Skip to content

Climate change, water and future cooperation and development in the Euphrates-Tigris basin

This study examines future impacts of climate change on water resources and the ensuing economic and political challenges in the Euphrates-Tigris basin shared by the countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Research Paper

Published on 26 November 2021

The study focuses on three different risks that are affected through climate-related water challenges: (1) livelihoods and food security, (2) political stability and violence, and (3) interstate conflict and cooperation.

Drawing on a review of existing literature and publicly available data, expert interviews, and scenario-building workshops, it identifies social, economic, institutional, and political factors that will shape the future vulnerability and resilience to the effects of global warming. Based on an assessment of current interventions, it derives recommendations for adaptation measures that the riparian countries and regional institutions can implement to mitigate future risks and to seize opportunities for increased cooperation and resilience building.

The main findings of the study are the following:

➔ Compared to direct human interventions, climate change has so far played only a minor role in changing the basin’s hydrology and freshwater ecosystems. However, climate change impacts including decreasing soil moisture and river flows, as well as an increasing frequency and severity of extreme climatic events like droughts, will gradually become more significant and may eventually outweigh those impacts caused through water abstractions or infrastructure impoundments.

➔ Climate change will complicate and aggravate water-related challenges that are already significant in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria while the incurred economic losses, in turn, will reduce the government’s resources for an adequate adaptation response. Yet, climate change might also entail opportunities for improving water security and development more broadly.

➔ More severe water shortages and water quality problems aggravated by climate change will make it harder to sustain farming and livelihoods depending on ecosystems. A failure to mitigate climate-related water risks can contribute to poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment in rural farming communities, and eventually lead to displacement and internal migration at a larger scale than is seen today.

➔ Our work shows that the impacts of climate change are different but also significant in urban areas. Deteriorating water quality in the rivers will directly affect drinking water supply in cities while demographic changes in rural areas, such as rural-to-urban migration due to the abandonment of rural livelihoods, could put additional pressure on urban water systems.

➔ In rural areas, growing water scarcity is likely to increase competition over water and could lead to more local violence (e.g. between different communal groups). Rising poverty and unemployment caused by declining agricultural productivity and the loss of rural livelihoods are likely to raise discontent with political authorities and aggravate existing grievances with regard to poor service provision and natural resource mismanagement. In politically fragile and highly water insecure countries, water weaponisation could become a yet more widespread political tool used by non-state and state actors.

➔ Rethinking and ramping up basin-wide water cooperation could unlock significant opportunities, including deeper economic integration of the water and energy sectors. If the riparian states are unable to scale up cross-border action in managing water, in contrast, climate change will intensify water insecurity in the future. This, in turn, may fuel social turmoil in Syria and Iraq where water-dependent livelihoods, communities, and economies will be increasingly affected, gradually contributing to regional destabilisation.

➔ The likelihood and severity of climate change impacts on livelihoods, (human) security, and riparian relations in the Euphrates-Tigris basin will largely depend on the future evolution of the region’s socio-economic and political conditions, including for example the type of water management and pollution, demographic changes, or economic conditions.

➔ The riparian countries have started to bring adaptation efforts underway. Besides limited awareness and understanding about the risks and opportunities that climate change poses, the institutions, capacity, and policy frameworks across the Euphrates-Tigris basin are, however, currently insufficient to cope with the looming challenges of climate change. As for many aspects in this study, Turkey’s adaptive capacity is considerably greater than those of the other riparian states.

➔ Limited progress in climate adaptation is not resulting from a shortage of approaches and solutions embraced by the riparian states. Many key adaptation measures that would increase the climate resilience of water-dependent sectors are known and outlined in national water and adaptation strategies developed by the riparians or regional organisations.

➔ Various economic, political, security and institutional challenges undermine policy reforms and technical implementation. Barriers range from corruption to lack of finances and a broken state-citizen relationship, creating a “vicious cycle” that is hard to break. Enabling conditions necessary for ushering in a more sustainable, climate-resilient water management are becoming less supportive. As a consequence, the possibilities for mitigating growing water-related climate risks or taking advantage of the opportunities climate change entails are diminishing.

➔ There is hence not only a need for increasing adaptation efforts considerably, but for improving the governance mechanisms that enable their effective implementation. The riparian states may not have the capacity to shoulder these interventions alone but depend on engagement by the international community.

Based on these insights we propose the following recommendations in four areas:

1. Help individual basin countries reform water management in water-intensive sectors

Given the uncertainty about (and low likelihood of) substantial advances in cross-border multilateral water cooperation in the near future, there is a particular need for Iraq and Syria to make the best use of available water by establishing a more sustainable water management approach, e.g. by improving demand management and reuse of wastewater. Given the distinct challenges they face, riparian countries will have to pursue different priorities. For Syria and Iraq, it will be critical to rebuild essential infrastructures for water supply and wastewater treatment. In their own interest in terms of regional stability and prosperity, Turkey and Iran should seek to reduce negative cross-border impacts (e.g. by conducting environmental impact assessments that explicitly study downstream effects).

2. Help the region devise adaptation options that strengthen overall water security

Measures that should be prioritised include mutual learning, data-sharing, joint risk assessments, and exploration and identification of effective adaptation options. Advancing climate adaptation will require strengthening efforts for international policy processes (such as the NDCs) and for accelerating implementation. The international community can assist the riparian countries, for example, in accessing climate finance and ensuring that sustainable water resources management is adequately considered in climate adaptation strategies and projects. At the same time, it is critical to make sure that climate resilience is an integral part of water management. The international community can ensure this, for example, by making climate resilience conditional in the finance it provides for rebuilding water infrastructures or improving water management. Adaptation efforts should also support individual countries in their respective efforts to increase alternative livelihood options, manage internal friction over resource access, and prepare strategies for coping with larger numbers of internal and cross-border refugees.

3. Support the conditions that enable advancements in institutionalised cross-border water cooperation

Improving knowledge will be important, not only to make water resources management more effective but also to help the riparian countries build trust with one another and with cross-border water institutions. Knowledge creation will also be essential in the context of benefit-sharing and economic cooperation, for example, by promoting studies that map out mutually beneficial development pathways (such as on joint water and energy projects discussed in this study). Moreover, it will be crucial to strengthen the capacity of existing institutions (including those working in agriculture, irrigation, and other water-relevant sectors) to cope with future changes, as well as to support the process of establishing a future platform for multilateral cooperation. Interventions in this regard must also improve stakeholder participation, extending processes to a broader range of stakeholders from civil society and the private sector. The international community may play an increasingly important role in mediating inter-state conflicts, as water stress in the basin is increasing. This is 6 Climate change, water and future cooperation and development in the Euphrates-Tigris basin especially true in the absence of transboundary institutions and mechanisms that could mediate conflicts.

4. Help strengthen the water governance system in the riparian countries

Efforts should aim at making environmental and water legislation more robust, and ensuring more systematic enforcement of such legislation. While central water agencies exist in all riparian countries, these tend to be largely incapable of implementing effective and sustainable water resources management (except in Turkey). Growing future challenges will widen the gap between resources and know-how. River basin organisations need to be established to allow for basin-level water management, but these only exist in Turkey. Without significantly larger interventions in capacity-building and resource provision, government institutions will not be able to accomplish major reforms of water management, given the range of discussed structural challenges. As experts are not in a position to overcome many of the structural challenges of governance systems, it will be critical for the international community to consider approaches that enable them to provide effective development assistance in contexts that may become yet more dysfunctional and ineffective. This could include support for decentralised governance, including irrigation associations, empowerment of civil society (e.g. for women), and trying to leverage private sector actors for positive change (e.g. in the realm of renewable energy).