Международный правовой курьер

В перечне ВАК с 2015 г.

Обмеление рек Евфрат и Тигр и роль международных соглашений в противодействии этому явлению

Реки Евфрат и Тигр переживают резкий спад, что создает серьезные проблемы для экосистем и групп населения, расположенных в этом районе. В данном исследовании основное внимание уделяется причинам обмеления Евфрата и Тигра. В нем также рассматривается роль международного права по смягчению этого явления. Существует ряд факторов, которые способствуют этим потерям, включая изменение климата, строительство плотин и деятельность человека; тем не менее, международные соглашения способны предотвратить окончательное высыхание этих рек. Реализация международных соглашений и стратегий комплексного управления водными ресурсами являются важными действиями, которые необходимо предпринять для обеспечения долгосрочной жизнеспособности этих рек. Ради будущих поколений возможно сохранить реки Евфрат и Тигр посредством развития международно-правового сотрудничества и реализации экологически ответственной политики.

Ключевые слова: Евфрат, Тигр, обмеление, международное экологическое право

The Decline of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers: Causes and the Role of International Agreements


The Euphrates and Tigris rivers are experiencing a steep fall, which presents substantial problems to the ecosystems and human groups that are located in this area. This study focuses on the causes of the decline in the Euphrates and Tigris level. It also covers the factors that has an impact on the decline as well as the role of international agreement on mitigate this decline.  There are a number of factors that are contributing to this loss, including climate change, the building of dams, and human activity; nevertheless, international accords have the ability to prevent these rivers from eventually drying out. In spite of this, addressing the difficulties and constraints that are connected with these agreements and implementing integrated water management strategies are essential actions that must be taken in order to ensure the long-term viability of these key rivers. For the sake of future generations, it is feasible to preserve the Euphrates and Tigris rivers via the promotion of international collaboration and the implementation of policies that are environmentally responsible.

Keywords: Euphrates, Tigris, Decline level, Causes, Drives, International agreement


The Euphrates and Tigris rivers, two of the world’s most historically significant waterways, have experienced a worrying decline in water levels. They are shared between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. This decline poses significant challenges to the region’s ecosystems, agriculture, and the livelihoods of millions of people. Understanding the reasons behind this decline and exploring the potential of international agreements are crucial steps towards mitigating the drying up of these vital rivers in the future.

Throughout the twentieth century, there were many bilateral efforts between states to collaborate in the Tigris and Euphrates River basin. In 1920, the French and British governments entered into a pact concerning the use of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers’ resources. The treaty mandated the establishment of a commission by the two governments with the purpose of examining irrigation proposals in the area. The Turkish-French Protocol, which was ratified in 1930, imposed a legal obligation on the governments of Turkey and France to collaborate and synchronize their actions regarding the use of the Euphrates River’s water resources. The protocol added to the 1946 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborly Relations between Turkey and Iraq strengthened the concept of mutual cooperation in the realm of water development. The agreement included both the main rivers and their smaller streams that flow into them. During that period, Turkey and Iraq reached an agreement to share pertinent information and engage in consultations to serve the mutual interests of both nations. A committee was established under the 1946 Treaty to carry out these arrangements. While the events mentioned have not yet occurred, it is observed that the complete implementation of the 1946 agreement would provide as a solid foundation for achieving effective collaborative water management between Turkey and Iraq. 

  1. Overview of the Euphrates and Tigris River Systems:

The Tigris River is bordered by four nations (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria) and ranks as the second biggest river in West Asia. It constitutes a river system that delineates the limits of Mesopotamia in the area referred to as the Fertile Crescent, beside the Euphrates River. The Tigris River, in addition to being a crucial resource for transit and irrigation, has great historical significance since it has played a vital role in development of the earliest civilizations in a mostly dry area.

  • Importance of these rivers in providing water resources to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and downstream regions in Iran and the Arabian Gulf.
  • Impact on agriculture, energy production, and the ecosystem.

