Executive Summary 

The Euphrates River is the longest river in Western Asia. The river has three riparian countries, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and its basin is distributed among five countries with a total estimated population of 23 million.

Most of the Euphrates stream-flow originates from precipitation in the Armenian Highlands; contributions by the remaining riparian countries are generally small. In addition to some intermittent streams, the Sajur, Balikh and Khabour are the main contributors to Euphrates flow in Syria.

Historically, the natural annual flow of the Euphrates at the Syrian-Turkish border was around 30 BCM. However, data records over the last 70 years show a negative trend, indicating a decrease in mean annual flow to about 25 BCM. The regulation of the Euphrates River is an extreme example of how human intervention can impact a river regime. With the construction of large water engineering structures in upstream Turkey and Syria, the Euphrates flow regime has shifted towards less pronounced seasonal variation.

Water use in the Euphrates Basin in Iraq, Syria and Turkey focuses on irrigation, hydropower and drinking water supply, with agriculture consuming the largest share of water (more than 70%).

As a result, water quality has become a serious issue on the Euphrates River: return flows from agricultural drainage cause salinity problems that are exacerbated along the river course. In addition, dumping of untreated sewage into the Euphrates and its tributaries contributes to other forms of water pollution.

The Euphrates is subject to two bilateral accords: an agreement between Syria and Turkey specifies the minimum average flow at the Syrian-Turkish border; and an agreement between Iraq and Syria determines the allocation of Euphrates water between those two countries. Riparian countries hold conflicting positions on international water law and terminology that have prevented a basin-wide agreement, with the exception of a Protocol for Technical and Economic Cooperation that was signed in 1980.

This resulted in the creation of the Joint Technical Committee, which is no longer functional.

Main Agreements 

Syria - Turkey

1987 – The Protocol on Economic Cooperation is an interim agreement on water quantity which states that an annual 16 BCM (500 m3/s) is to be released at the Syrian-Turkish border.
2009 – The Turkish-Syrian Strategic Cooperation Council Agreement addresses joint activities in the field of water such as the improvement of water quality, the construction of water pumping stations and joint dams as well as the development of joint water policies.

Iraq - Syria

1990 – The Syrian-Iraqi Water Accord allocates the water of the Euphrates River according to a fixed ratio of 42% to Syria and 58% to Iraq.

Iraq - Turkey

2009 – The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Water is one of 48 MoUs signed between the two countries. Both sides agreed to share hydrological and meteorological information and exchange expertise in these areas.

Key Concerns 

Water Quantity

There is no basin-wide agreement and no common approach or consensus on how to regard the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (i.e whether the two rivers should be considered part of a single watercourse system or as separate basins). In the past, the three riparians have disagreed on the division of water quantities and embarked upon individual water sector projects. Water use for human purposes (mainly irrigation and hydropower) increased sharply in the second half of the 20th century, resulting in a significant reduction in stream-flows and changes to the natural hydrological regime of the river.

The highly variable climate results in variable water availability. Under the current water management regime, droughts form a major natural hazard that affect water supplies in the basin, as witnessed in recent decades in Syria and Iraq.

Water Quality

Pollution from agricultural and domestic sources seriously affects water quality. In Iraq, the Euphrates suffers from severe salinity that increases along the course of the river.

  • The Euphrates at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, 2009. Source: Andreas Renck.
  • The Tabqa Dam, Syria, 1992. Source: Ed Kashi/VII.
  • An aerial view of farmlands near the Ataturk Dam, Turkey, 1992. Source: Ed Kashi/VII.
  • Intensive irrigation along the course of the Euphrates, Syria, 2009. Source: Adel Samara.

Basin Facts 

Riparian Countries Iraq, Syria, Turkey
Basin Area Shares Iraq 47%, Jordan 0.03%,
Saudi Arabia 2.97%,
Syria 22%, Turkey 28%
Basin Area 440,000 km2
River Length 2,786 km
Mean Annual Flow Volume Before damming
(1930-1973): ~30 BCM
After damming
(1974-2010): ~25 BCM
Main Dams >60 (max. storage capacity 144 BCM)
Projected Irrigated Area ~2.3 million ha
Basin Population 23 million