“Environmental Security and Turkey’s Power in the Middle East: The Potential for Water and Participatory Governance in Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention”

Marcia Rosalie Hale, PhD Candidate – UCLA


Turkey is in a unique and wildly profound position to act within the current armed conflicts unfolding in Iraq and Syria. While power plays and ideology shred communities apart, water is a source that could help bring them back together. Amending allocation and fostering regional water planning and management can lay the ground to intervene in ongoing war and prevent future conflicts.

Water is profound due to its necessity, a reality that has been painfully reasserted in places such as Aleppo, Syria, where, as Reuters reports, water is withheld from the people and thereby commissioned as a weapon of war (Malla & Davidson, 2015). The ability to exert control over resources is compounding, as water itself is becoming scarcer in already arid areas (Kelley, Mohtadi, Cane, Seager, & Kushnir, 2015). Climate change is acting on weather patterns, curtailing the amount of precipitation that falls. Human activity compounds these shortages, as upstream users pollute and curtail downstream flows (Dinar, Dinar, McCaffrey, & McKinney, 2013).

In our highly interconnected world, it is now an issue of environmental security that water be allocated, planned and managed with regard to the well being of all users. Environmental security recognizes the connection between the state of the environment and national security, as well as that connection between the environment and human security (Lowi & Shaw, 2000; Matthew, 2000; Matthew, Gaulin, & McDonald, 2003).

This paper explores the most salient aspects of Turkey’s environmental security profile as it relates to water, including transboundary water conflict, climate change, and armed conflict in the region. By taking into account social and environmental issues within and around Turkey’s borders, geopolitical strategy can be most robust. Of particular interest is the distinction between water as the overt cause of war, water as a factor of war, water as a weapon of war, and water used to intervene in war toward peacebuilding, as well as to prevent future conflicts. The concluding section makes recommendations for how Turkey can take advantage of its unique and powerful position to strengthen regional environmental security by using water to intervene in war. Turkey can amend allocation and support participatory water governance in order to harness the resource as a tool to both intervene in current and prevent future conflicts.

Environmental Security Profile

In its most broad definition, environmental security refers to the relationship between environmental elements and national security (Funke, 2011). National security can be further unpacked to refer to communities and individuals, or human security. Environmental elements therefore are intricately linked to the health and well being of people (Matthew, 2000).

To frame the tenets of environmental security from the most broad to the most specific, it is appropriate to begin with the rather obvious yet fundamental observation that environmental health is directly correlated to the availability of environmental resources. The availability of environmental resources is a crucial aspect of national interest and well being, and is therefore profoundly connected to national security (Funke, 2011). This same conversation can be had at the level of human security, in that availability of environmental resources is also crucial to the well being of communities and individuals (Matthew, 2003).

Environmental elements are increasingly considered in regard to international security. In 1993, Peter Gleick listed among these threats the “abuse and degradation of essential goods and services, such as those provided by the ozone layer and our global climate, and the growing inequities among nations in resources use” (1993, 81). Water is significant among these international security concerns for its abuse and degradation, especially in shared or transboundary systems. Polluted sources as well as disparities in allocation account for severe global inequities in water resource availability and use (Dinar et al, 2013).

Environmental resources and water in particular can be both cause and instrument of war. Conversely resources can be used as instruments of peacebuilding. Leading scholars refer to outright war over water resources as rare (Amery & Wolf, 2000; Priscoli & Wolf, 2009), while water as an impetus or factor of war may be becoming more common. The primary difference between the two terms as they are used here is the immediacy of the connection between water and war, namely if control of water is the stated cause for conflict or if water availability is one of many factors that compound to incite violent clashes between groups.

Water sources can also be the target of military expansion as is currently the case in places of Iraq and Syria. For instance, there was threat that under their control, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) would use the Mosul Dam to drown Baghdad, releasing a 15 foot wall of water on the city and effectively using it as a weapon of war (Al-Mirashi, 2015). Water supplies have also been severed for military and political reasons, as was the case in Aleppo, where, as Reuters reports, supplies are routinely interrupted and water infrastructure is the target of attacks (Miles, 2015).

