ISTANBUL // Addressing one of the most contentious issues in their region, Turkey, Syria and Iraq held talks about the distribution of river water yesterday, but failed to end a dispute about the volume of water flowing from Turkey to its two neighbours in the south through the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. At a ministerial meeting in Ankara, the Turkish government rejected demands by Iraq and Syria to substantially increase the amount of water in the Euphrates that flows from Turkey to Syria and then to Iraq. "We are aware of our neighbours' need for water," the Turkish energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters before he went into the one-day meeting with ministers from Damascus and Baghdad.
"But we do not have a lot of it in the reservoirs of our dams." Turkey, the country where the mighty Euphrates and Tigris rivers originate, stands accused of holding back water in giant dams on its territory, thereby damaging the economy of its neighbours downstream. Ankara says it is close to completing a network of 22 dams in the area of the two rivers in south-eastern Anatolia, designed to provide water for irrigation and for hydroelectric plants in an effort to lift the region out of poverty.
Last month, Iraq said Turkey had drastically cut back the amount of water filling the Euphrates. The government in Baghdad said Turkey was holding back water in spite of good levels of rain and snow in the region of the Euphrates on Turkish territory, something Ankara denies. According to press reports, the Iraqi government also sent letters to Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to protest against what Baghdad says are dangerously low water levels in the waterway.
Abdullatif Jamal Rashid, the Iraqi minister for water and natural resources, told yesterday's conference in Ankara that those problems have not gone away. "Iraq's situation, as far as water is concerned, is not good at all. We are suffering from a serious water shortage." He said Iraq had been receiving less water since Turkey began building its dams. "We all need to get a fair share." Syria's irrigation minister, Nader al Bunni, said his country had increased the amount of Euphrates water it sends on to Iraq to help the neighbour.
He also said Syria was receiving less Euphrates river water from Turkey than Ankara had promised under a 1987 agreement. But Veysel Eroglu, the Turkish environment minister, told the meeting his country was doing everything it could to provide water to its neighbours. Turkey had even allowed water levels behind the Ataturk Dam, a giant dam on the Euphrates, to fall to a level that made it impossible to generate electricity in the power plant there to ease water problems for Syria and Iraq, he said.
The minister said the regions that supply both the Euphrates and the Tigris with water had experienced a severe drought in the past three years, leading to lower water levels in the two rivers. The problems between the three countries that led their governments to organise the Ankara meeting show the growing importance of water as a scarce resource in the Middle East, Ismail Kapan, a water expert and columnist at the Turkish newspaper Turkiye, said yesterday.
"The water problem is one of the most important issues in today's world, and the Middle East is a very critical region," Mr Kapan said. "The region has five to six per cent of the world's population, but only about one per cent of water resources." Through the agreement with Syria, Turkey is supposed to guarantee that an average of at least 500 cubic metres of water per second fills the Euphrates as it leaves Turkish territory. Mr Yildiz, the Turkish energy minister, said his government had increased that amount by 17 cubic metres per second but could do no more. "To be honest, it is not possible for us to increase this further. We cannot allow our own water and energy management to run into problems."
Turkey has suggested closer co-operation between the three countries to increase efficiency in the use of water. The Ankara meeting also discussed the establishment of joint measuring points to monitor water levels.