Navigating the Waters: Exploring the Consequences of Dams and Climate Change on the Euphrates River Flow

Navigating the Waters: Exploring the Consequences of Dams and Climate Change on the Euphrates River Flow

The Euphrates River basin is a transboundary hydrological system that is geographically partitioned into three distinct sections, namely the upstream region situated in Türkiye, the middle stream region located in Syria, and the downstream region situated in Iraq. The basin area, encompassing 440,000 square kilometers, is distributed among three countries. Türkiye accounts for 28% of the total area, Syria occupies 22% of the basin area, while Iraq, on the other hand, has the largest share of the basin area, with 47% (Kibaroglu & Sayan, 2021; UN-ESCWA & BGR, 2013).

Figure 1: Euphrates River Basin (After ESCWA, 2013)

For over half a century, the diplomatic discourse surrounding the administration of The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers has been a contentious issue within the region. 

These 3 countries highlighted the importance of establishing a dedicated allocation mechanism specifically for the Euphrates River. The Euphrates River holds great importance as a prominent waterway in the Middle East region. Based on the available literature (Zeitoun & Warner, 2006) , it can be observed that the Euphrates River has been subject to continuous water development efforts and occasional non-compliance with relevant international regulations. As a result, Türkiye has often been recognized as a significant player in hydropower in the region.

Flow Characteristics of the Euphrates River

The correlation between the sub-basin areas of riparian countries and their respective contributions of water to the Euphrates River is not straightforward. According to ESCWA's report in 2013, the majority of the Euphrates flow, specifically 89%, originates from Türkiye, despite the fact that only 28% of the basin area is located within its borders. Syria is the second most significant contributor to the flow, accounting for approximately 11% of the total volume. This amount is generated from 22% of the overall drainage basin.
Furthermore, ESCWA (2013) conducted an analysis of long-term records spanning from 1938 to 2010 of four stations to demonstrate the discharge dynamics and trends of the Euphrates River. The findings indicate that the time frame spanning from 1938 to 1974 corresponds to the river's natural flow. The data indicates a persistent decrease in the rate of flow over time, as depicted in Figure 2. The adverse pattern is ascribed to the construction of dams within the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), in addition to the effects of climate change and droughts (Al-Ansari et al., 2019). The Southeastern Anatolia Project, commonly referred to as GAP, was initiated in 1977. This project encompasses the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. However, the erection of dams results in amplified water losses caused by evaporation from their respective reservoirs. While the construction of GAP is still ongoing, the dams currently in operation, as well as those that will eventually be integrated into the network, have the effect of retaining water that would otherwise flow downstream (Busch, 2020). Upon completion of the GAP project, Türkiye will have control over 80% of the Euphrates River discharge (Beaumont, 1995, Alyaseri, 2009). This entails a decrease of 40% and 90% for Syria and Iraq, correspondingly.

Figure 2: Mean annual discharge of the Euphrates River (1937-2010) (modified after ESCWA, 2013; (Al-Ansari etal., 2018).

Prior to the 1990s, Syria and Iraq entities were allocated 21 km3 and 29 km3, respectively. According to Kamona's (2009) findings, Türkiye's total annual water supply amounts to 195 km3, whereas the current demand stands at a maximum of 15.6 km3. However, the projected water demand for the year 2015 was estimated to be approximately 26.3 km3 (Al-Ansari etal., 2014). The potential impact of this decision on Iraq will be considerably massive, as it may lead to challenges such as water scarcity, land degradation, water quality deterioration, and marsh drying.
Notably, both Syria and Iraq are currently experiencing challenges related to water availability and quality, which may continue to pose significant issues in the future.

