Water Geopolitics

  • Often when countries compete for water resources international agreements and treaties have to be drawn up on how best to manage shared water supplies.
  • As water resources become more significant, new treaties have to be negotiated using water diplomacy. Unfortunately, international law does not provide a clear solution to transboundary river disputes, except where navigable waterways are involved.
  • Present international law tends to make matters worse
  • Upstream countries usually assert their rights of territorial sovereignty and downstream countries claim territorial integrity
  • Under the Helsinki Rules there is an agreement that international treaties must include concepts such as equitable use and share.

Therefore, the criteria for water sharing should include:

  • Natural factors – rainfall amounts, share of drainage basin.
  • Social and economic needs – population size, development.
  • Downstream impacts –restricting flow, lowering water tables.
  • Dependency – are alternative water sources available?
  • Prior use – existing vs. potential use.
  • Efficiency – avoiding waste and mismanagement of water.


case study: the colorado river

  • Basin of the river is the most heavily used source for irrigation water in the USA.
  • In 1901, the Alamo Canal was begun to bring irrigation from the river to farmers of Imperial Valley.
  • Political tensions with Mexico (through which much of the canal past) meant that this water supply was not guaranteed.
  • The All-American Canal was built to secure water supply for California, Mexico and 6 other US states of the river began to be alarmed that California’s expanding use of the river was beginning to threaten their own supplies.
  • Water rights between states were allocated by the Colorado Compact in 1922.
  • Over the next 60 years a series of treaties were agreed between the seven US states with a direct interest in the river, and between the USA and Mexico.
  • A giant plumbing system has coming into being, involving more than ten major dams to serve the water needs of 30 million people.
  • The 1920s ‘Law of the River; based on the Colorado Compact, established the division of water between the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico and their responsibility to supply the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California, together with Mexico, where the rivers meets the sea.
  • Initial agreements allocated California the largest proportion of water because of its large population and considerable political power.
  • This has been reduced by new developments and legal challenges.
  • During the 1920s, there was a higher rainfall and water surpluses.
  • As demand and populations increase and less water is available there is growing challenge for the states and players involved.



  • Farmers – agriculture receives 80% of the water allocation. This is because farmers and ranchers got there first. To encourage agricultural development, the federal government supplies the water to farmers at a low cost – 1/20s of the price in nearby cities. Much of this water is wasted in flood irrigation and inappropriate choices of crop. The sale of water rights by farmers to others is controversial.
  • City Dwellers – Increasing urbanisation in Southwest states has increased demand for water. California has been accused of using supplies other states may need in the future. Farmers are being squeezed out to supply the cities.
  • Environmentalists and Recreationalists – Conflict between the two groups is arising as recreationalists want to increase the recreational development of lakes, whereas the environmentalist would prefer to see lower levels of recreational activity in wilderness and wetland areas. The heavy use of Lake Powell by tourists is threatening the lakeshore areas.
  • Indigenous groups – Native Americans along the river have claims to water rights based on treaties and agreements made between their tribes and federal government in the 1880s. They are engaged in prolonged legal battles over these claims. In 1908, the supreme court recognised Native American water rights across the USA. In 1963, Native American Reservations were granted the use of enough water to irrigate any land and the Five Reservations were granted approx. 5% of the Colorado’s flow. The Navajo’s claim could be as high as 1/3 of the Colorado’s flow. IF claimed it would destroy the 1963 agreement.
  • Mexican people – The river is used to heavily that it no longer reaches the sea – 90% of its water is extracted before it reaches Mexico. The wetlands that once existed in the river’s delta are now a fast expanse of barren mudflats. Most of the local Cucupa fishermen have been forced to move elsewhere. The delta has reduced in size as water and sediment have been retained by the huge dams on the Colorado.
  • US federal government – This is under pressure from its own politicians not to change water allocations. Plans to line the canal which carries water to California’s Imperial Valley with concrete seem a sensible water conservation project. However, seepage from the canal tops up groundwater along the border, so any change would reduce supplies in Mexico. On the other hands it seems that Mexico is taking more than its allotted share from the Rio Grande. These water issues affect US-Mexican relations on other matters, such as curbing cross border drug smuggling and controlling illegal immigration from Mexico into the USA.


Planning ahead

  • In December 2007, a new agreement was reached where the states will aim to divide the shortages.
  • Account amount of water available will determine the delivers to each state.
  • California has been given until 2016 to reduce the amount it extracts by 20%.
  • This would be done by:
    • Domestic conservation – reaping leaks, metering, planting drought tolerant plants, smart sprinkler systems.
    • Ground water banks – saving storm water.
    • Reusing waste water – cleaning it with sewage treatment.
    • Reducing agricultural water use – 10% reduction would double the amount of water available for urban areas.
    • Smart planning – only building houses where supplies of local ground and surface water are adequate.

