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THINKING BIG : Politics : Ataturk Dam a Source of Power and of Conflict : Huge Turkish project shows how competition for water shapes Mideast.


URFA, Turkey — The Turkish hydraulic engineer swept his hand toward the Middle East's storied Fertile Crescent and then to the brown waters flowing sluggishly toward it, the first fruit of Turkey's grand project to harness the headwaters of the mighty Tigris-Euphrates river basin.

"Just think," Lutfi Solakoglu proudly told the latest group of dignitaries to visit the site since the sluice gates opened April 11, sending a stream of water down an irrigation canal to the fields beyond. "This canal can soon be carrying the equivalent of the whole flow of the Euphrates in a bad summer."

That's great news for the Turks, whose $32-billion Southeast Anatolia Project--or GAP, by its Turkish acronym--may one day irrigate wide, hot plains and bring prosperity to a backward, rebellious region.

But for the Arabs downstream in Syria and Iraq, Turkey's biggest engineering feat is another blow in the region's turbulent politics of water and engineering. According to some think tanks and officials, including Jordan's King Hussein, competition for water is more likely than oil or territorial conquest to cause the next war in the Middle East.

Water. For food, for drink and more recently for hydroelectric power, the world's rivers have always been a source of both succor and conflict. Ancient engineers built dams and wells to control the resource. Romans moved it with great aqueducts, spreading civilization beyond natural water sources.

Americans of the Southwest know well the legal and political controversies springing from use of the Colorado River, Feather River, Owens Valley and Delta waters that fill Southern California reservoirs.

Even the Chunnel connecting France and Britain beneath the English Channel had its naysayers. The cost became a political issue, as did British fears that French rats would invade their island through the tube.

The engineers of history have erected other primarily political works--the Great Wall of China, France's Maginot Line, the Tijuana Fence--but nothing has been more political than water, and few places match the Middle East as a region of conflict over its benefits.

Most Middle East observers are more sanguine than the Jordanian king on the prospects of war over water. They cite Turkey's generally conciliatory stance in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, a new era of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation over the Jordan-Yarmuk river system and the disorganization of states strung out along the region's other major river, the Nile.

"There is a growing gap between food production and population size in all of the countries of the Middle East," wrote Israeli professor Nurit Kliot in a definitive new book on the region's water politics.

"The present agreements over water allocation will probably lead . . . to a certain degree of conflict, though not to war."

But armed conflict would be nothing new to the Jordan-Yarmuk river system.

In 1951, Syria attacked Israel's first canal from the Jordan River into western Israel, believing that the canal would rob the Arabs of water. And when a 1964 Arab summit agreed to divert the rivers away from Israel altogether, Israeli jets bombed Syrian earth-moving equipment in one of more than 50 clashes.

Israel eventually secured most of the headwaters by capturing the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, one reason the Damascus regime still refuses to cooperate on water issues. Israel's talks with Palestinians about extensive Israeli pumping of West Bank ground water are proceeding slowly.

But since Arab-Israeli peace talks started in 1991, Israel has helped Jordan seek financing for two dams and for other improvements to increase water flow.

The two states are even discussing an ecologically controversial canal to connect the Dead Sea to the Red Sea along the Rift Valley that divides them.

"The plans run the length of the valley," said Oded Eran, Israel's representative on the Israeli-Jordanian Jordan Rift Valley Committee.

In terms of water supplies and populations affected, however, the Jordan-Yarmuk system provides only an annual 1.05 cubic kilometer trickle compared to the combined 60 cubic kilometers of the Tigris and the Euphrates or the giant 86 cubic kilometers of the Nile at Aswan in southern Egypt.

Egypt, totally dependent on the Nile, has long warned Ethiopia that any dam-building on the Blue Nile would be a cause for war. On the White Nile, crisis-racked African states are in little position to challenge Egypt's ancient hegemony over the 4,132-mile-long river.

More volatile is competition for water in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, where Iran makes a small, remote contribution to the Tigris and the rivers are mostly shared by Iraq, Syria and a newly assertive Turkey.

Troops massed on the Iraqi border after Syria and Turkey started filling their first dams on the Euphrates in 1974, reducing the Iraqi share to a silty stream. Both upstream states eventually released more water to the Iraqis to cool the crisis.

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