2. Drivers of the Decline in River Levels

Given the growing shortage of water, it is crucial for international organizations, researchers, and policy makers to prioritize policy and hydrological research in international river basins. Additionally, the advancement of international watercourse law should also be given significant attention. Alternatively, the consequences might vary from conflicts over water resources to ongoing discord and significant depopulation along the path of diminishing rivers.

1.Climate Change:

The area is significantly affected by climate change[3], especially in terms of precipitation patterns and water availability. The analysis explores the impact of changing climatic conditions on precipitation patterns, which may result in alterations to the variability and occurrence of rainfall in the area. Furthermore, this study thoroughly examines the effects of increasing temperatures on glaciers, which function as natural reservoirs. The rise in temperatures has led to an increased vulnerability of glaciers to faster melting, hence impacting the accessibility of freshwater supplies downstream. The simultaneous investigation of the impact of climate change on precipitation and glacier dynamics emphasizes the interdependence of environmental processes and emphasizes the pressing need for adaptive strategies to alleviate the consequences of climate change on water supplies in the area. [4]

2. Upstream Dam Construction:

The problem has remained unsolved for many decades, and despite concerns about «water wars,» the current state of imperfect cooperation and quiet conflict seems to be relatively stable due to Turkey’s advantageous position as a riparian state and its significant military and political influence. Water hegemony is a conceptual framework used to analyze disputes that arise from the management and control of transboundary water resources. Furthermore, the current status of international law regarding transboundary water resources is inadequate in offering a definitive resolution, hence creating a scenario where each riparian state perceives its own interpretation of international law. The 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses offers limited institutional framework to deal with the problem of allocation in circumstances when water shortage is on the rise. The idea of «fair and reasonable use» is used, taking into account many variables to determine this use. These elements include the amount of water contributed by each state in the basin, historical and present usage, economic and social demands, and a general commitment to avoid causing severe damage. Nevertheless, it does not provide a systematic structure for establishing the relative importance of these aspects in a scenario characterized by limited resources. Furthermore, there is uncertainty on the degree to which the Convention effectively formalizes pre-existing international legal principles. Although the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of Streams was approved by a majority vote of 103 to 3 in the General Assembly, with 26 abstentions, the critical remarks made by some states that ultimately voted in favor and the slow process of ratification raise doubts about its effectiveness as a declaration of customary international law[5]. International water law, customary international law, and the concerns of developing nations situated along highland riverbanks[6].

3.Human Activities:

  1. Examination of human activities such as deforestation, urbanization, and irrigation practices contributing to the decline in river levels.
  2. Discussion of the consequences of unsustainable water management practices.

3. Enviromental and Socioeconomic Implications:

The various repercussions of diminishing river levels on the ecological and social aspects need a thorough analysis. First and foremost, it is crucial to evaluate the environmental consequences of declining river levels on ecosystems. This include the assessment of the effects on wetlands, as well as the flora and wildlife that rely on riverine environments. The decrease in water levels has the potential to disturb the equilibrium of ecological systems, resulting in the loss of habitats, relocation of species, and changes in patterns of biodiversity.

Concurrently, it is imperative to examine the socioeconomic obstacles that local populations, namely farmers and fishers, are encountering due to diminished water accessibility. Farmers that depend on river-fed irrigation systems may encounter reduced crop yields and agricultural productivity, which may worsen food poverty and economic difficulties. Likewise, those engaged in river-dependent fishing may see a decline in fish populations, so jeopardizing their financial resources and cultural practices.

