ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Countries that selfishly use shared rivers threaten political stability at a time when water is scarce and demand is growing, a conservation group warned on Wednesday.
Disputes over shared rivers such as the Tigris and the Euphrates could be resolved if nations put borders aside and viewed the entire river basin as a unit instead, they added.
In the past some states have built dams or siphoned water from rivers for irrigation without consulting neighbors downstream -- stirring political tension.
"The question countries must face is are they interested only in holding all the water themselves and living in a destabilized region, or do they wish to share the water and cooperate?" said Mark Smith, head of the water program of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a body funded by states, and NGOs.
Rivers shared by more than one country provide about 60 percent of the world's fresh water. There are 260 international river basins in the world, covering half of the Earth's surface and home to 40 percent of the world's population.
Traditionally the focus in negotiations over shared rivers has been how to apportion water. Once the water is divided each country tries to optimize water use within its borders, rather than across the shared basin, the IUCN said.
By working jointly countries could reap better economic benefits from rivers and ease political tensions.
Turkey, hosting the triennial World Water Forum in Istanbul, is home to the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris, which form a river basin flowing through Syria and Iraq before draining into the Gulf from Iraq. Wrangling over the rivers is longstanding.
Upriver dams built by Turkey, Syria and Iran have caused Iraq water shortages, exacerbated by an infrastructure devastated by war.
"There is a real distinction between the upstream and downstream position. Those upstream hold a lot of power. In Turkey that power is accentuated because Syria and Iraq are very dry countries," said Smith.