economic, social, tourism, and rural sectors of the Republic of Cyprus.

Moreover, the Framework Agreement between the Turkish government and the illegal regime of occupied Cyprus, signed on 20 July, 2010 and approved by the Turkish Council of Ministers on 8 June, 2011, provides for the following interesting points:

  • That the water shall be sold to third countries (implying possibly the Republic of Cyprus) by Turkey; and the Turkish Cypriot pseudo-state shall collect a commission.
  • That the import of equipment and materials for the project, as well as the workers employed would be transferred from Turkey.
  • That the land through which pipeline passes is the property of the Turkish Republic (despite the fact that northern part of the island is under occupation and hence still legally part of the Republic of Cyprus).

The stance of Turkey vis à vis the Pipeline is evidenced by the fact that it was President Erdogan and PM Davutoglu who extended the official Government of Turkey invitations for the inauguration ceremony of Pipeline Project - held both in Mersin (Turkey) and in Panagra (occupied Cyprus) - to the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı and the rest of the officials of the occupation regime.

Hydrological Ruler
The strategic significance and the power of Turkey within the Middle East cannot be underestimated. The country’s current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, as a close advisor of President Erdogan, has planned the “zero problems with neighbours” policy, within their neo-Ottoman vision which aspires to transform Turkey into a regional and eventually into a world power. This policy, however, seems to be failing and has instead transformed into a “multiple problems policy” since Turkey is either in crisis, dispute and/or conflict with all the countries of the region, including Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, even with Russia. Concurrently, Turkey has been strongly criticised by both US and EU mass media for its opportunistic policies in the Middle East against the Kurds and especially in regards to the Syrian issue.

However, Turkey intends to become the hydrological ruler of the region by taking advantage of and exploiting the water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers both through political measures and other means.  In the 1990s these policies caused a friction with Syria and Iraq due to the reduced flow of water towards these two countries. Iraq accused Turkey of breaching the water-sharing agreement signed between the two countries; Süleyman Demirel, Turkey’s former Prime Minister, is said to have stated:

“Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey’s rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey’s, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources, and they can't say they share our water resources”.

In recent years, the earth has been increasingly struck by devastating typhoons, tsunamis and torrential rains. Some countries have faced catastrophe caused by flooding, landslides, overflow of rivers, while other nations suffer droughts and insufficient availability of water. Thousands of dams have been constructed in regions that have water, while in water-scarce regions people are desperately pumping wells for what is left in groundwater deposits. There is an escalating imbalance in access to water worldwide - between those who have an abundance of it, and those who are deprived of it.

The great powers and the European Union are called upon to find ways and means to conserve, manage, and distribute water as equally and equitably as possible. Water is the most valuable resource: it is a synonym for life. Likewise, it also concerns global security and peace, cross-boundary and international relations, as well as the progress and the well-being of humanity.

Clemenceau once said, “a drop of oil is worth a drop of blood”.
Let us not ever reach the point in which we regard a drop of water as equal to a drop of blood.


Nicosia, November 2015

SAVVAS IACOVIDES studied at École Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille (Universite Catholique, France), for three years. He obtained the Diplôme Superieur de l’ ESJ, in 1972 and then worked in two of the largest regional newspapers of France, La Montagne and La Voix du Nord. As a young reporter in Cyprus, he worked in several Cypriot newspapers and magazines until 1976, and also at Cybc radio station. That year he joined the newly-founded Simerini Newspaper,  covering every field of journalism. In 1983, he was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of the Simerini, a position he held until 1998. In 2002 he was promoted to Chief Editorialist and columnist for the newspaper dealing mainly with political and international matters, until his retirement in 2014. He continues to write, and gives regular lectures on journalism in the Nicosia-based KES School of Journalism. He has an MA in International Relations and European Studies from the Department of International Relations and European Studies, at the University of Nicosia.