Water Policy

The three co-riparian countries have seen both strife and cooperation. They had "harmonious" ties until 1960 since the co-riparians utilized less water (Kibaroglu, 2015). Nowadays, it appears that there is currently no comprehensive cooperation agreement in place between the riparian countries regarding the management of the Tigris-Euphrates system, according to (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013). The existing protocols, namely the 1987 Türkiye-Syria and 1990 Syria-Iraq agreements, are the only legally binding mechanisms governing the sharing of the Euphrates River. The primary objective of these initiatives was to manage river flow and mitigate flooding in response to the escalating water requirements resulting from the population growth in the area (Gleick, 1994; Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013). However, they do not fully consider the river's high flow variability and may not be adequate for ensuring effective and fair management, particularly in the context of climate change (Kibaroglu, 2019). The convention emphasized the importance of collaboration among countries to establish agreements that are mutually advantageous. On the other hand, Türkiye has expressed reservations about the convention, despite the fact that it has been ratified by Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic (Al-Muqdadi et al., 2016).

The Protocol of 1987, which was established between Türkiye and Syria, ensures that a minimum annual water inflow of 500 m3/sec is provided to Damascus at the border (Kirscher & Tiroch, 2012, p. 348). Based on the agreement, Syria would utilize 42% of the water inflow from Türkiye's Euphrates and allocate 58% to Iraq (Kibaroglu, 2015).
Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the agreement between Syria and Iraq may be limited, as the volume of water that Syria can release to Iraq is contingent upon the water flow from Türkiye to Syria. Therefore, any potential rise in Syrian water consumption may have an impact on Iraq's water share.


The construction of high-capacity dams on transboundary rivers may sometimes lead to disagreements over water rights among the riparian countries of the river basin, particularly during the filling periods. This could potentially result in significant socioeconomic instabilities, as has been observed in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin (Hasan et al., 2019).

Iraq has been at the forefront of utilizing the water resources of the Euphrates in contemporary times. The historical records indicate that Iraq has a significant history of utilizing the Euphrates River, dating back to 4000BC. The construction of canal systems that interconnect the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with Tharthar Lake was undertaken to facilitate the transfer of water between the two rivers.

Syria has a significant reliance on agriculture and food security, prompting the country to undertake the development of the Euphrates River's water resources for irrigation purposes, following in the footsteps of Türkiye's efforts in the 1960s. The Euphrates River was subjected to the construction of four primary dams. In 1974-75, the construction of the "Tabqa" dam in Syria resulted in the creation of "Al-Assad Lake". This led to a significant reduction in the water flow of the Euphrates River in Iraq, which was nearly depleted.

The biggest dams built along the Euphrates River include the Atatürk, Keban, and Ramadi Raazza. The Atatürk Dam, located in Türkiye, covers an area of 817 square kilometers and has a storage capacity of 48.7 cubic kilometers. The Keban Dam, also situated in Türkiye, spans an area of 675 square kilometers and has a storage capacity of 31 cubic kilometers. Lastly, the Ramadi Raazza Dam, located in Iraq, covers an area of 1810 square kilometers and has a storage capacity of 26 cubic kilometers (Issa et al., 2014).

Türkiye has been actively constructing dams, which has resulted in significant ecological consequences. According to experts, the Ilisu Dam may have far-reaching effects on the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, including Syria, Iraq, and Iran. These effects could potentially worsen existing water shortages, impacting irrigation, biodiversity, fishing, drinking water, and transportation.

In reality, despite some challenges posed by differences in geographic location and power dynamics, all countries sharing a river have pursued their own paths. It appears that there is currently a need for improved integration in basin management (Tinti, 2023) . The statement made by Türkiye regarding the management of the twin rivers as a unified hydrogeological entity was viewed as less than satisfactory by both Syria and Iraq. The opinion of Dursun Yıldız, who is the director of the Turkish Hydropolitics Association and a civil engineer, differs from others. According to him, the dams play a crucial role in supporting Türkiye's agricultural industry and provide an opportunity to effectively manage water resources in the region. According to him, Türkiye is willing to share the water in a fair and reasonable manner.

Barış Karapınar, a professor in climate change economics and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s technical committee, has expressed concern about the potential for severe water scarcity in the region. Karapınar suggests that GAP's irrigation techniques may be outdated and could potentially lead to water loss through evaporation. In addition, it is worth noting that due to the similarity of the agricultural season among countries in the region, there is a high demand for water during the crucial period.

