Can Turkey use water to exert power across the Middle East?
ISTANBUL // Turkey hopes to take a first step this year towards long-held ambitions to be a supplier of fresh water across the Middle East.
The first phase of a project to pump fresh water from the Anamur River in southern Turkey to the drought-stricken northern part of Cyprus is slated to be completed this year, according to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Turkish government in Ankara.
Hassan Gungor, undersecretary for the presidency of Northern Cyprus, said the 88-kilometre pipeline “can be taken as a pilot project” that Turkey could replicate across the region.
The 1.2 billion lira (Dh2bn) pipeline, which runs under the Mediterranean, is to bring 75 million cubic metres of water a year to Northern Cyprus, an isolated self-declared republic recognised only by Ankara.
The Turkish ministry for forests and water said in a statement that work will be finished by July 20, the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s 1974 military intervention in Cyprus. Several experts in Turkey said the Cyprus water project could be a first step for Ankara to boost its role as a regional power by providing water to Middle East countries.
“It is technically feasible,” Ibrahim Gurer, a hydrologist at Gazi University in Ankara, said. “And it’s possible not only for Cyprus, but also for other countries like Israel or even Libya. It is not a distant dream.”
In recent years, Turkey’s relative water wealth created problems with several neighbours. Syria and Iraq, which rely on water from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that originate in Turkey, complained that dam projects in Turkey diminish the amount of water that reaches their territories.
Last year, Karim Elewi, an Iraqi member of parliament, accused Turkey of holding back water from the two rivers. But Ankara says water demands by its two southern neighbours are unrealistic.
“The demands of Iraq and Syria [for water from the two rivers] tacitly assume that Turkey releases all the flow of the river without utilising any of it,” the Turkish foreign ministry said on its website.
A US study supported by Nasa found last year that 144 cubic kilometres of fresh water in the Eurphrates and Tigris regions had been lost since 2003. The study said that roughly 60 per cent of the loss was caused by pumping water from underground reservoirs.
Factors such as climate change and decreasing water resources were pushing countries in the eastern Mediterranean to think about closer cooperation, said Dursun Yildiz, a water expert at the Working Group on Earth, Water, Energy, a non-governmental group in Ankara.
“Climate change is everybody’s problem,” he said. “We are much closer to each other now.”
Since work on the Cyprus water project started in 2008, Turkey’s government has indicated its readiness to export fresh water to other parts of the Middle East. The water could be provided by rivers running down from the Taurus mountain range in southern Turkey towards the Mediterranean, officials say.
Last year, Shaddad Attili, the water minister of the Palestinian Authority, told Turkish media that Turkey had offered to deliver fresh water to the Gaza Strip by tankers.
The Turkish foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment on water issues.
It is not the first time that Turkey’s fresh water resources have become the subject of ambitious regional plans. In 1986, the Turkish prime minister, Turgut Ozal, proposed to build water pipelines from two rivers in southern Turkey through Syria and Lebanon. The plan, dubbed “Water for Peace” by Ankara, never got traction amid the conflict between Arab countries and Israel.
In another project, Turkey planned to bring 50 billion cubic meters of water a year from the southern Turkish Manavgat River to Israel in tankers. The project was cancelled by Turkey in 2010 after nine Turkish activists were killed in a raid by Israeli forces on a Turkish ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip.
But Mr Yildiz said advances in technology meant that international water projects were back on the agenda. “Technological development is helping to bring down costs,” he said.
Mr Yildiz said possible Turkish water exports to the Middle East were likely to be handled by pipelines on land, rather than pipelines under the sea like in the Cyprus project, because land-based transport was much cheaper.
But the civil war in Syria and growing unrest in Iraq have hampered plans to increase water exports.
“But we have to look beyond today, we have to look to tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,” Mr Yildiz said.
Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said Turkey’s political weight could increase in the long run because of the water issue.
“It could boost Turkey’s geostrategic significance,” he said.
But Mr Orhan cautioned that sharing water resources would not automatically move political issues into the background. As an example, he pointed to vast natural gasfields that have been found under the eastern Mediterranean Sea near the coasts of Israel, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus.
“Countries already have a chance for cooperation in exploiting resources jointly today,” Mr Orhan said. “But it is not happening, political problems are preventing that kind of cooperation.”
* with additional reporting by Justin Vela
Updated: April 5, 2014 04:00 AM