Peace Science Digest

Water Cooperation as “Imperfect Peace” amid Conflict and Insecurity

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kabaroglu, A. & Sayan, R.C. (2021). Water and ‘imperfect peace’ in the Euphrates-Tigris river basin. International Affairs, 97(1), 139-155.

Talking Points

In the context of Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi relations in the Euphrates-Tigris (ET) river basin:

  • Although the riparian countries have not reached a comprehensive, binding treaty on water sharing, multiple state and non-state actors in the region have developed water governance mechanisms and other forms of cooperation related to water management despite ongoing violent conflict and instability—a situation the authors describe as “imperfect peace.”
  • Since changes in the early 2000s, four types of actors have gained prominence in transboundary water politics, shaping imperfect peace in the ET basin: U.S. agencies and research institutions (in Iraq), epistemic communities (including water professionals and academics), government agencies, and armed actors.
  • Due to armed actors’ use of water as a target and as a weapon during armed conflict, there is an urgent need for joint security mechanisms along the waterways of the ET basin to protect vulnerable water infrastructure.
  • Applying the concept of “imperfect peace” to environmental peacebuilding is important and useful because it draws out the viability of environmental peacebuilding even in conditions of ongoing armed conflict (rather than only in so-called “post-conflict” settings).

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • The structural inequality of the Israeli/Palestinian context forces us to critically examine the aspirations of environmental peacebuilding—namely, whether environmental cooperation under conditions of severe inequality and occupation facilitates the emergence of a just peace, or whether it simply reinforces unequal power relations. Amid the current war on Gaza, when the Israeli government is weaponizing water and killing tens of thousands of Gazans of all ages and genders, the advocacy of Israeli activists for Palestinians’ health and safety becomes the most urgent and appropriate form of “cooperation.”


Despite instability and insecurity in recent decades in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, these three riparian countries have maintained cooperative efforts to manage the Euphrates-Tigris (ET) river basin they share. Aysegül Kibaroglu and Ramazan Caner Sayan examine the existence of this water cooperation amid violent conflict, asking how actors “operate within and influence transboundary water relations” under these conditions and how they might develop “joint security mechanisms” to help manage the distinct forms of insecurity that arise in relation to water resources and infrastructure. More broadly, the authors consider the role water management can play in broader peacebuilding efforts amid violent conflict.

To explore these questions, the authors employ the concepts of “imperfect peace” and “environmental peacebuilding.” Although the riparian countries have not reached a comprehensive, binding treaty on water sharing in the ET basin, multiple state and non-state actors in the region have developed water governance mechanisms and other forms of cooperation related to water management despite ongoing violent conflict and instability—a situation the authors describe as imperfect peace. Furthermore, environmental peacebuilding helps focus attention on how transboundary natural resources can actually be a “source of cooperation between conflicting actors” rather than a source of conflict, with such cooperation potentially spilling over into other, more contentious issue areas.

Riparian countries:

countries that border or share the same transboundary river.

Imperfect peace: 

the existence of “peaceful interactions and regulations, including negotiations, agreements, treaties, diplomacy, NGO initiatives and so on” at multiple levels, even amid ongoing violence. “Every small step made towards establishing a peaceful environment and helping humans fulfil their basic needs, even in a conflictive environment, is accepted as an example of ‘imperfect peace’ in action, even if these small steps do not radically transform the conflictive nature of the relations between the actors.”

Epistemic communities:

“network[s] of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area.”

Transboundary water relations in the ET river basin have been characterized by both confrontation and cooperation, and have been shaped by a combination of political rivalries, Cold War politics, trade relationships, border security concerns, and territorial disputes, along with actual water management issues and environmental pressures like drought. In a key development, Turkey’s construction of a dam on the Euphrates necessitated greater water cooperation, and the three countries established the Joint Technical Committee (JTC) in 1983, tasked with determining “reasonable and adequate quantities of water” for each country. While ultimately unsuccessful in this respect, the JTC remained a forum for discussing water issues among the three countries and laid the ground work for bilateral agreements on water allocation between Turkey and Syria (1987) and Syria and Iraq (1990).

Since the early 2000s, four types of actors have gained prominence in transboundary water politics, shaping imperfect peace in the basin. First, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. agencies and research institutions entered the water management scene, focused on reconstruction and development. Their intention to create a “strategic master plan for Iraqi waters” was ultimately unsuccessful, however, due partly to the lack of comprehensive agreement on water flows among the riparian countries, as well as to the insecurity of the post-invasion period.

Second, regime change in Iraq opened new opportunities for non-state and/or unofficial transboundary cooperation, enabling “water professionals, former diplomats, technocrats, and academics” from the three countries to come together more regularly to engage in dialogue, cooperative scientific research activities, capacity-building, and data-sharing on the ET basin, forming epistemic communities. These initiatives largely managed to focus on non-contentious technical issues and steer clear of political conflicts, thereby maintaining this “web of cultural, social and economic interactions.”

