By Priit J. Vesilind
Fresh water, life itself, has never come easy in the Middle East. The rainfall only comes in winter,- and drains quickly through the semiarid land, leaving the soil to bake and to thirst until next November. The region’s accelerating population, expanding agriculture, industrialization, and higher living standards demand more fresh water.

Drought and pollution limit its availability. War and mismanagement squander it. Scarcity is only one element of the crisis. Inefficiency is another, as is the reluctance of some water-poor nations to change priorities from agriculture to less water-intensive enterprises. Some experts suggest that if nations would share both water technology and resources, they could satisfy the region’s population, currently 159 million.

Atatürk Dam in region of Urfa
Atatürk Dam in Turkey


But in this patchwork of ethnic and religious rivalries, water seldom stands alone as an issue. It is entangled in the politics that keep people from  trusting and seeking help from one another. Here, where water, like truth, is precious, each nation tends to find its own water and supply its own truth. My journey starts in spring-time, high in the Anti-Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey. The generous snows of the Turkish  mountains have brought little wealth to the semiarid plains of the southeast.

Without irrigation, they have yielded only one crop a year. But now Turkey has finally begun to harness its waters. I can see the Euphrates swelling with backup from the great Atatürk Dam. Soon its waters will rush through the world’s two largest irrigation tunnels – 25 feet in diameter – to revitalize the Harran Plain 40 miles away. The Atatürk’ will also generate nine billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

Eventually, 22 dams will impound the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, which also rises in eastern Turkey, all part of an ambitious and diverse development scheme called the Southeastern  Anatolia Project. On the Harran, now lush with spring grass, the mood is optimistic. At a government experimental farm at Koruklu, agronomists test patches of peaches, pecans, nectarines, pomegranates, and grapes as candidate crops for the coming waters. Local farmers attend irrigation  classes with anticipation.

The massive ‘Atatürk’ sits 40 miles north of the city of Urfa. It is essentially an immense pile of rocks guarded by men with machine guns. With officials, I drive along its mile-long top. What looked like pebbles from a distance grow into car-size pieces of rock, each placed  according to size, like a mosaic, by a machine with a monstrous ami. The blue-green Euphrates thunders below the dam with power that seems closer to electricity than water. When nations share the same river, the upstream nation is under no legally binding obligation to provide water downstream.

But the  downstream nation can claim historical rights of use and press for fair treatment. In 1989, President Turgut Özal alarmed Syria and Iraq by announcing that Turkey would hold back the flow of the Euphrates for a month to start filling the ‘Atatürk’. To offset the loss, Turkey increased the flow for two months before the cutback, but even this  did not prevent an outburst of criticism. If seen as a commodity, water can be packaged, bought and sold, and may soon move between nations like wheat.

But political mistrust hampers many promising schemes. In 1987, Turkey proposed a “peace pipeline” of water from two Turkish rivers – the Ceyhan and the  Seyhan – that flow south into the Mediterranean. The dual pipelines would deliver potable water to millions in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Gulf states. Nevertheless, few nations were receptive, and the concept sits in limbo.

“In this region,” Turkish Foreign Ministry official Burhan Ant told  me in Ankara, “interdependence is understood as the opposite of independence. Every country here seeks a kind of self-sufficiency in every field because they don’t trust the others.”
A. Mark the statements as True (T) or False (F).

1. November is the month when the rainfall starts in the Middle East.
2. The soil in the southeast is rich due to the snows of the Turkish mountains.
3. Peaches, pecans, nectarines, pomegranates and grapes are grown by the local farmers in Koruklu.
4. There is no international law which states that a country which shares the same river with others has to provide water for them.

B. Mark the best choice.

1. Line 21, ‘they’ refers to . a) people b) mountains c) snows d) plains
2. Line 49, ‘this* refers to Turkey’s . a) holding back the water flow of the Euphrates b) increasing the flow for two months before the cutback c) announcing that there would be a hold-back of water flow d) filling the Atatürk Dam for future use

Atatürk Barajı
Atatürk Dam

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