Chapter 3

Understanding the Middle East Through Water

By Faisal Rifai

 Cultural Identities in Relation to the Rivers

The Middle East, often thought of as a Muslim Arab monolith, is an incredibly diverse region. It is host to populations of the world’s major religions, converging linguistic families and ancient cultural traditions. The region surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates themselves is quite diverse, with the well spring of the region drawing many different groups to it.

In the east sits Iran, on the periphery of the river basin. This nation is not Arab, neither is it Arabic speaking, nor is it Sunni Muslim (which are the predominate trends in the Middle East). Iranians belong to a different ethno-linguistic background than Arabs do and practice Shiite Islam. It only provides several smaller tributaries which join the Tigris river before it drains into the Persian Gulf. Iran is thus somewhat marginalized with regard to water resource management. The country continues to plays an significant role in the politics of the region as a whole, however.

In the center and east of the river basin sit the Arab majority states of Syria and Iraq. Both countries are Arabic speaking and share a similar ethnic composition. However, in Iraq the majority of the population is Shiite Muslim whereas in Syria the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. Both countries contain mixes of Sunni and Shiite, with other religious minority groups, such as Christians, Jews, Yazidis and Druze, are present, as well. These states are the primary consumers of the waters that flow through the Tigris and Euphrates, and they rely on them heavily for agriculture, hydropower and drinking water.

To the north there is Turkey, which contains the heads of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This country is does not come from an Arab ethno-linguistic background, but rather a Turkic ethno-linguistic background, simply meaning they are not Arabs and don’t speak Arabic, but are Turkic and speak Turkish. Turkey is a majority Sunni Muslim country. They have primarily used the two rivers for hydroelectric power and irrigation in the southeastern mountains of Turkey, where the rivers originate.

Between the Arabs, Turks and Iranians, however, lies a group that occupies much of the northern river basin without possessing a state of their own, situated across the borders of each the riparian states. These are the Kurds. They are distinct from their surrounding groups in nearly every way. They do not speak Turkish, Arabic or Farsi (although they speak an Indo-Iranian language). They are not Arabs, Turks or Iranians but a distinct ethnic group. Despite being majority Sunni, the Kurds also practice a range of religions such as Christianity, Yezidism and Zoroastrianism. This ethnic group largely resides in the Zagros and Taurus mountains, the regions where the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates originate from. This group, with its recently garnered wealth from oil, may have a large role to play in the future of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin.

Map of Middle East According to Where Languages are Spoken
Image 15: Middle East Languages, by Feabneda, 24 December 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Map of Religous Distribution of the Middle East
Image 16: Map of Religious demographics of the Middle East, by Dr. Michael Izady. C.C.0
The designation of “other” refers to Yezidism in Northern Iraq and Druze in southern Syria and along the Lebanese border

Geography of the Rivers

To the north of the arid plains of Mesopotamia, lie the Taurus and Zagros mountains. These mountains contain the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This primarily Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey receives the majority of the precipitation that falls in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. The rains and snows from the mountains feed the rivers as they progress south through the mountains.

Proceeding south the rivers begin to diverge from one another as they enter the arid plains of Iraq and Syria. Here the rivers support the largely Arab population’s agricultural and developmental needs. This area receives markedly less precipitation than in the Taurus and Zagros mountains and accounts for little of the rivers total flow.

The rivers converge on one another as they reach the Persian Gulf, joining together briefly before emptying into the Gulf. Here the rivers are joined by tributaries originating in Iran. The rivers feed a region of marshlands in the south of Iraq which are home to a group known as Marsh Arabs. This southern most point contributes nothing to the already existing flow of the river, the only exception to this being the tributaries originating in Iran. In recent years, however, this flow has also been stopped due to the construction of the Karun dams, 3 in total, along the tributaries in Iran.

Historical Background and Brief Timeline

Following the end of World War One the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. In 1920, multiple countries signed the Treaty of Sevres. This treaty partitioned the Anatolian peninsula among the French, British, Italians, Armenians and Greeks. It even provided for an independent Kurdish state in the Taurus/Zagros mountain region. However, the Turkish military was able to fight off the multiple countries who were attempting to partition it, leading to the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 and the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.

The Treaty of Lausanne established the modern borders of Turkey that exist today. In doing so, the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers landed squarely within Turkish territory rather than the formerly envisioned Kurdish state. This essentially gave Turkey control of the water resources of the entire region. Since that time Turkey has had the ability to regulate and dictate the level of flow for both rivers, giving it leverage over its southern neighbors of Iraq in Syria.

For a period of time, the rivers remained relatively unregulated. They continued to flow naturally and received little attention from the riparian governments. During the 1960s, however, the riparian nations each began their own internal development programs. Iraq and Syria, both under Baathist regimes, initiated intensive irrigation and hydroelectric initiatives. Turkey began constructing a series of dams in the southeast of the country for similar reasons. Given that Turkey controlled the headwaters of both the Tigris and Euphrates the construction of these dams worried its southern neighbors, with the program leading to strained relations for years to come.

These uncoordinated projects began to cause intense strain between the riparian nations, leading to several crises. The first of these crises, in 1975, nearly saw Iraq and Syria go to war with one another over how much water Iraq received from Syria. In 1990 and 1996 the construction and impounding of new Turkish dams caused intense diplomatic strain. These crises punctuated regional politics and helped prevent any meaningful cooperation between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. These crises, coupled with the fact that Iraq and Syria were Soviet allies and Turkey was an American ally, assured that little constructive cooperation could take place in the region.

From the 1960s up until the 1990s there was limited progress. Water ministries met on an ad-hoc basis, some bilateral agreements were signed but no concrete steps were taken by all three riparian states to coordinate their uses of the Tigris and Euphrates. This persisted until the early 2000s when the riparian nations began to engage in minister-level negotiations concerning their use of the rivers. This, in conjunction with other agreements concerning exchange of information, represented a positive step forward in riparian coordination and relations.

This progress, however, was disrupted in 2011 by the Syrian civil war, which evolved from the Arab Spring protest movements. The war brought instability to the region and proved to extremely disruptive to riparian cooperation and coordination. The situation further deteriorated in the spring of 2014 when the so-called “Islamic State” invaded Iraq and captured large swaths of territory. They briefly managed to capture Mosul dam, threatening the fragile water infrastructure of Iraq, before Kurdish Peshmerga forces seized the dam.

Since then, riparian cooperation has been next to nonexistent. Political instability and violence in the region has prevented meaningful negotiations and has threatened the water infrastructure which sustains these nations. In order for the riparian states to come together and cooperate to effect meaningful change in the future, the violent instability of the region must first be brought to heel.



Image credits


Image 15:

Middle East Languages


24 December 2013

CC BY-SA 3.0

Wikimedia Commons


Image 16:

Religious Composition of the Middle East

Dr. Michael Izady













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Euphrates-Tigris Water Issues: An Introduction Copyright © 2016 by Melinda McClimans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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