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Syria's Water and Energy Needs

ISTANBUL, Turkey (UPI) -- Syria, like many of its Middle Eastern Muslim neighbors, faces increasing demands from its booming population for the necessities of life, from food to power. While water is essential to producing both, in the latter category, attempts to boost its electrical power generation through increasing the number and capacity of its hydro-electrical stations by necessity involves diplomacy, as the country's two largest rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, arise to the north in Turkey, with whom Syria traditionally has had tense relations.

Yet increased diplomatic interaction with Turkey is vital for both Syria and its downstream neighbor Iraq, if the flows of the two transnational rivers are to be equitably distributed for the benefit of all. While some progress has been made, much remains to be done, and protracted and difficult trilateral negotiations are taking place in the midst of a severe drought that has plagued the Middle East for the last three years.

Over the past decade Syria has rapidly expanded its electric power generation facilities; installed capacity now is over 8,200 megawatts, compared with a little over 4,000 megawatts in early 1998. The bad news for Damascus is Syria's hydroelectric facilities are currently operating at about one-third of their full potential, supplying less than 8 percent of the country's electricity instead of meeting nearly a quarter of the nation's needs, with one of the major reasons being a fall in water levels on the Euphrates River, even as Syria's annual demand for electricity has been growing on average at 10 percent for the last several years.

Turkey, Syria and Iraq share the Tigris and Euphrates' 303,000-square-mile river basin watershed. For Damascus and Baghdad, the bad news is that the Euphrates' flow is 88 percent controlled by Turkey, 9 percent by Syria and only 3 percent by Iraq. For the Tigris, Turkey controls 56 percent, Iran 12 percent and Iraq 32 percent. Given its geographic location, Syria also has to conduct negotiations with Lebanon and Jordan over trans-boundary river resources.

Turkey's dominance of the headwaters of two of the Middle East's most important rivers produces great anxiety downstream about Ankara's ambitious Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (Southeastern Anatolia Project, or GAP) integrated hydrological program, designed to develop southeast Anatolia. Giving substance to those fears, GAP's Ataturk Dam, completed in 1993, has since cut the Euphrates' annual flow by about a third, and if Ankara fully implements GAP, Turkish territory eventually will host 14 hydroelectric power stations and dams along the upper Euphrates, with eight more facilities situated on the Tigris.

Syria's General Establishment for the Euphrates Dam public entity operates three hydroelectric plants that are connected to the national grid, providing about 9 percent of the country's total electricity production. The 880-megawatt al-Thawra Dam and the newly commissioned 630-megawatt Tishreen Dam, both on the Euphrates, provide around 90 percent of the hydroelectric supply, while the Euphrates' 75-megawatt al-Baath Dam and five other small hydro plants represent a total of 1,620 installed megawatts. Syria has 141 dams with a total storage capacity of 15.8 cubic kilometers of water, the largest being the al-Tabaqah Euphrates dam, behind which is the al-Assad Lake with a storage capacity of 11.2 cubic kilometers.

Damascus is scrambling to meet rising energy needs, driven by a high local birthrate and an emerging private sector, both producing accelerating levels of electricity consumption. Syria's problems are compounded by living in the middle of a conflict zone, as its government also has to cope with an influx of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, whose living requirements are estimated by Syrian authorities to be equivalent to 300,000 Syrian families, consuming an additional $1 billion in diesel, electricity and liquefied natural gas resources annually.

Specialists believe most of Syria's available hydroelectric potential has now been harnessed, leaving Damascus forced to use diplomacy if it wishes to untangle the political and economic conundrums of increasing the hydroelectric output of its existing facilities by boosting water flow, dealing with the refugee problem produced by its downstream neighbor and increasing electrical power output while attracting foreign investment.

New technology may offer Syria, along with a number of other Middle Eastern nations, a way out of the conundrum produced by rising population growth and its attendant increased demands for water and energy.

According to Professor Dr. Ahmet Mete Saatci, vice secretary-general of the fifth World Water Forum and a distinguished civil engineer, chair and professor of environmental engineering at Turkey's Marmara University since 1991, the three most promising techniques for increasing available water are desalinization, water recycling, and solar distillation. Citing the region's most water-deprived nation, Saatci said, "In Saudi Arabia they desalinate the water and send it to Riyadh, and they blend this water with ground water, which is how the water is sent to the cities, where the water in certain urban areas is so abundant that you see more than 100 liters per capita today." According to him, the two current drawbacks to desalinization are cost and the fact that some techniques use petroleum products, but newer techniques like Israeli membrane filtration techniques remove the high-energy factor.

Saatci also advocated the use of increased efficiency techniques such as drip irrigation and recycling water to reduce agriculture's competition for the scare resource, which in some Middle Eastern nations sees only 15 percent of the nation's water sent to the urban areas, while agriculture guzzles up to 70 percent. Saatci observed, "We have to change this -- with water shortages looming in the future, we cannot use water for irrigation which can be done instead with reused waste water."

It is in solar distillation that Saatci waxes most optimistic in its potential to ameliorate the region's pressing water needs. Giving a concrete example, he said solar stills using available solar energy per meter square could produce 3 liters of distilled water per day. "For every 100 square meters of house, you could distill 300 liters of water per day, enough for a family of four. It is very simple, using off-the-shelf technology, but we have not refined this and have not done enough research in this field. I believe that in the future increasing efficient technology could generate 200 liters per day."

The one shortfall to Saatci's practical vision is money, and Syria, like its neighbors, could use an increased inflow of foreign capital to develop such projects. Syria might yet emerge from its diplomatic isolation with the United States as the new U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presses increased diplomatic initiatives with Damascus, describing her efforts as "testing the waters."

Warmer relations with Washington could allow Syria increased access to funding for some of its long-delayed power projects, but the political price tag is likely to be high, as Washington undoubtedly will seek to modify Syria's close ties with Iran and diminish its ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon. U.S. restrictions up to now have stymied the plans of a number of multinationals and U.S. companies in investing in Syria's power infrastructure, while since 2004 a number of concerns, including ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Devon Energy, have withdrawn from projects.

Added to smoothing its diplomatic disagreements with the United States and the inflow of capital that it might bring, Syria also will have to improve its relations with both Ankara and Baghdad if all three nations are to make equitable use of the aquatic bounty of their shared rivers, but increasing efficiency and embracing new technology ultimately may prove a safer bet for Syria's water needs than increasing its dependency on the water flows of the Tigris and Euphrates.

By John C. K. Daly


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