The following sections outline some of the areas in in which the region’s environmental security profile is most vulnerable in regard to water. Transboundary water conflict is both problem and solution, and will be treated in each way. The next section describes how climate change and drought interact with water to create vulnerabilities. The following section outlines how water has been involved in the current armed conflicts within the region. Participatory governance is then presented as a way in which water can be used for conflict intervention and prevention.

Transboundary Water Conflict – War over water?

Water is among the most pressing issues we collectively face. It is a global issue, as planetary forces such as climate change affect it; global warming is effectively reallocating water resources. This reallocation means that there is even less water for some arid regions that already struggle to meet the population’s needs (Mankin, Viviroli, Singh, Hoekstra, & Diffenbaugh, 2015). Population growth, urbanization and industrialization have all led to the deterioration of water quality, increasing the demand on water while simultaneously polluting sources (Dinar et al., 2013, 2).

This complex array of water issues collides to create scarcity (Cook & Bakker, 2012); water scarcity can lead to some form of conflict. Transboundary water systems, namely rivers that run through multiple states or countries, are especially prone to conflict, as upstream users both pollute and divert water, affecting the amount and quality of water available to downstream users.

Also known as international river basins, transboundary water systems have increased in number, in part due the creation of new states (Amery & Wolf, 2000). Notable examples of newly international river systems include the Aral Sea Basin, which includes the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers that once flowed solely through the Soviet Union but are now part of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the Neretva and Trebisjnica Rivers that once flowed through a unified Yugoslavia but are now part of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Dinar et al., 2013, 11).

Transbounary water tensions are thought by some to lead to violent conflict. “Given that water is crucial for basic survival, irreplaceable, transcends international borders, and scarce, it follows that states will take up arms to defend access to shared rivers” (Dinar et al., 2013, 168). Many predict violent water wars in the future, especially in water scarce areas across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa (Cooley, 1984; Starr, 1991; Bulloch and Darwish, 1993).

However, others contend that while shared resources and scarcity leads to conflict, there is also deep incentive to cooperate (Amery & Wolf 2000; Priscol & Wolf, 2009). “The need to tackle scarcity (in any of its forms) brings the riparians together to realize integrated and coordinated projects” (Dinar et. al., 2013, 172). This coming together can serve to further peacebuilding beyond the scope of water conflicts. Commenting on current conflicts across the region, Kibaroglu & Scheumann state: “Even in the midst of the recent political crisis between Turkey and Syria, partial institutionalization of water cooperation and growing networks of water dialogue at both the governmental and nongovernmental levels have continued to serve as open channels for easing the tensions” (2013, 281).

Tigris and Euphrates Rivers

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers both have their headwaters in Turkey, but the rivers are also significant and historic sources of water for Iraq and Syria, their two major downstream users (Priscoli & Wolf, 2009). Turkey however controls the amount and quality of water that leaves its national borders, which has become increasingly true as technology has allowed for great diversions of water through large dams, as well as great pollution of water due to modern agricultural and industrial practices.

While water has always been a very precious resource in this arid region, the last decades have seen the rise of large hydro projects that have compounded tension. The transboundary conflict over the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers has been waging in its recent form since the 1960s, when all three countries began to plan large-scale water development projects to support the industry and agriculture of growing populations (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013; Priscoli & Wolf, 2009).

Turkey’s Southeast Anatolia Development Project (GAP in Turkish acronym) has intensified this conflict (Priscoli & Wolf, 2009). GAP is a massive undertaking that is planned to include 22 dams and 19 hydropower plants on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Kibaroglu & Baskan, 2011). This national economic development project however impacts both the volume and the quality of the water that flows downstream to Iraq and Syria. So while Turkey’s water policy has been focused on national economic growth, it has been facing increasing international criticism for environmental and human rights concerns related to transboundary water cooperation (Scheumann, Kibaroglu, & Kramer, 2011).

Allocation and water rights are significant in this case. A primary point of struggle within this conflict is whether it should be water that is allocated or the benefits of the water (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013, 290). In a 2004 report on the topic, the Danish Institute for International Studies notes that while having established water rights can help reduce water-related conflict, a system of rights, as well as specific decisions around initial allocation, can be very difficult to establish (Ravborg, 2004, 10).