Moreover, the construction of dams and water projects in Iran has had an influence on the water flow to Iraq, which has presented certain challenges for the country due to its geographical position between two states with a significant demand for dams. There have been discussions surrounding the potential effects of Iran's dam programme on the country's rivers and lagoons, which could potentially lead to changes in water levels.

According to the Enabling Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), Iraq is facing challenges in consistently providing water to its 38 million population due to a combination of factors such as prolonged drought, dams in neighboring countries, and ongoing conflict.

Since the 1960s, Syria and Türkiye have been engaged in the utilization of the Euphrates water.

The flow of the Euphrates to Iraq experienced a significant reduction during the winter of 1973-74 as a result of the impounding of Keban Dam reservoir in Türkiye and Lake Assad in Syria (Kolars & Mitchell, 1991). A significant decrease was observed during the period from 1974 to 1998, which coincided with major infrastructure development in the basin. This was also the time when the construction of the Atatürk Dam and the implementation of the great (GAP) irrigation project began in the early 1990s.

There are concerns raised by Iraq regarding the impact of Türkiye's dams and hydropower plants on the water supply to Iraq, with claims of an 80 percent reduction.

Moreover, there have been instances where Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials have utilized their access to the Tigris' waterflow for political purposes. The KRG considers dams to be crucial for national security and self-determination.It appears that due to decreased water inflow from Iran, the KRG made the decision to reduce discharge from the Dukan Dam into the Lesser Zab during the summer of 2017. Unfortunately, this had a negative impact on farmlands in the Salah ad-Din province.

Mosul Dam, an embankment on the Tigris north of Mosul (1986), has faced some challenges due to its water-permeable rock foundations. However, measures are being taken to ensure its stability and prevent any potential risks. This particular dam has been identified as a project with significant stability concerns (Al-Ansari et al. 2020). Research suggests that in the event of a dam burst, a significant number of individuals in Iraq, estimated to be over 6 million, could be at risk due to floodwaters (Annunziato et al., 2016). The completion of the Ataturk Dam in 1990, under the control of Türkiye, has resulted in a significant decrease in the water flow of the Euphrates River in Syria (Gleick, 2014) .

There have been some concerns about the fluctuation of the outlet and decrease of water incoming from the Euphrates River. It has been suggested that certain projects in Türkiye and Syria may be contributing to these changes. As Iraq relies heavily on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for various projects, it is important to ensure that the water supply remains stable. The varying water levels pose a challenge for setting annual plans due to the unpredictable nature of the water resources. This has resulted in a significant decrease in Iraq's water supply from 1971-2015 (Al-Saadi and Sadkhan, 2021).

Climate change

The Middle East has experienced a widespread drought, attributed to climate change and global warming, resulting in a significant decrease in precipitation and water availability. The issue of climate change is a pressing concern in Iraq, and its impact is expected to intensify with the growing global population and other contributing factors. In particular, the ownership and distribution of water resources will become increasingly critical in light of these developments (Adamo et al, 2018). It is projected that by the middle of the 21st century, there will be an increase in temperatures across the basin. Specifically, in the southern region of the basin and to the east of the Tigris River, temperatures could potentially rise by up to 1.2°C. It is anticipated that precipitation levels will decrease by up to 40mm annually in the northern region of the basin and in the Iraq-Iran border region, which are significant areas to produce river discharge (Mueller et al., 2021).Moreover, it is projected that there will be a 30% decrease in runoff within the upper Tigris river basin beyond the year 2040. This is expected to have a substantial impact on the availability of water downstream (Şen, 2019).

