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In large parts of the Middle East for three years now, a drought has devastated farm and grazing land. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Yesterday, we heard about some of those water refugees in Syria.
Today, NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Turkey, where the country's control over water has brought privileges and distrust.
(Soundbite of fishing boat)
DEBORAH AMOS: I'm on a small fishing boat on the waters of the Bosporus. It's one of the busiest shipping lanes for oil transport in the world. More than a dozen tankers are on the horizon, but none of this oil comes from Turkey. The resource that counts here is water. Turkey is one of the only countries in the region to have enough water for its population.
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Professor HUSSEIN AMERY (Water Specialist, Colorado School of Mines): The Arabs, the Iraqis and the Syrians feel very much that Turkey is asserting itself as a regional hydrological superpower.
AMOS: That's Hussein Amery, a water specialist at the Colorado School of Mines. Turkey is a water superpower, he says, because the headwaters of the great rivers � the Tigris and the Euphrates � are in the Turkish mountains. Over the years, the Turks have built dozens of dams limiting the flow to the Arab world downstream. The severe drought in Syria and Iraq, says Amery, has fuelled resentment against the Turks.
Prof. AMERY: Something like 160 villages in Syria between 2007 and 2008 were totally depopulated. I know, also, there are scores and scores of villages that have been depopulated in Iraq as well. Crops were not growing, cattle were dying and their source of livelihood just sort of ceased to be.
AMOS: In Turkey, Gun Kut, a water expert, expresses an often-heard criticism in response to Arab complaints.
Professor GUN KUT (Water Expert, Bogazici University): Quit wasting the water and there will be enough for everybody.
AMOS: Kut says outdated farming techniques and even worse water management wastes a dwindling resource.
Prof. KUT: Simply insisting on others to release more and more and more water while the population is going up, the need for food is going up, won't work. It won't work if they hold water, it won't work.
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Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
AMOS: Here in southeast Turkey, the Euphrates River is clear, blue and deep. The Ataturk Dam harnesses water for one of the biggest irrigation and electric power schemes in the world. It's known as the Southeastern Anatolia Project, a multibillion-dollar project to generate opportunities for Turkey.
At the inauguration, more than a decade ago, then-President Suleyman Demirel said neither Syria nor Iraq could lay claim to Turkey's water, any more than Turkey could claim Arab oil. While Turkey's position has softened since then, former diplomat Faruk Logoglu says that statement has caused tension for years.
Mr. FARUK LOGOGLU (Former Diplomat): Turkey, in my judgment, properly claims that these waters originate in Turkey and that we have the first say.
Prof. KUT: They have oil. We don't have oil. They have the capital, they should invest.
AMOS: Invest in water efficiency, says Gun Kut. More important, sign on to a regional management of the Euphrates and the Tigris as if the borders didn't exist. Turkey has renewed this proposal at a time when relations with its Arab neighbors are improving. At the same time, this drought threatens the stability of Iraq and Syria, says Josh Landis, an American academic who writes an influential blog on Syria.
Professor JOSH LANDIS (Blogger, Syria Comment; University of Oklahoma): How a little country like Syria, which is badly run economically, is coming out of a socialist past, is trying to liberalize � is going to be able to provide water to all of its people is a mystery.
AMOS: There was a time that the Ottoman Empire controlled the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
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AMOS: These days, hawkers sell wooden flutes outside the palaces, which are now museums as well as a monument to the 800-year empire. Turkey's aggressive outreach to the Arab Middle East is sometimes called neo-Ottomanism. The new approach includes binding neighbors together through commercial ties, gas and oil pipelines and a shared electric grid. And finally, it seems, after years of tension, there are signs of agreement on regional water, says Hussein Amery.
Prof. AMERY: I would tell the Syrians, Turks and Iraqis to get together, cooperate in managing the Tigris and Euphrates as one ecosystem that it is. It requires a new way of thinking about farming and irrigation.
AMOS: This week, Turkey and Syria agreed to joint management of some water resources, after being at odds for years. In the past, Iraq and Syria have threatened war over water. Now, the region is warming, the population is growing � a massive water shortage could be devastating.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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