4. Role of International Agreements:

In response to the imbalance between water demand and supply, national water authorities endeavored to initiate conversation and establish specialized organizations for talks. In the 1960s, the three nations situated along the river saw a shift in their water-related relationship after Turkey’s choice to construct the Keban Dam on the Euphrates River. The downstream nations, particularly Iraq, demanded assured water discharges (minimum of 350 m3/s) that Turkey will release during the designated timeframe. The first conference took place in June 1964, with the attendance of Turkish and Iraqi professionals. Following the discussions, Turkey committed to implementing all necessary actions to provide a consistent discharge of 350 cubic meters per second right below the dam, on the condition that the river’s natural flow is capable of meeting this discharge requirement. This information was sent to both Syria and Iraq simultaneously in the same year. In addition, Turkey suggested the creation of a collaborative technical committee that would assess the average yearly flow of each river via inspection. The Joint Technical Committee will assess the irrigation requirements of the three nations through collaborative field investigations. Their responsibility will be to analyze the water needs of the countries involved in existing and upcoming projects. The committee will then formulate a set of fundamental principles and procedures to promote consensus on water rights[8] [9].

Subsequent to the first technical conference between Turkey and Iraq, many other ad hoc meetings took place. Of all the conversations, the most significant one is the first tripartite negotiations that took place in Baghdad in 1965. [10]  During this meeting, the three teams shared technical information about the Haditha (Iraq), Tabqa (Syria), and Keban (Turkey) dams. Following the Turkish proposal, Syria proposed conducting a study through the Joint Technical Committee to assess the water requirements of cultivable lands. The objective would be to explore the feasibility of addressing the potential water shortage from the Euphrates River by redirecting a portion of its water. The Tigris River flows into the Euphrates River. Iraq vehemently objected to this proposition and insisted on only negotiating the waters of the Euphrates.

1.Overview of Existing Agreements:

In the 1960s, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq started to increase their use of these rivers as they initiated contemporary water development projects. Originally, the primary objective of these projects was to control the occurrence of floods, which are regular in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Projects gradually shifted their attention towards hydroelectric and drinking water projects, in response to riparian governments’ growing need for water. The construction of dams by Syria and Turkey to mitigate floods and address drought exacerbated the issue of water competition. The level of competitiveness gradually increased. Riparian nations swiftly transformed flood control programs into irrigation initiatives, while simultaneously constructing hydroelectric power facilities. The need further escalated as these sources became the primary means of obtaining potable water. The natural evaporation that takes place as the two rivers traverse the dry wetlands of Iraq and Syria increases the risk associated with water withdrawals, and the installation of dams has worsened the loss of water. Although both nations had same objectives such as ensuring security and improving water supply, sanitation, food, and energy (specifically hydropower), they implemented their reforms independently at the national level to enhance resources for their own populations.

The escalating friction transformed into hostility as each country adopted a more nationalist stance, exemplified by the centrist policies of the Baathist Party in the Syrian and Iraqi Baathist administrations, as well as Turkey’s emphasis on development projects in the southeastern area. Numerous dams were constructed during the period spanning from the mid-1960s to the 1970s. The Keban and Tabqa dams in Turkey and Syria, built in the mid-1960s, and the Karkaya and Haditha dams in Turkey and Iraq, built in the mid-to-late 1970s, are the most notable dams in the region. An examination of the current bilateral and multilateral agreements that regulate the distribution of water resources from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers[12] [13] [14].

2. Challenges and Limitations:

Climate change is expected to exacerbate tensions along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The river basin is widely regarded as one of the most susceptible watersheds globally. With temperatures in the area increasing at a rate double that of the worldwide average, the river and its dependent communities are anticipated to suffer additional strain due to heightened surface evaporation. From 2020 to 2021, the area had its second driest season in the last forty years, marked by a 29 percent reduction in the water level of the Tigris River and a 73 percent reduction in the water level of the Euphrates River. It is projected that by the end of the century, the volumes of water in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers would decrease by 30 and 60 percent, respectively. With the inflow of water and the consequent decline in Iraqi grain output, the country’s reliance on global grain markets will increase. This dependence is risky, as shown by the price volatility seen during the conflict in Ukraine. Impacts resulting from armed conflict or prolonged periods of extreme dryness. Cognizant of these susceptibilities, the Iraqi government declared an intensification of water diplomacy with nations situated upstream, in addition to implementing its own dam construction policy [15]. The advantages and identifications of the two rivers and their impacts on climate change are illustrated in the followings:

  • Identification of challenges faced in implementing and adhering to international agreements related to water sharing.
  • Discussion of limitations imposed by national interests, geopolitical tensions, and lack of enforcement mechanisms.
  • Identification of challenges faced in implementing and adhering to international agreements related to water sharing.
  • Discussion of limitations imposed by national interests, geopolitical tensions, and lack of enforcement mechanisms.