According to regional studies conducted by the Water Foundation[1], a Turkish not-for-profit research organization, the outlook is less optimistic for the Turkish government. According to research, it is anticipated that the river flow in Türkiye may experience a decrease of 15-20% by the year 2020 in comparison to the established 'normal levels' between 1960 and 1990, which means during droughts, the water supply in these reservoirs can fall sharply (Trigo et al., 2010)

According to The World Resources Institute's 2013 Aqueduct study, the Euphrates area south of Raqqah in Syria and Iraq are facing significant water stress, even under the most optimistic scenario (Lahn & Shamout, 2015)

Environmental factors exacerbated the tensions among the co-riparian countries. In 1975, a conflict triggered by Türkiye and Syria which both began utilizing the Keban and Taqba dams, respectively during a period of drought. This conflict was on the brink of escalating into a military confrontation (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013). Furthermore, fluctuations in precipitation patterns across different seasons, in conjunction with inadequately efficient irrigation infrastructures and the cultivation of crops that require substantial amounts of water, exacerbated conflicts over water resources (Lorenz & Erickson, 2013).

Natural Disasters could potentially serve as a catalyst for collaboration in water-related areas, which may be more feasible to accomplish than all-encompassing water sharing agreements

[1] The Water Foundation (2013); an unpublished study from 2013 conducted by the Water Foundation Istanbul on behalf of the Turkish government was discussed with the author in an interview in November 2013 in Istanbul.

According to the findings of Giovanis and Ozdamar (2021a), it seems that households in Iraq have been experiencing difficulties related to decreased income, food production, stock, and life satisfaction. These challenges have been attributed to various factors such as droughts, poor water quality caused by dams, and environmental conditions like rising temperatures and limited precipitation.

The construction of dams in Iraq, Türkiye, Iran, and Syria has been found to contribute to an increase in droughts and a decline in the quality of drinking and agricultural water. These factors have a detrimental impact on the income, assets, and food security of households in Iraq Giovanis and Ozdamar (2021b) .

The surface area of the Haditha reservoir experienced a significant reduction of 72% between May 2007 and October 2009. This decline coincided with a severe drought and was also influenced by the decreased levels of the upstream Keban, Ataturk, and Tabqa reservoirs, which experienced reductions ranging from 4 to 11%. In the period of drought from 2013 to 2014, the aforementioned three upstream reservoirs experienced a decline ranging from 5% to 13%. However, the subsequent year witnessed the restoration of supplies, resulting in the reservoirs reaching 95% to 111% of their original pre-drought levels. Simultaneously, the surface area of the Haditha reservoir experienced a decrease of 62% (Hasan et al., 2019).

According to future climatic projections, it has been determined that the Euphrates river in Al-Najaf Governorate in Iraq is projected to experience a flowrate of 1,535,945 m3 in 2026. This value is the highest among the flowrate values estimated for the years 2022, 2024, and 2028, which are anticipated to be 1,475,072 m3, 1,456,037 m3, and 1,378,403 m3, respectively. The average annual flowrate of the Al-Kufa river exhibited a decline, with a recorded value of approximately 170 m3/s in 2020. This represents a decrease from the value of 325 m3/s recorded in 2010, with the lowest value of approximately 140 m3/s being recorded in 2015 (Kareem & Alkatib, 2022).


The paradoxical nature of constructing dams, which entails weighing the benefits against the drawbacks, has been a longstanding topic of debate among researchers from various disciplines and perspectives. This discourse is expected to persist in the future. Effective international coordination and cooperation is essential to address the water supply and quality issues, droughts, and climate change related to the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. Therefore, it is imperative that all countries impacted by the basin, both upstream and downstream, sign and adhere to the agreement. There may be room for improvement in the riparian governments' policies regarding climate change and regional water scarcity. To avoid situations where water supplies are decreasing, those who possess the water may use it in a manner that negatively impacts others. Despite Türkiye's position as an upstream state with significant political, economic, and military influence, cooperation remains feasible. It is essential to collaborate on the matter to minimize adverse environmental consequences and alleviate the spillover effects that exacerbate them. Syria and Iraq could potentially collaborate to encourage Türkiye to comply with more equitable water-use agreements by utilizing linkage techniques that highlight shared interests, despite their comparatively limited bargaining power.


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