Disputes over water are of course occurring on top of other non-water related issues. Notable among these issues are the historic ties between Syria, Iraq and the former Soviet Union, and conversely the relationship between Turkey and Israel, as well as Turkey’s NATO membership (Kibaroglu & Scheumann 2013; Priscoli & Wolf 2009). Tensions between all three countries also occur in regard to varying relationships with their Kurdish populations (Priscoli & Wolf 2009). Tensions in each of these areas are being inflamed within the context of current conflicts across the region, as will be discussed below.

Climate Change – Water as an impetus of war

This transboundary water conflict is greatly exacerbated by climate change and drought. Recently, science has begun to connect environmental elements with human and national security, highlighting the import of resource use and management. Of particularly tragic and profound note, climate change has been recently linked to the ongoing and brutal armed conflict in Syria. Researchers have asserted that the extreme drought the country experienced between 2007 and 2010 is a factor in the current armed conflict (Kelley et al., 2015). In this way, water was a factor or an impetus of war. Perhaps even more significantly, researchers have attributed that drought to climate change rather than to natural variability (Kelley et al., 2015). Syria is therefore a stark example of the connection between humans, the environment, climate, and conflict

And cases such as the one currently unfolding in Syria could become more prevalent and extreme, given groundwater depletion. Until recently it was not possible to know how much water was held in underground aquifers around the world, and how much was being used. However, NASA technology now has the capability to measure groundwater. For more than a decade, the GRACE satellites have recorded and can now show that the levels of major groundwater basins around the world have drastically dropped over the research period, due largely to water scarcity in systems above ground that drive people to tap into the belowground resources (Taylor, Scanlon, Doll, … et al., 2013; Voss, Famiglietti, Lo, de Linage, Rodell, & Swenson, 2013). This scenario is not likely to improve, as new research shows that due to warming, the snowpack that fills both rivers and aquifers is expected to decline drastically in key places around the globe, as much as a 67% reduction in fact by 2060 (Mankin et al., 2015).

Water scarcity above ground has multiple causes, with climate change, drought, growing population and demand, pollution, and transboundary conflict prevalent among them. Scarcity above ground necessitates adaptation and when there is groundwater, pumping these underground resources is often the answer.

This is the case in the basin underlying Turkey, Iraq and Syria, compounding the nuance of transboundary conflict over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As Turkey holds their headwaters, and diverts significant volume for agriculture and energy production, as well as for other rural and urban uses, the volume that does reach Iraq and Syria can arrive polluted, further exacerbating water scarcity (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013). GRACE data shows that Syrians and Iraqis have adapted to water shortages at least in part by pumping from the aquifer (Voss et al., 2013).

This is especially problematic in this particular region, as while groundwater can be recharged through rainfall, these aquifers contain much fossil water that fell during a different climate regime (Kelley et al., 2015; Voss et al., 2013). This means that even if pumping were to cease, climate patterns have now shifted to a degree that replacing this water is not possible over the course of many lifetimes. The implications of this situation could include intensified conflict in the future, as downstream users will not be able to adapt by pumping. Recent research shows that the war in Syria is tied to water shortages and groundwater shortage in particular (Kelley et al., 2015), and as there has long been a simmering conflict between Turkey, Iraq and Syria over shared rivers, transboundary water conflict will only intensify with groundwater depletion.

Regional Reality – Water as an impetus of war – Water as a weapon of war

The armed conflicts currently consuming Iraq and Syria are profound aspects of regional security. As mentioned above, the war in Syria has been attributed at least partially to drought. In this way, water was an impetus of war, as poverty deepened and livelihoods literally dried up, providing more incentive for citizens to revolt against government (Kelley et al., 2013). The violence that ensued in Syria provided cover for ISIL to develop and strengthen, and the group now controls large parts of Iraq as well as of Syria. These conflicts have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions more internally and externally displaced. The refugee issue has become a part of global dialogue, as countries grapple with how to absorb millions of migrants.