Third, governments of the three countries, particularly their water agencies, have negotiated and signed numerous bilateral protocols and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) since the early 2000s, focused on issues like joint dam construction, data-sharing, water use and management, stresses related to climate change, water treatment infrastructure, and so on. Despite implementation-related challenges and tensions due to growing regional instability—notably the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011—Turkey and Iraq reopened “dialogue at the ministerial level” in 2014. Both governments have publicly supported intergovernmental cooperation on water, even if tensions remain, especially regarding Turkey’s dam-building and downstream water flow to Iraq. The authors note that this cooperation illustrates how, with imperfect peace, negotiations can continue bilaterally even when multilateral negotiations have stalled amid regional political instability.

The fourth prominent set of actors emergent since the early 2000s is armed groups. In both Syria and Iraq in recent years, “state and non-state armed groups have destroyed and captured water installations” in the ET river basin, reflecting a broader trend in armed actors using “water resources and infrastructure as targets or weapons in armed conflict.” ISIS, in particular, has both “destroyed water-related infrastructure” and “used water as an instrument of violence,” flooding communities or withholding or polluting water as a way to coerce communities in both countries into surrendering. State actors fighting against ISIS and other groups have also used water as a weapon, with the Syrian government using “the denial of potable water as a coercive tactic against [populations] thought to be sympathetic to the rebels” (both ISIS and other rebel groups).

Since similar tactics could be used by other armed actors in the future, there is an urgent need for joint security mechanisms along the waterways of the ET basin to protect vulnerable water infrastructure that could be targeted, like dams. Although countries already have their own processes for determining and responding to risk and threats, they could more proactively and collaboratively address specific threats to water by developing a “joint inventory of critical water infrastructure,” mapping risks and vulnerabilities, and “preparing response plans.” The JTC—as the only remaining multilateral institution focused on water relations in the ET basin—may provide a useful initial forum for dialogue here. Efforts to develop joint security mechanisms in response to these shared vulnerabilities could constitute a form of confidence-building—and therefore environmental peacebuilding—among these countries, fostering further cooperation in the future.

In short, even amid violent conflict in the region, the riparian countries of the ET basin—through the efforts of multiple state and non-state actors—have maintained communication and developed mechanisms to cooperatively manage their shared water resources even in the absence of a comprehensive water treaty, illustrating the presence of imperfect peace. Applying the concept of “imperfect peace” to environmental peacebuilding is important and useful because it draws out the viability of environmental peacebuilding even in conditions of ongoing armed conflict.

Informing Practice 

Cooperative environmental efforts to sustain human needs and address shared vulnerabilities amid violent conflict provide a foundation for adversaries to adopt a broader concern for mutual human security. These efforts, especially on the part of epistemic communities, can also help forge hybrid, cross-cutting identities that can transcend exclusionary nationalist ones. Such cooperation may mean one thing, however, among three sovereign countries (as in this research) but another in contexts—like Israel/Palestine—defined by severe structural inequality. In such cases, the claim that environmental threats affect us all without regard for political boundaries rings hollow. It is precisely these political boundaries—here, between Israel proper and the Occupied Palestinian Territories or even between Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages within the West Bank—that determine the kind of access someone has to fresh water and therefore their level of vulnerability to environmental stressors.

According to a recent report by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem (written before the current war on Gaza), in the West Bank, “Israelis have access to water on demand, while Palestinians receive water according to predetermined allocations,” leading to extremely skewed levels of water consumption: Israelis use on average 247 liters of water a day per person, while Palestinians in the West Bank use on average 82.4 liters per person (26 liters if they live in one of 70 Palestinian communities not connected to the water grid). The minimum daily amount recommended by the World Health Organization is 100 liters per person per day.

In such a context, defined by Israeli military occupation, what does water cooperation look like and mean? As B’Tselem notes in its report, the Joint Water Committee, conceived as an equal, cooperative mechanism between Israel and Palestine in the Oslo Accords, is in practice a tool of Israeli control due to the context of occupation. Through this committee, “projects intended for Palestinians [must] be discussed together with projects intended for settlements as a ‘package deal,’ thereby obliging the Palestinians to support settlement expansion,” and any project “serv[ing] Palestinians that crosses through Area C”—most do—must get approval from an Israeli governing body over which Palestinians have no say. “Cooperation” in such cases looks like a cover for maintaining a status quo where Palestinians do not enjoy equal political or socio-economic rights.

