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The Dnieper River is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea.
The Dnieper River is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea.

Resolving water conflicts

Photos courtesy of Mehmet Altingoz

UD grad student studies how national conflicts impact shared water resources

According to the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database at Oregon State University, there are 310 transboundary rivers that help to serve nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. Some of these transboundary rivers are found between countries that may be in direct conflict with one another, and between them, there have been numerous conflicts over water.

Mehmet Altingoz, a doctoral candidate in the University of Delaware’s Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, is dedicating his time at UD to figuring out how these international water conflicts and transboundary water management scenarios play out, finding inspiration in the fact that sometimes, despite being in direct conflict with one another, there is cooperation over water between countries.

To help his research, UD doctoral candidate Mehmet Altingoz spends his summers traveling to various countries and interviewing people involved with transboundary water management.

An example of this comes from a recent study led by Altingoz that looked to offer guidelines and make recommendations for how Armenia and Turkey, despite having historical grievances and not maintaining diplomatic ties, are able to cooperate at a local level to make decisions for the Arpacay/Akhuryan Dam and its shared water resources.

“Even though the relations are bad between two countries with a shared water resource and everybody would expect that they would use the water as a weapon against each other, this wasn’t the case. There was some cooperation,” said Altingoz.

Altingoz worked on the paper with his adviser, Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, and it was published in the Journal of Environment and Development.

After obtaining an environmental engineering bachelor’s degree in Turkey, Altingoz came to the United States and did one year of language school at UD’s English Language Institute (ELI).

“I would walk by the geography department every day when I was walking to the ELI and back to my dorm but never thought I would be a doctoral student in there one day,” said Altingoz.

Altingoz first got interested in conflict and water management while completing his master’s at Oregon State, where he studied how the Tigris and Euphrates watershed would be managed while Syria and Iraq are experiencing armed conflicts.

He also looked at how transboundary water resources are managed between sovereign countries and nations seeking sovereignty from them, such as Kosovo with Serbia and Abkhazia with Georgia.

Altingoz decided to pursue his doctorate at UD where he is still able to focus on cases where there is international conflict and transboundary water management.

At UD, he is working not only on the Arpacay/Akhuryan Dam, but also on projects focused on how the Black Sea is managed between Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

“It is interesting because they really don’t have good relations,” Altingoz said. “Some of them are even in wars with each other, but they are still cooperating over the Black Sea.”

The other case he is working on is the North Crimea Canal, where Russia and Ukraine are having armed conflicts and territorial disputes with each other but still have a water canal that they share. Unlike the previous cases, however, this one does not have cooperation going on between the two countries as the water being supplied to Ukraine was cut off when Crimea was annexed by Russia. By including two positive cases and one negative one, Altingoz gives priority to learning what works rather than what doesn’t.

For all of these studies, Altingoz spends his summers traveling to various countries and interviewing people involved. He also holds focus groups to get a sense of how everyone feels about how water resources are being managed. In addition, he utilizes GIS mapping software.

“This summer, I went to Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine to conduct interviews, and I attended a one-week geopolitics course in Georgia, which was funded and supported by NATO. I was one of the few people to go there and received certification,” said Altingoz. “I usually travel to those regions in the summer. My family lives in Istanbul, and Istanbul is kind of in the middle of everything so it’s easy to travel to the other research countries.” 

Altingoz’s master’s thesis is being turned into a book chapter as is his paper on the Black Sea. He is also hopeful that he will turn his other studies into papers as well.

He is happy that he found his way to studying international conflicts and water management. He hopes papers like the one on the Arpacay/Akhuryan Dam can offer guidelines as to how countries in direct conflict with one another on an international level can still work together.

“People form relationships with each other. Over the years, they become friendly, they don’t [necessarily] care about the higher politics,” said Altingoz. “At the end of the day, there’s a human part of the story. If you like the person you’re working with, you don’t care if he or she is from a certain country and your country is not happy with them.”

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