The embargo against Iraq may be pinching the man on the street, but it has done nothing to alter the resolve of Saddam Hussein. That has some desperate strategists proposing a more convincing embargo -- cutting off freshwater supplies to Iraq.
It would be foolish but not impossible. Iraq reportedly relies on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for 95 percent of its agricultural and industrial water and 85 percent of its drinking water. Both rivers have their headwaters in Turkey, a faithful ally of the United States.
Through seven new dams and irrigation projects on the Euphrates -- among them the new Ataturk Dam -- and six more on the Tigris, Turkey is in a position to dry up much of Iraq. Without water, time would be working against Iraq and before long Saddam would have to negotiate.
The option is possible, but highly volatile. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is water a more scarce, and potentially more explosive, resource. Some experts argue that by 2000 water will overshadow oil in importance in the Middle East.
The Euphrates flows through Syria before it reaches Iraq and has been the source of squabbles. In 1975, when Syria cut the flow of water from a new dam on the Euphrates, the dispute over water rights brought Syria and Iraq to the brink of war. Turkey and Syria also have been at odds about the Euphrates in recent years. Charges and countercharges are common between Turkey and Syria, with each accusing the other of plotting to manipulate the water. One such squabble last year culminated with Syrian MiG fighter planes shooting down a Turkish survey plane. Joyce Starr, a Middle East specialist who presides over the Global Water Summit Initiative in Washington, says cutting off water to Iraq would be "idiotic." Starr told our associate Dean Boyd that even in the worst crises in the Middle East, no one has ever used water as a weapon. "Doing so now would set a very serious and dangerous precedent for the future," she said.
For that reason, Starr said, it would be hard to talk Turkey into shutting off the rivers. Not only would Turkey be the villain in the eyes of Saddam, but Syria would not take kindly to losing the Euphrates.
Turkish President Turgut Ozal has been the region's leading voice in resolving water disputes. Next November he will host World Bank, United Nations and regional government officials in the second International Global Water Summit in Istanbul. No matter how loyal he is to the United States, Ozal is unlikely to go down in history as the leader who turned water into a weapon. A spokesman at the Turkish Embassy told us, "We never considered using water as a form of leverage, nor will we in the future."
Robert G. Neumann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the idea goes completely overboard. "It would be inhumane . . . crazy," he told us.
Congressional sources argue, hypothetically, that any water shortage would not hurt Iraq until next summer during the driest months of the year. That is beyond America's "window of opportunity" to wage war before the hotter weather and Islamic religious holidays would hamper an attack.