Water is both an objective and a weapon in these wars across the region. Mosul Dam for instance in Iraq was a primary target for ISIL to control, given its potency in the region, which includes both water provision and instrument of terrorism. Ibrahim Al-Marashi refers to “hydro-terrorism” in which forced flooding and drought are used as weapons of warfare. Two well-known examples come from Aleppo, Syria, where water supplies are routinely interrupted by multiple sides in the conflict, in order to torture residents, and also from Mosul Dam in Iraq, which ISIL used as a threat to Baghdad, threatening to open the dam and cover the city in 15 feet of water. (Al-Marashi, 2015; Mala & Davison, 2015).

These armed conflicts have large and overt impacts on regional security, as well as more subtle affects on regional and in fact global security. This manifests through geopolitics more broadly, as was exemplified by the Russian plane shot down over Turkey’s borders. While, as RT Question More reports, the context and details of this incident are still and will likely always be contested, it is inarguable that the incident itself has implications for the relationship between Turkey and Russia, and therefore all associated connections. This is especially true given the historic dynamics between Turkey and the Soviet Union, as mentioned above (Kibaroglu & Scheumann, 2013).

Participatory water governance – water as an instrument of peacebuilding

Transnational bodies that facilitate shared decision-making in regard to the rivers could prove to be powerful instruments of peacebuilding in the region. By sharing in the planning and management of the Tigris and Euphrates, the many splintered interests across the Middle East are brought together toward at least symbolic cooperation. While it might at first glance seem impossible to include the multitude of fringe groups in mainstream governance, the lunacy of the concept could perhaps match that of the violence unfolding in the region, thereby offering another outlet for this intensity. Creating a way for citizens to be involved in the governance of their resources could decrease defection and extremist recruitment,

Collaborative bodies are essential from the perspective that water crisis is actually a crisis in governance. “Rather than water scarcity itself, water-related conflicts are caused by the way in which water and its use are governed” (Ravborg, 2004, 8). In a region struggling underneath the pressure of armed conflicts, governing essential resources becomes imperative for ensuring people have access, but also because these institutions can facilitate governance where there is weak or no government. Governance in this way refers to planning and management that is undertaken by interests that are not necessarily affiliated with any formal government. Water governance is then ‘”the range of political, social, economic and administrative systems that are in place to develop and manage water resources, and the delivery of water services, at different levels of society”(Global Water Partnership, 2003 in Raynborg, 2004, 16).

The potential role of governance becomes increasingly compelling in a region such as the Middle East, in which state governments are floundering, if not failing. In addition to filling the gap left by formal governments, regional governance bodies could serve as a response to common demands of the Arab Spring. These demands include political, human, and economic rights (Jamoul, 2012), which could be served by local and regional governance bodies.

The water governance approach is recognized as a matter of national and even international security. The US Marine Corps released a book in 2013 that grapples with the issue of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from the perspective of security in Iraq (Lorenz, 2013). The book lists different options for addressing the transboundary water conflict affecting Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Notable among them are commissions for regional cooperation, such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the Nile Basin Initiative in Africa, both with a focus on participatory processes. The book further details technological innovations that will allow for more data to be collected and distributed to decision-makers, improving the quality of allocation and management decisions. Democratizing data increases participants’ levels of both knowledge and trust.

However, technocratic and political cooperation between countries are still usually conceived as top down approaches that do not necessarily benefit from true participatory resource planning, which happens through the people. Participatory processes reduce “power imbalances related to unequal access and control over resources, information, and capacities . . . (and) can stimulate and/or initiate long-term evolution and guarantee their assimilation” (Bonnal, 2013, 18).

Approaches that put people and their relationships with their environment first should allow local populations to define adequate, sustainable ways of using the water and land resources available to them. Progressive negotiation processes -that gradually address as many aspects of land and water resource management as possible- do just this. They take advantage of political and administrative decentralization, and encourage intermediary levels of government to link resource management at the local and national levels by balancing local expectations with broader concerns. They also use participative approach to fully involve all actors that are affected by resource exploitation and regeneration. (Bonnal, 2013, 3)

The benefits of participation include better quality decisions that are more accepted by those affected, as well as the development of social capital, including networks and individuals that are better able to resolve conflicts (Jinapala, Brewer, & Sakthivadivel, 1996; Von Korff , Daniell, Moellenkamp, Bots, & Bijlsma, 2012). Research shows that participatory water governance can be structured in a multitude of ways, with multilevel processes allowing for participation at community, sub-community, and supra-community levels (Jinapala et al., 1996).

