Talk21 Lessons for Pakistan from Turkey-Armenia Water Agreement

Tuesday, 31 July 2018


How can two countries that share complex and complicated political relations manage transboundary water? The waters between USSR and Turkey are also considered transboundary. In 1983, the USSR and Turkey jointly constructed a dam on the boundary Arpacay/Akhuryan River. Despite the fact that Armenia and Turkey have a history of severe international conflicts and they have no diplomatic relations, the cooperation over the dam has continued at the same level.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session on “Lessons for Pakistan from the Turkey Armenia water agreement” with Mehmet Altingoz, of the University of Delaware. His research focuses on the cooperative management of transboundary water resources among conflicting parties. The presentation revolved around how this cooperation between Turkey and Armenia sustained all these years, despite the disturbances.

The Arpacay Dam Case

The USSR and Turkey had a lot of cooperation over their shared water bodies and as an outcome of their cooperation, in 1983, they jointly constructed a dam on the boundary of Arpacay/Akhuryan River, which is a tributary of the Araks River. They equally shared the water in the dam and primarily utilized it for irrigation, fishing, and domestic purposes. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia officially became a self-governing independent state. What is interesting is that despite the fact that Armenians and Turks have a history of grievances and tensions and they have no diplomatic relations, the cooperation over the dam continued smoothly and isolated from political interferences.

Regulatory Framework

The regulatory framework mainly centers on 1927, 1964, and 1973 agreements that were signed between USSR and Turkey. The 1927 protocol established the legal regulatory framework for future water agreements and many of the provisions that were adopted from it. As per 1927 protocol, the parties decided to equally split all the shared waters and establish a joint committee to oversee the arrangement. In 1964, they signed another protocol providing a set of rules for joint dam construction on the Arpaçay/Akhuryan River.

In 1973, the USSR and Turkey signed a cooperative agreement within which, they decided to build the dam ensuring the basic principles that were agreed upon in the 1964 protocol. The 'Permanent Water Commission' (PWC) and a sub-commission was established as a result of the agreement in order to jointly manage the dam. As of April 2017, PWC, has made all the decisions regarding the management of the dam and the sub-committee executes them. Some of the main matters the PWC managed are the operation of the dam and its facilities, annual/monthly water allocation schedules, water utilization of parties according to the water usage schedule, cleanliness of dam reservoir, and fish production in the Dam Lake and resolution of conflicts between dam operation personnel on the two sides.

Lessons Learnt from the Cooperation:

Collaboration on the Dam survived not only the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but was continued and enhanced during many international crises between Armenia and Turkey. Establishing new collaborative frameworks between tense co-riparian's', however, is extremely difficult, given the inertia necessary to overcome existing political situations. Despite the history of collaboration between Turkey and Armenia over the Dam, cooperation has not extended to new projects or to include water quality issues in joint management. Not all cooperation's need to be explicit. Keeping in view political sensitivities, a number of components can be left unwritten or discrete from the public eye.

Depending on the need, legal language should either be precise or creatively ambiguous. Both approaches are useful depending on the situation. “Harm,” for example, is not clearly defined in the 1927 and 1973 agreements. This leaves the possibility of unilateral development taking place on tributaries. In contrast, water management during droughts is also not defined, which allows for the potential of local, creative solutions to develop. This creative ambiguity, while perhaps unintentional, has a positive impact on management. Regardless of how agreements are written, trust and generosity in interpretation goes a long way. Droughts along the Arpaçay/Akhuryan River were handled with compassion and creativity on both sides, with a combination of alternating water supply and sharing water-saving practices.

Trust and easily accessible information is also important for sustaining cooperation. The parties trust each other and have access to reliable information. Trust is built through technicians from both countries literally working together to jointly monitor the two countries' water gauges, verifying the data collected and the compliance to the monthly water schedule. Focusing cooperation at the technical level seems to function well, while decision-making and problem solving seem to rest best with technical experts, with issues only rising to the political echelon when necessary.


The presenter discussed the importance and design of institutions that manage shared water resources among conflicting parties. Ostrom, for instance, offers designing cooperative institutions that are organized and governed by the resource users themselves for governing their common resources. Conca & Dabelko (2002) discuss that environmental peacemaking initiatives are highly sensitive to the ways they are institutionalized. Similarly, Turkey Armenia agreement has very unique significant features that can be adopted by other transboundary countries.

India and Pakistan have had a long problematic relation and after long negotiations, both countries reached a treaty to regulate the Indus River Waters. In terms of comparison, there is little similarity between the Turkey Armenia Agreement and the India Pakistan treaty, since the issue of scale is very relevant. However, the lesson can be picked that things can work if there is good intent, and in case of Turkey Armenia the intent evolved over a period of time where the agreement was reached between USSR and Turkey and the two countries found a niche where they could both benefit from a structure of this kind. Both the countries built on it, profited from it and wanted to improve it further and make it work.

Bigger scales are perceived more problematic hence, more local, more polycentric and more devolved management is better. Of course, this local management has examples for managing bigger basins and has good insight for managing water at bigger scales. Transboundary water is a continuous process for which you keep refining your protocols and agreements and trust building to have a smooth relationship. For any two countries to reach a cooperative agreement, the technical issues need to be isolated from the political situations, particularly for urgent issues of mutual interest, such as the water crisis.