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Rivers at the forefront of geopolitical news in the Middle East

From Afghanistan to the autonomous Kurdish territories, outside the usual scope of geopolitical issues, rivers and water resources increase the number of risks and can even be used as weapons of war.

Water insecurity in Afghanistan


Un réservoir à sec à Kandahar. Photo: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

In Afghanistan, where the Taliban returned to power in mid-August 2021, scarce attention was devoted to documenting the serious problem of water insecurity. The Afghans are faced with the second most serious drought in four years. Rein Paulsen, Director of the Office of Emergencies and Resilience of the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation, a UN institution), asserted in an online press conference from Kabul in mid-September that 7.3 million people were currently affected. In a country where most of the population is rural, dependant on subsistence farming to survive and cut-off from neighbouring countries and the rest of the international community, drought is a harrowing condemnation. A farmer was reported by the Guardian newspaper as saying,

The real challenge for us now is the drought, not the war.

Rein Paulsen evoked several figures that give an idea of the disaster: agriculture represents 25% of the country’s GDP, 45% of its labour and 80% of subsistence resources for the Afghan population. The drought has made farming more difficult and even impossible in some places. Water, previously obtained without cost from the river, has now become expensive: it must be pumped ever deeper from the ground. The figures speak for themselves: 14 million Afghans are in a situation of food emergency. The water crisis has greatly contributed to this food crisis. This could affect the historic reticence of the Afghan leaders to start a dialogue with the other countries of the region on the subject of sharing water resources.

Indeed, the challenge also comes from outside. Afghanistan is a country rich in water resources, on which its neighbouring countries depend for their own needs. Of the four large watersheds in Afghanistan (Amu Darya, Helmand, Harirud-Murghab, Kabul), Helmand is the only river for which a cooperation treaty exists, with Iran. The absence of other treaties to manage the resource during drought periods makes the situation especially explosive.



Rivers used as arms in the conflict between Turkey and the autonomous Kurdish territories


Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s mountains provide a real water tower for the region: they are where the sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates lie (Turkey controls 90% of the water that flows in the Euphrates and 44% of that which flows in the Tigris). Both these rivers cross the border into Iraq and Syria. The Kurds, who have been in conflict with Turkey for nearly a century, live in the north of these two countries.

Over the years, Turkey has built a series of dams on these two rivers to control their discharges. But in recent months, Turkey has progressively shut-off these sources, thereby threatening hundreds of thousands of Kurds who live downstream in the autonomous regions governed by the Kurdish independence movement. This action breaches the agreement of 1987 with Iraq and Syria that normally obliges Turkey to guarantee a discharge of 500 m3/s in the Euphrates. Today, the discharge is less than 200 m3/s.

This artificial drought created in normally arable lands impacts every facet of the life of the population. There is now a lack of drinking water and the population suffers from diseases contracted by the consumption of non-potable water. Farming, fishing, and electricity production (80% of the region’s electricity comes from hydropower) are all affected. In 2017, the Islamic State destroyed the turbines in the hydropower plants, which had been repaired by the autonomous administration. But today there is not enough water to turn them.

Water and the hydraulic infrastructures are regularly attacked during conflicts. By directly targeting civilians and by condemning populations dependent on subsistence farming to famine, Ankara is degrading the autonomy of Rojava and fostering division and instability.



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