At the same time, non-governmental organizations like EcoPeace Middle East—composed of environmentalists from Palestine, Israel, and Jordan, working together—have had success creating some gains for Palestinians in terms of water safety and access, like successfully securing Israeli approval (pre-Gaza War) for the import of more supplies into the Gaza Strip that would enable operation of a new wastewater treatment plant—a manifestation of “imperfect peace.” Echoing a central aspiration of environmental peacebuilding, EcoPeace contends “that moving forward on specific and solvable issues like water can help rebuild public trust that peace and end of hostilities are possible,” creating openings for cooperation on tougher issues.

Ultimately, the Israeli/Palestinian context forces us to critically reexamine this aspiration, by asking: Does cooperation in the context of severely unequal power relations ultimately hinder or facilitate the emergence of a just peace—both the cessation of direct violence and the transformation of power relations such that all people in the region can live under conditions that ensure their dignity and well-being?

This was a difficult enough question to consider before October 7. Now, with the military assault on Gaza—which could “plausibl[y]” constitute genocide, according to the International Court of Justice—the stakes are even higher. Israel’s use of water as a weapon has become more blatantly apparent, making it harder to imagine even the mildest forms of cooperation, at least on the governmental level. Immediately after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, Israel shut off all water that it normally piped into Gaza. In addition, according to this PBS report, its blockade of the enclave resulted in fuel shortages that made it impossible to power key desalination plants, from which Gazans get much of their potable water, while bombing has destroyed water infrastructure that desalinates and transports water. As of November 2023, Gazans were estimated to have access to an average of 3 liters of water a day, and many lack access to clean potable water and/or are drinking untreated brackish water, which can result in water-borne diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diarrhea, dehydration, and other health problems, especially in kids. Additionally, Israel’s decision to flood Hamas’ underground tunnels—which Hamas uses to move fighters, weapons, and goods—with seawater could do long-term damage to the already compromised aquifer under Gaza.

Under such conditions, when the Israeli government is weaponizing water and killing tens of thousands of Gazans of all ages and genders, the responsibility for human-needs-based “cooperation” in Israel/Palestine is falling to Israeli human rights activists. As the constituents of a government that is waging a military campaign in the name of their security, Israelis are uniquely positioned to speak out against it. Rather than more traditional cooperation, what the current situation calls for—and what some Israeli activists are already enacting—is strident advocacy for Palestinians’ health and safety needs, whether by publicizing the Israeli government’s use of starvation as a weapon of war (in violation of international law), by calling for a ceasefire and for the unconditional, free entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza on the basis of civilians’ needs, or by putting their own bodies in the way of settlers violently intimidating Palestinian villagers in the West Bank. Whether or not such activism plants the seeds for a just peace sometime in the future, it remains urgent and necessary—even if insufficient—in the present. [MW]

Questions Raised

To what extent do cooperative efforts and peaceful interactions between adversaries amid violent conflict deeply transform conflict dynamics and facilitate the emergence of a just peace, especially in contexts defined by severe power inequalities?

Do the concepts of “imperfect peace” and “environmental peacebuilding” make different assumptions about the capacity of such efforts to do so?

Continued Reading

Muñoz, F. A. (2010). Imperfect peace. In N. Young (Ed.), Oxford international encyclopedia of peace. Oxford University Press.

Chibani, A. (2023, May 30). Water politics in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. Arab Center Washington DC. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from

Sowers, J. L., Weinthal, E., & Zawahri, N. (2017). Targeting environmental infrastructures, international law, and civilians in the new Middle Eastern wars. Security Dialogue, 48(5), 410-430.

B’Tselem. (2024, February 7). Israel-based civil society and human rights organizations call for a ceasefire. Retrieved May 9, 2024, from

B’Tselem. (2024, April 22). Manufacturing famine: Israel is committing the war crime of starvation in the Gaza Strip. Retrieved May 9, 2024, from

B’Tselem. (2023, May). Parched: Israel’s policy of water deprivation in the West Bank. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from

Kayum Ahmed, A. (2023, November 16). Israeli authorities’ cutting of water leading to public health crisis in Gaza. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from

McPhillips, T., & Alamiri, Y.S. (2023, November 7). In Gaza’s widening humanitarian crisis, water access becomes dire. PBS News Hour. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from

Glausiusz, J. (2024, February 2). Israel is flooding Gaza’s tunnel network: Scientists assess the risks. Nature. Retrieved January 6, 2024, from

McKernan, B. (2023, May 17). A precious resource: How Israel uses water to control the West Bank. The Guardian. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from

Gallagher, A. (2022, December 15). Water can be a rare win-win for Israelis, Palestinians and the Region. USIP. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from


EcoPeace Middle East:


Key Words: imperfect peace, environmental peacebuilding, water, climate change, Turkey, Syria, Iraq

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

This analysis is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.