Dams on Euphrates and Tigris: Impact and Regulation Through International Law

Water Law and Cooperation in the Euphrates-Tigris Region. A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach, Brill (Leiden) 2013; ISBN: 9789004258341

Posted: 24 Apr 2019

Date Written: March 1, 2013

Abstract

Mesopotamia – the land between two rivers – was historically perceived as a freshwater rich region in the arid Arabian Peninsula. Despite the intense seasonal and yearly fluctuations of the flow of Euphrates and Tigris, their water was the basis for the advance of Neolithic and Bronze Age civilizations such as the Hattian and Hittitian cultures in Anatolia, the Assyrian culture in Northern Mesopotamia, the Babylonian culture in central Mesopotamia and the Sumerian culture in Southern Mesopotamia. While not new to the desert regions of Syria and Iraq, freshwater scarcity is a rather recent issue on the banks of Euphrates and Tigris, as is the international dimension of freshwater distribution and utilization. Significant international tension over the water of Euphrates and Tigris did not occur before the 1970s, when the first large dams were constructed on the Euphrates.

Large dams impact rivers unlike any other freshwater development. They change the most essential characteristic of a river: its flow. While early dams were too small to form reservoirs extensive enough to significantly affect a river’s flow, technological advances in the early 20th century enabled humans to build dams large enough to fundamentally alter a river’s flow regime. Dams of such scale are generally referred to as ‘large dams’. The first dam that could be described as a large dam in this sense is the Hoover Dam built in the United States on the Colorado River in the 1930s. Construction on the first large dam in the Euphrates-Tigris river system, the Turkish Keban Dam on the Euphrates, began in 1966. Syria followed shortly after, in 1968, and took up construction of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates. These dams and those subsequently erected on Euphrates and Tigris substantially altered the natural flow regime of Euphrates and Tigris and enabled the riparian States2 to noticeably influence the rivers’ flow. This potential to change the rivers’ flow is one of the core factors of the tensions over the water of Euphrates and Tigris.

Another key issue is the huge amount of freshwater the States will require to operate their irrigation and hydro-electric developments. The water demand of the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish freshwater developments planned on the Euphrates are estimated to by far exceed the flow of the river and those of the Tigris will require close to its total flow. At the center of these developments, again, are dams. Thus, dams are at the heart of the dispute over the water of Euphrates and Tigris.

Therefore this contribution seeks to introduce the reader to the large dams built and planned on Euphrates and Tigris and the freshwater developments they supply, their impact on the rivers and specifically the regulation of such developments under international law.

Keywords: Environmental Law, International Environmental Law, Regulation, Public International Law, Water Law, Dam, Ilisu Dam, Ataturk Dam, Euphrates, Tigris, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Tabqa Dam

Suggested Citation

Bremer, Nicolas, Dams on Euphrates and Tigris: Impact and Regulation Through International Law (March 1, 2013). Water Law and Cooperation in the Euphrates-Tigris Region. A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach, Brill (Leiden) 2013; ISBN: 9789004258341, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3356455

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