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Correspondent Thursday, 5 October, 2000, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Thirsting for war
This week's Correspondent is a journey along the river Euphrates, through Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It traces the political and environmental impact of Turkey's project to harness the river through a series of dams, and exposes the extent to which people's lives in all three countries are being affected by the Turkish scheme.

The film is written and directed by Christopher Mitchell, who has spent more than a year working on the story. His previous film for Correspondent examined the long-running conflict in Western Sahara. Here he writes about the experience of making a film in an even more difficult part of the world.

The GAP Project

For more than 30 years, Turkey has been building its giant Southeast Anatolia Project, commonly known by its Turkish initials as GAP. The project will eventually include 19 hydroelectric power stations and 22 dams, built across both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. By diverting their waters, the Turks intend to bring 1.7 million hectares of new land under cultivation, and
The dam project is affecting thousands of people
to double the country's energy production.

This hugely ambitious development scheme has been funded, to the tune of $32 billion, by Turkey itself. The Turks had to go it alone because the World Bank, normally keen to support such major infrastructure projects, made the highly unusual decision to refuse Turkey assistance for the GAP. This was on the grounds that the project would harm the interests of Turkey's downstream neighbours Syria and Iraq, and could therefore destabilise the region.

Both Syria and Iraq depend greatly on the two rivers. Syria is overwhelmingly reliant on the waters of the Euphrates, the only major river to flow through Syrian territory, while Iraq, through which both the Tigris and Euphrates flow,
is the furthest country downstream and therefore suffers from the removal of water by both Syria and Turkey.

Like many people, I had been aware of the GAP for some time, and was also familiar with the concept of Water Wars - the fear that the 21st century would be the era, not of the struggle over oil, but for water. The largely arid Middle East is commonly regarded as the most likely location for the first such conflict. The region is dependent on three major waterways: the Nile, the Jordan, and the Tigris-Euphrates system.

Struggling for clean water

Each flows through more than one country; all of these countries have sharply increasing populations (Iraq's is set to double, to 50 million, in 25 years' time); and all are committed to developing their agriculture, their industry and their energy output. Not only are these states using more water, they're also polluting the sources which remain. Given the bad relations between most of the water-sharing states, and the history of conflict and instability in the Middle East, you don't need exceptional gifts of divination to fear what the struggle for clean water could mean for the region.

When I read an extraordinary quote by Suleyman Demirel, Turkey's former president, I became hooked on the idea of making this film. On 25 July 1992, at the opening of the Ataturk Dam, kingpin of the entire GAP scheme, Demirel said the following: "Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources, and they can't say they share our water resources."

It's this naked assumption that Turkey can do what it likes with the Tigris and the Euphrates which underlies the Turks' argument that they don't need to pay attention to their neighbours' concerns.

Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like.

Suleyman Demirel, Turkey's former president
Two years earlier, the Turks had already demonstrated that they meant what they said: when the Ataturk Dam was being flooded, in January 1990, Turkey cut off the flow of the Euphrates completely, for three weeks. There was near-panic in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and black-outs in the towns which depended for their electricity on hydroelectric power generated from the Euphrates - there simply wasn't enough flow to turn the turbines.

For the Syrians and Iraqis, the political message was clear: if they chose to pursue policies disapproved of by Turkey, they risked losing their water supply. And though, when I interviewed Ugur Ziyal, Turkey's chief of Middle Eastern affairs, he denied that the dam could be used as a weapon of war, it's still true that the Syrians and Iraqis no longer have control over their main sources of water.

Ironically enough, the Syrians have also experienced the mixed pleasures of control over the Euphrates.
irrigation ditch
Water is as precious as gold
In 1975 the Turks were completing their first dam over the Euphrates, at Keban, while the Syrians were completing theirs at Tabka. War almost erupted between Syria, Iraq and Turkey when both the dam-building states tried to halt the flow of the river by filling their dams at the same time.

We travelled almost the length of the Euphrates during the making of Thirsting for War, from Basra in southern Iraq to the mountains of eastern Turkey. Everywhere we went we talked to the people whose lives are most directly and intimately affected by the river and its changes: boatmen and farmers, archaeologists and doctors. It became clear that the GAP project is having a dramatic impact all over the region, and its repercussions are felt as far downstream as a date orchard near the mouth of the Euphrates in the Persian Gulf.

The distant past

One of the themes I was anxious to work into the film is the constancy of water management in the history of the region. Damming, diversion and irrigation have been features of the Fertile Crescent for millennia. Some of their associated problems, such as the way irrigation can destroy land as salt rises up through the soil, are as present now as they were during the time of ancient Mesopotamia, four and a half thousand years ago.

The distant past has been part of this film in another way. The civilisations of the Tigris-Euphrates basin have mostly been on or near the two rivers. This has meant that, almost wherever a dam has been built, an ancient city has been inundated by the waters rising as the dam is filled. The latest of these cities to disappear is Zeugma, a Graeco-Roman site on the Euphrates at Birecik, downstream from the Ataturk Dam in Turkey.

Over the summer there's been a race against time as a team of British archaeologists from the Oxford Archaeology Unit
Rushing to save it before it's too late
have rushed to save what they can before Zeugma is covered by the water flooding the Birecik Dam. The drama of the rescue dig and the significance of the finds have attracted a lot of press and radio attention, but Thirsting for War includes the first TV pictures from the site.

The great attraction of making this film has been precisely the range of subjects it's covered - from the beauty and interest of the ancient civilisations which have developed along the Euphrates, and the continuity of so many of the issues they've had to confront, to the absolutely contemporary nature of today's water crisis, and what it may hold for this dangerous yet infinitely fascinating part of the world.

Writer and director: Christopher Mitchell

Editor: Fiona Murch

Thirsting for war has been shown on 30th September on BBC2 at 18:50

Introduction: the Ataturk Dam is the sixth largest in the world
The water is dramatically affecting people's lives
Links to more Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.

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