Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment of Large Dams in the Euphrates–Tigris Region: An Analysis of International Law Binding Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey

Date01 April 2016
AuthorNicolas C. Bremer
Published date01 April 2016
Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment
of Large Dams in the Euphrates–Tigris Region: An
Analysis of International Law Binding Iran, Iraq,
Syria and Turkey
Nicolas C. Bremer*
The Euphrates–Tigris river system is among the most
intensely developed freshwater resources worldwide.
At the centre of its development are large-scale dams
supplying extensive irrigation schemes and hydroelec-
tric power plants, which substantially impact the river
system’s dynamic and water quality. Due to the inter-
national dimension of the utilization of cross-border
freshwater systems, the impacts of the freshwater
developments of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey can only
be effectively addressed by environmental impact
assessment (EIA), which takes into account
transboundary effects. Since domestic EIA regulations
of the Euphrates–Tigris riparian States pay little
attention to transboundary effects, and no treaty
would commit them to transboundary EIA in respect
to the river system, such a requirement may only
derive from customary international law. This article
will show to what extent transboundary EIA is
required by customary international law and how far
these provisions bind the Euphrates–Tigris riparian
Mesopotamia – the land between two rivers – was his-
torically perceived as a freshwater-rich1region in the
arid Near East. Despite the intense fluctuations of the
flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris, their water
allowed the significant advance of the Neolithic and
Bronze Age civilizations. Thus, while not new to the
desert regions of the Middle East, freshwater scarcity is
a rather recent issue on the banks of the Euphrates and
Tigris, as is the international dimension of freshwater
distribution and utilization. Significant international
tension over the rivers’ water did not occur before the
first large dams were constructed in the river system.
Dams impact rivers unlike any other water develop-
ment. They change a river’s defining characteristic: its
flow. While early dams were too small to substantially
affect a river, technological advances in the early twen-
tieth century allowed for the construction of dams large
enough to fundamentally alter a river’s flow regime.
Dams of such scale are commonly referred to as ‘large
Construction of the first large dams in the Euphrates–
Tigris river system began in the 1950s, with the Iraqi
Dukan Dam being completed in 1959 on the Little Zap,
a Tigris tributary. Turkey followed shortly after with the
Keban Dam, the construction of which began in 1966 on
the Euphrates. Syria finalized its first large dam, the
Tabqa Dam, on the Euphrates in 1973. While neither
the Euphrates nor the Tigris ever enter Iran, significant
tributaries of the Tigris spring from the Iranian Zargos
Mountains, making Iranian developments on these
tributaries relevant in regard to the utilization of the
Considering the river system’s intensive development,
there is demand for monitoring human impact. A
means to assess the effects of these developments could
be environmental impact assessment (EIA). EIA is a
rather new concept to many domestic legal systems and
* Corresponding author.
1Freshwater is water with a salinity of less than 500 parts per million
(ppm). Salt water has a concentration of dissolved solids of
35,000 ppm or more; A. Covich, ‘Water and Ecosystems’, in: P.H.
Gleick (ed.), Water in Crisis. A Guide to the World’s Fresh Water
Resources (Oxford University Press, 1993), 40, at 44.
2‘Large dams’ are dams with a height of at least 15 metres or with a
reservoir capacity of over 3 million m3; World Commission on Dams
(WCD), Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-
making, The Report of the World Commission on Dams (2000), at 11.
3The Euphrates and Tigris spring from the mountains of south-
eastern Anatolia. The Euphrates then f‌lows through northern Syria
and Iraq, while the Tigris merely touches Syria on a short stretch
where it forms the border between Syria and Turkey before it enters
Iraq. In southern Iraq, the two rivers enter the aquifer of the Meso-
potamian Marshlands and join just north of Basra to form the Shatt
al-Arab, which becomes the border between Iran and Iraq before it
discharges into the Persian Gulf. Tributaries to the Tigris originate in
the Iranian Zargos Mountains, which is why this article will consider
Iran a riparian State of the Euphrates–Tigris river system. Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Irrigation in the
Middle East. Region in Figures – Aquastat Survey 2008 (FAO, 2009),
at 65; D. Altinbilek, ‘Development and Management of the
Euphrates–Tigris Basin’, 20:1 Water Resource Development (2004),
15, at 18.
DOI: 10.1111/reel.12145
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
RECIEL 25 (1) 2016. ISSN 2050-0386
Review of European Community & International Environmental Law

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