Water transFers

One solution to water shortages to divert water from one drainage basin to another.

case study: the snowy mountains scheme

This scheme involves 16 major dams, 7 power stations and a network of pipes and aqueducts.

Problems created:

  • Creation of storage lakes has destroyed wildlife habitats.
  • Snowy River flow has fallen to 1% of its original discharge.
  • Groundwater overdraft and salinization results from low flow and Irrigation adversely affecting farming in the Murrow lowlands.
  • Water scarcity has led to competition between users – farmer’s vs city dwellers.
  • Political fallout meant governments had to restore some of the flow in the Snowy River and invest in water-saving projects.
  • Record droughts due to El Nino have used up the water allocations.


case study: water transfers, turkey to isreal

Israel’s hydrological Service has warned that the countries water reserves are being stretched as aquifers become salinized and water levels in the Sea of Galilee fall.

Demand currently stands at 1.5 billion m per year.

Turkey appears to have surplus water that could be taken from the Mangavat River and sold to Israel.

How water transfer might be achieved:

  • December 2001 – Israel and turkey plan an undersea water pipeline.
  • August 2002 – Israel begins talks with Turkey to import 50 million of treated water each year.
  • July 2004 – Syria objects to Turkish plans because Turkey has built reservoirs that retain water along the Tigris and Euphrates.
  • May 2005 Israel and Turkey discuss the possibility of an undersea pipeline.
  • April 2006 – the water pipeline is scrapped as fears of terrorism grow and the costs of desalination sea water fall.
  • June 2007 – Turkey proposes a ‘peace bridge’ overland pipeline to link all middle east states.
  • July 2008 – official figures suggest Turkey is experiencing increasing drought and water shortages of its own, the outcome of global warming and poor management.

turkey’s gap


  • Total input is an average 643mm of rainfall per year.
  • 55% lost as evaporation and transpiration, 14% goes underground as groundwater, 15% unusable, 16% usable.
  • Regional variations in rainfall, summer droughts in Anatolia and shortages in Ankara and Istanbul, forced the Turkish government to embark on $32 billion South-eastern Anatolia Project.
  • GAP is an attempt to improve incomes in Anatolia – the least developed part of Turkey.
  • Turkey aims to become the breadbasket of ME through increasing the production of cash crops alongside with traditional wheat, barely, lentils and cotton.
  • Socioeconomic development with better educational, healthcare and additional jobs is intended to stop migration of young people from the region.


Aims of GAP:

  • Contrast 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plans, two water transfer tunnels to provide 22% of Turkey’s electricity by 2010.
  • Provide irrigation for 1.7 million hectares – supports 9% of its population.
  • Diversify agriculture to cash crops.
  • Stimulate agro-industrial urbanisation.
  • Stop migration of young people from the region.
  • Help SE Anatolia economy grow by 400%.
  • Help Turkish economy grow by 12%.



  • Iraq and Syria are unhappy about the project as it involves damming the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, which provides both countries with much of their water.
  • The new dams will restrict river flow while their huge reservoirs are filling up, but water flow is supposed to return to normal when they are full.
  • However, they fear that in future Turkey could choose to withhold water for political reasons.




  • The Ilisu Dam has been attacked by international community, the World back and environmentalist.
  • The building of the dam on the River Tigris has caused controversy.
  • It is the biggest part of GAP and highlights difficulties involved in securing water for the ME.
  • Funding for the dam became difficult when several foreign governments and engineering companies pulled out.
  • Will drown the ancient town of Hasankeyf.
  • 34,000 residents, mainly Kurds, will be forced to move.
  • Increased risk of malaria and waterborne diseases around lake.
  • Risk of it becoming a major waste dump, because effluent will spill into it.
  • Rotting vegetation covered by the waters of the reservoir will release carbon dioxide and methane.



  • By 2004 Turkey had responded to international pressure by amending the Ilisu part of the scheme to reduce impacts on local settles and account for social-environmental impacts.
  • Some the forced relocated of some Kurdish villages remained unresolved.
  • Iraq and Syria still needed guaranteed about river flow levels.
  • Austrian, Swiss and German companies had approved funding from their respective governments to build the Ilisu Dam.
  • Turkey has agreed to release water from Ilisu for Syria at a rate agreed by international law.
  • However downstream of Ilisu Turkey intends to build the Cizre dam to collection additional water for irrigation before the Trigs crosses the border – Syria and Iraq will argue over what is left.


case study: israel


  • Consumes 500 billion litres more water than it receives naturally.
  • Population is growing at an annual growth rate 1.5%.
  • Droughts more common and lasting longer.
  • Internal completion for limited water is increasing.
  • Often disputes with neighbours.
  • Israel securing water supplies could affect political stability of the region.
  • Water pathways under threat due to relations with its neighbours.