The necessity of participation by local populations is exemplified in the case of groundwater pumping within the Tigris and Euphrates watershed. Recent research by the GRACE satellite system shows that downstream users in Iraq and Syria have been adapting to water shortages at least in part by pumping from the aquifer, which has resulted in greatly diminished groundwater levels (Voss et al., 2013). Greater local participation in regional water planning and management could have illuminated this strategy long ago.

Local populations in the region now increasingly include refugee communities, in which participation is especially needed important:

Clearly, countries with oppressive regimes are not known for their encouragement of community participation. Therefore the very concept and processes involved in community consultation might be foreign and frightening for some refugee communities. After living in fear of the consequences of one’s own thoughts and opinions (Martín-Baró, 1989), one can find it difficult to freely express that opinion even in a new country like Australia particularly when communicating to government structures. (Bajraktarevic-Hayward, 1)

In the opinion of this author, participation by refugee communities is particularly compelling in regard to planning and managing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for four reasons: 1) refugees from Iraq and Syria are settled in Turkey, bringing together representatives from all major national interests inside of one country; 2) many of these refugees were middle class professionals before migration and so had both access to and familiarity with bureaucratic processes; 3) many refugees might have been politically active, at least in social movements and especially in Syria, prior to migration; 4) those refugees who were not middle class urbanites most likely relied on either the rivers and/or groundwater pumping, giving them first hand knowledge of the issues more rural populations contend with. These factors could translate into a refugee population that is readily organized for participatory governance processes.


In another day, before we had the science and information now available to us, it perhaps made sense to shore up resources, especially as the world operated more decidedly through realpolitik. Things today are however different. Major world powers share an aversion to the costs of war (Leng, 2000). Much of the world is at least espousing intention to live within an international system that considers all constituents rather than only those of any given state, as evidenced by the mere existence of international institutions such as the United Nations (although this is written with full appreciation for the inequities and injustices still present in such international institutions). The rules of the game are trying to change, and we have amassed enough history now to show that cooperation is often much more advantageous than exerting force and control (Leng, 2000).

Water is a particularly stark example of this truism. Our cities, villages and towns, our industry and food systems all require water. Threats to water security are becoming increasingly regionalized, as climate change and drought intensify and impact entire regions with no regard for political borders. Water then could increasingly become a factor of war, if not the primary cause. It can also be used as a weapon of war, and should therefore be planned and managed with this in mind.

The above considerations are so important because, as the research shows, this arid region is experiencing longer and more intense droughts as a result of climate change (Kelley et al., 2015). The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are significant water sources for the region, and Iraq and Syria both experienced extreme shortages as a result of the last drought, which contributed to war in Syria (Kelley et al., 2015) and the forced migration of whole communities in both countries (Voss et al., 2013).

These effects could have been even worse, were it not for the ability to pump from the aquifers. As aquifer levels drop, the impacts of water scarcity will deepen and be felt across the region. While Turkey as the upstream user did not experience the impacts of this last drought as severely as did Iraq and Syria, the hidden cost of the drought will emerge as increased regional instability, as groundwater levels drop. It is therefore in Turkey’s interest to consider environmental security in the region, and approach water planning and management from the standpoint of these considerations.

Participatory and collaborative governance is effective in both revealing vulnerabilities through local knowledge, and by bringing different interests together in order to strengthen relational ties and adherence to agreements and policies. Research shows that participation in decision-making increases buy in and can lend itself to empower individuals and communities within the system.

In the current context, these benefits of participatory governance could become greatly compounded. As forced migration has left many stateless, and the state governments of Iraq and Syria are themselves questionable, alternative means of generating cohesion and identity are vital. Water in this way could act as both a universal language and a source of empowerment, as communities, including refugee communities, are organized to participate. Participatory water governance could provide at least the beginnings of a new identity, one that has regional scope and is based on the fluidity of the river waters and inclusion in governance, rather than sectarian identities that serve to divide states and communities.


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