5. Potential Solutions and Future Recommendations:

The concept of fair use is derived from the principles of restricted sovereignty and territorial integrity within a particular river basin. According to this concept, the basin state’s authority over the waters of international rivers inside or near its territory is restricted to the same authority held by other basin states. Consequently, a State is permitted to use the water as long as this utilization does not contradict the reasonable utilization of other states within the same basin[16]

1.Integrated Water Management:

The need for integrated water management arises as a fundamental aspect in tackling the intricate issues related to water distribution. One suggested methodology promotes the incorporation of socio-economic and environmental factors into the implementation of water management strategies. By embracing a comprehensive viewpoint that considers the interconnectedness of human need, ecological preservation, and economic progress, it becomes feasible to formulate water allocation plans that are both more efficient and environmentally sustainable.

At the core of this strategy lies the acknowledgment of the need of cross-border collaboration in attaining objectives related to sustainable water management. The need of cooperation endeavors across neighboring nations arises from the interdependence of water systems and the transboundary characteristics of several rivers and aquifers. Riparian countries may enhance their management of shared water resources, address disputes, and provide fair access to water for all stakeholders by promoting communication, collaboration, and mutual agreements.

2..Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies:

Given the challenges posed by the decline in river levels, it is essential to explore potential strategies for adaptation and mitigation to safeguard water supplies and mitigate environmental repercussions. Adaptation strategies include the use of proactive measures to address the decrease in river levels. These measures include initiatives aimed at conserving water, the implementation of more efficient irrigation techniques, and the exploration of alternate water resources. The use of these methodologies is of paramount importance in ensuring the sustainable administration of water resources amidst evolving environmental conditions.

Concurrently, mitigating the repercussions of declining river levels need a broad and multifaceted approach. One prospective approach involves the construction of supplementary reservoirs to augment the water storage capacity and act as a protective measure against possible water scarcity. Furthermore, the restoration of wetlands has significant significance in replenishing aquifer systems, enhancing water quality, and strengthening ecological resilience. The implementation of a combination of adaptation and mitigation methods offers a viable approach to address the challenges posed by declining river levels, therefore promoting the long-term sustainability of water resources and natural systems.

3. Strengthening International Cooperation:

The imperative for enhanced international cooperation in tackling water scarcity emerges as a critical focal point. Collaboration between riparian nations, international organizations, and relevant stakeholders is deemed essential to effectively address this pressing issue. By fostering stronger partnerships and dialogue among these entities, there is a greater potential to develop comprehensive strategies and initiatives aimed at mitigating water scarcity challenges. Furthermore, there is a clear recommendation for the formulation of new international agreements or the adaptation of existing ones to bolster water resource governance mechanisms. These agreements should prioritize long-term sustainability and equitable distribution of water resources among all stakeholders. By establishing robust frameworks for cooperation and resource management at the international level, it becomes possible to address the complexities of water scarcity in a coordinated and effective manner.


The decline of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers poses significant challenges to the region’s ecosystems and human communities. While climate change, dam construction, and human activities contribute to this decline, international agreements hold the potential to protect these rivers from drying up in the future. However, addressing the challenges and limitations associated with these agreements and adopting integrated water management approaches are crucial steps towards securing the sustainability of these vital waterways. By fostering international cooperation and implementing sustainable strategies, it is possible to safeguard the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for future generations. Should Riparian countries resolve all problems between them to protect the rivers resources.

Информация об авторе:

Сангар Самад Асаад, аспирант кафедры международного права РУДН имени Патриса Лумумбы.

Information about the author:

Sangar Samad Asaad
, postgraduate student of the Department of International Law of the Patrice Lumumba RUDN University.

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