  • 1967: The Six Day War – Israeli reaction to Syrian attempts to divert the Jordan River – ended with Israel gaining greater control over the river and securing enhances water supplies by capturing West Bank from Jordan, Golan heights from Syria and Gaza Strip from Egypt.
  • 1974: Syria built the al-Thawra Dam and upset Iraq because it reduced the flow of Euphrates by 25%.
  • 1979: Egyptian peace treaty with Israel.
  • 1980-88: The Iran-Iraq war, largely over territorial disputes in the Shatt al Arab waterway.
  • 1994: The Jordan peace treaty with Israel initiated regional cooperation over the sustainable use of Yarmouk River.
  • 1996 & 2000: Syria tried to gain access to Turkish water to use in negotiations with Israel. Both attempts failed.
  • 2000: A summit in the USA where Israel offered to give up land to Palestinians but not water.
  • 2004/5: Turkey agreed to ship water to Israel for high tech military supplies.
  • 2005/6: The Litani river disputes between Lebanon and Israel.


Whose water is it?

  • Shifting territorial borders has not made Israel’s job of providing its population with water easy.
  • By 2050 it will have to provide approx. 11 million Israelis living in a desert environment.
  • Many Palestinians live in areas which Israel once occupied but Israel still claims most of the water denying Palestinians access to it and causing further conflict.
  • Big disparity in the use and access to water and both countries accuse each other of mismanagement.


Israel’s water sources

  • Israel’s consume more water than any other country in ME.
  • Shortfall is made up from importing water from Turkey, recycling sewage and desalination plants.
  • Israel’s main sources of water show signs of degradation, contamination by sea water, chemical pollution and over pumping.
  • Three areas each provide 25% of Israel’s natural water supply.
  • The remainder coming from smaller aquifers:
    • The Sea of Galilee which is fed by River Jordan and tributaries in Golan heights.
    • The Mountain Aquifers mostly located in the West Bank. Shared: 80% to Israel and 18% to Palestine.
    • Coastal Aquifer – supplies 80% of Israel in the most economically developed area of Israel – controls more than 90% of this aquifer.


Water disputes:

Syria wants Golan heights returned, resulting in 25% of Israel’s water supply being compromised. Israel fears this because:

  • Feels that Syria’s water management systems are inferior and could contaminate Lake Kinneret.
  • Threat from Turkey’s Gap project could force Syria to diver the River Jordan away from Israel to ensure its own water supplies.
  • Israel would be at the mercy of a long-time enemy for a ¼ of its water supplies.

Overuse and misuse are putting supplies at risk:

  • The Mountain Aquifers mostly located in the Disputed West Bank, where urban growth has led to increasing pumping and declining quality.
  • The Gaza strips is showing signs of salt seepage as water levels in the Coastal Aquifer falls.
  • Israel thinks that the Palestinian there have over pumped supplies, causing sea water to seep through the Aquifer threatening Israel’s supplies.


Israel fears Palestinians will use too much water and create a natural disaster of salt seepage and shortages. The Palestinians think that Israel’s own water demands leave them with too little water. If Israel gives in over increased Palestinian access to water supplies, it will have to rely on inferior Palestine technology and unlikely political goodwill to protect its water.



  • Between 1967 and 2006, the Litani River in southern Lebanon was the focus of a number of armed disputes. The Lebanese suspected that the 2006 Israeli occupation by troops of the disputed border zone between the two countries was mostly to do with controlling this river.
  • The Dividing Wall in the West Bank has led to the destruction of wells separated Palestinian villages from their farmland and water sources and freed up water supplies for Israelis.

Israel’s water management strategies:

Managing limited supplies:

  • Recycling sewage water for agriculture uses. 65% of all crops already produced this way.
  • Reducing agricultural consumption and shifting the economy to high tech, meaning greater reliance on food imports.
  • Better water treatment plants and stringent conservation techniques.
  • Demand management by charging real value prices for water to reflect costs of supply and ecosystem management.


Acquiring new supplies

  • Importing 50 million m3 of water per year by ship from Turkey.
  • Piping seawater from the Red Sea and Mediterranean to inland desalination plants. The Desalination Master Plan aiming to provide 25% of Israel’s supplies by 2020.

Expanding virtual water

  • Importing water rich foods saves water