Turkey and Iran have opened a new phase in their war against the Kurds, and indirectly Iraq.
Turkey has completed a project that has restricted the flow of water downstream of the Tigris river while Iran has begun to restrict the flow of the Little Zab river into Kurdistan. Both actions are setting up a crisis, and both violate international agreements. The agreements, “The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers,” and “The Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses,” are important but almost unenforceable.
The Helsinki Rules were set up as an international guideline in 1966 to help regulate rivers that cross international boundaries. Additional guidelines were adopted by the UN over the years but relied on the member states to follow them in good order. The UN then began to draft a convention to impose rules on member states that was adopted in 1997 but took 17 years to ratify and enter into force.
While it is considered a binding treaty on members, like so much else the UN has done there is very little that can force members to follow the treaty.
Article 7 of the document, entitled, "Obligation not to cause significant harm," requires that member states, "in utilizing an international watercourse in their territories ... take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse states" and compensate sharing states for any such harm.
Turkey and Iran as members states of the UN are therefore obligated to ensure the equitable flow of water to neighbor states. This, of course, is in the legal sense and there is nothing that can be done to force compliance. Even going to the International Court of Justice can do nothing more then have them say Turkey and Iran are wrong.
What the international community needs to understand is that the history of water disputes has never ended well.
Wars over water were fought over 4500 years ago in Mesopotamia, and there are still legal wars being fought in the US over water rights. While today these battles are fought in US courts it was not that long ago that range wars were fought over water rights in the old American west. India and Pakistan have also fought over water rights.
There is also currently a major conflict brewing between Egypt and Ethiopia over control of the Nile river flow. Tributaries in Ethiopia supply 86 percent of the waters to the Nile while Egypt is the primary user. With a planned expansion of industry, Ethiopia is going to divert more water for its own use, setting up a confrontation with Egypt.
What we are seeing is an old method of bullying connected to a not so old attempt by both Iran and Turkey to control Iraq.
Turkey and Iran are not now, nor have they ever been allies, except in the case of the Kurds. It cannot be considered a coincidence the Tigris and The Little Zab were both cut at the same time. The actions coincide with Turkey's push deep into Iraqi Kurdistan along with their continuing operations in Syria, and Iranian maneuvering to impose its preferred government in Baghdad.
The World community must come to the realization that this goes beyond diplomatic or political maneuvering - people’s lives are at stake.
The US State Department may wish to close its eyes to the political needs of the Kurds, but it is now the future existence of the One Iraq they tout. Had Turkey or Iran gone in and blown-up the Mosul dam to force its point, the world would have to react.
The US cannot fall back on the sovereign rights of a government since the prevailing concept for water rights in the US comes from English common law and is based on Prior Appropriation - the first to use the water, gets to keep using it. The world needs to base its actions on international law which requires both Turkey and Iran to share and ensure that those countries downstream are not harmed.
I do not expect Turkey or Iran to act in accordance with law or even common decency, but I can hope those nations that claim to operate under the rule of law act. The economies of both Turkey and Iran are in ruin and it should not take a lot to convince them to open the flow of water to those in need.
Wars have started over much less than the free flow of water, so it is time for the diplomats to do what they claim is their job and take the necessary action to avoid war and catastrophe.
Paul Davis is a retired US Army military intelligence officer. He has been a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently, he is the President of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington DC.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Nadia Riva