Turkey, Kurdistan & Water

Stephen DeAngelis

August 13, 2007

My last post discussed the symbiotic trading relationship between Turkey and Kurdistan. Matthew Garcia, an earth scientist living in Maryland and an occasional reader of this blog, recently posted an in-depth blog on Kurdistan’s (as well as the rest of Iraq’s) reliance on water sources that flow out of Turkey [Hydro-Logic: Kurdistan]. Garcia begins his post with mixed news about politics in Turkey:

“A new Turkish parliament was sworn in this past weekend with twenty ‘pro-Kurdish’ deputies, the first to represent that ethnic fraction of Turkey since 1991. These deputies, from the Democratic Society Party (DTP), have said that they favor reconciliation and a peaceful solution to the decades-old Kurdish separatist conflict, in which the PKK rebels lay claim to approximately the eastern third of the country. This hopeful note from the recent elections in Turkey follows on recent suggestions that the country may be leaning away from its secular political base to embrace Islam, indicated by a strengthened position for the Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the parliament and that party’s primary roles: (1) selection of the new Turkish president, and apparently (2) agree with the Turkish military leadership that ‘the time has come to move against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials, PKK, in its bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.'”

I should point out that in the blog Garcia laments the fact that he couldn’t learn more about the details of Development-in-a-Box or the work Enterra Solutions is doing in Kurdistan. He made inquiries to Tom Barnett, but Tom, as an officer in Enterra Solutions, was not able to provide that information because the work has not yet been finalized and the contracts put in place. As soon as they are, I will more fully discuss what that work entails. The essence of Development-in-a-Box, as I have written before, is being able to go into an emerging market nation, partner with the government, business sector, and development organizations and help the country jumpstart its economy by putting in place systems and critical infrastructure that use international standards, best practices, and lessons learned from other developing areas. The basic idea behind this approach is that the world is moving too fast and the resources are too scarce for developing nations to “find their own way” to connect to the global economy. By implementing “in the box” solutions, adapting them to local conditions as necessary, development efforts become more effective and efficient.

Much of Garcia’s post deals with a column Tom wrote about possible futures in the Middle East [“Fast-forwarding to a better story line in the Middle East,” Scripps Howard News Service, 3 August 2007]. In that column, Tom predicts trouble could be brewing by this time next year between Turkey and Kurdistan:

“Meanwhile, roughly 20,000 U.S. troops have shifted to Kurdistan. Following Kirkuk’s contested vote to join the Kurdistan Regional Government in late 2007, the Turkish military invades northern Iraq to root out strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers Party insurgency. America submits to the U.N.-mandated regional security dialogue led by super-empowered envoy Tony Blair in exchange for the great powers’ acceptance of our bases in Kurdistan, which simultaneously ensures its quasi-independence while purposefully dampening its magnetism for separatist movements in Syria, Turkey and Iran.”

Certainly U.S. troops would receive a warm welcome in Kurdistan (you hear this from almost everyone you talk to in that part of Iraq). Garcia’s point, however, is that the PKK isn’t the only point of contention that could cause trouble between Turkey and Kurdistan. He writes:

“Now, I’m certainly not a policy expert or a foreign affairs specialist or even a strategist, especially on the grand scale that Mr. Barnett claims as home turf, so why do I bring up these issues on a hydrology blog? Because I think a coherent focus on water resources is one way to help shrink the Gap, because American defense and security are deeply invested in the outcome of the Iraq War, because one of my interests is OSINT and ‘connecting the dots,’ and because I think I see things happening in and around Kurdistan that seem strange and maybe just a little out of control. Bear with me here… An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is just one piece of that big ethnic puzzle that is Southwest Asia. Kurds also reside in much of eastern Turkey, northeastern parts of Syria, and along the mountain ranges that form the Turkey-Iran and Iraq-Iran borders. There is a map of ethnic Kurdistan on Wikipedia, if you want to see the full scope of this area we’re talking about. In these areas that the Kurds claim as homeland, what can we find to support a recognized independence movement and a nascent government with self-supporting, trade-worthy national infrastructure? Oil of course, and some of the last exploitable forests in the region, and probably some minerals too, but also water. Lots of water, and in strategic places too. Ethnic Kurdistan is mountainous, and from these mountains come two of the most important rivers in western Asia. Trace the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries from their confluence in southeastern Iraq, and you’ll find that much of their watershed area overlaps with ethnic Kurdistan. The Tigris River, the primary water source and sanitation outfall for the city of Baghdad, has its headwaters in the mountains of eastern Turkey. The Tigris is a transboundary river, flowing through Turkey and along the Syrian border and then through Iraq, eventually merging with the Euphrates and then forming the border between Iraq and Iran before flowing into the Persian Gulf. Here’s a map of the Tigris-Euphrates watershed area (light area) by Wikipedia contributor Karl Musser, showing the extent of influence for this river system:

Tigreuph_2 … The Euphrates River headwaters occur farther into the Turkish interior, outside of ethnic Kurdish territory, but flow through much of that territory before meeting the Ataturk Dam and irrigating, by tunnel, the extensive cotton and grain fields of the Harran Plain. Both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are controlled extensively for both irrigation and hydroelectric power in eastern Turkey under the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). Once of the most controversial aspects of the Turkish effort was construction of a dam immediately upstream of the Euphrates’ crossing into Syria, in which the river is also extensively controlled and employed for cotton irrigation. The Euphrates eventually crosses from Syria into Iraq, provides for more irrigation in the southern provinces, and flows through an extensive alluvial plain along which the fabled Tigris-Euphrates salt marshes occur. … Ethnic Kurdistan holds in its hands the keys to water security in a large portion of the Middle East. The supplies of water to the people of the region, sanitation, irrigation, power production, and depleted ecosystems all fall within the responsibilities of both Iraqi, and ethnic, Kurds who push for responsibility and independence. While Turkey has made significant progress in infrastructure and in agricultural planning, most areas in Iraq are just beginning their course of post-conflict reconstruction, and must begin to manage their water resources with the end in mind: sustainability. Iraqi Kurdistan reaches for sustainability in both independence and government, and at the same time must not neglect the sustainability of its most vital natural resource. Its success in international relations with its neighbors, to hold off Turkish military incursions, to assuage the Syrians (and maybe even the Turks) that Kurds in their country need not rise up in a movement for independence, and to deal prosperously with whatever government eventually arises in Baghdad, may be foretold from how the Kurdish people develop one of their most basic necessities, the water on which Kurdistan’s people, agriculture, industry, and economy will depend.”

Garcia’s post is a great reminder about how complex and fascinating this part of the world is. If involved players continue to act responsibly, it could provide the best case study of how to do things the right way in a number of areas — security, development, autonomous regional government, resource management, etc. On the other hand, irresponsible behavior could engulf the region in bloodshed. As an optimist, I am voting for (and investing in) a brighter future. There will continue to be challenges, but good faith efforts can overcome them.