by Chris Gratien
Media coverage of Iraq in recent years has been dominated by the horrifying images of the American occupation, its impacts, and its aftermath. Sometimes lost among the political turmoil are the stories of how daily life continues and persists and how it is affected by the issues of the day.
What will be the legacy of the past decade in the eyes of the future? One issue that has gained attention from scholars of the Middle East in recent years is ecology. Historians have come to view the relationship between human society and the environment as a critical one for understandings of the past and as an issue of the utmost relevance in a time when the problems of pollution, ecological destruction, and scarcity are omnipresent. Perhaps nowhere in the Middle East region has this ecological view of the past been more critical than in modern-day Iraq, where histories of the rise and fall of this region’s longstanding civilizations are usually couched in a narrative of the relationship between the people of the area and its two major rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates.
In Episode #134 of Ottoman History Podcast, we take a look at changes in Iraq’s land and water over the past years through a conversation with two journalists, Julia Harte and Anna Ozbek, about their recent journey up the Tigris from Southern Iraq to Eastern Anatolia (click here for a complete feed of their videos and articles in National Geographic Newswatch). Harte and Ozbek set out to understand how the Ilısu Dam, one of the largest and most controversial hydroelectric dams in Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), is affecting those downstream, that is, the farmers and inhabitants of the regions along the Tigris in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Basra region. What they found is that anxieties surrounding the prospective ecological impacts of this dam unite not only communities in disparate regions of Iraq but also the inhabitants of the Mardin-Şırnak region in which it is being built, including the residents of Hasankeyf, one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world.
In our discussion, we follow the impacts of water projects up the Tigris from Basra all the way to Hasankeyf, where local residents are now facing the reality of losing their homes with inadequate compensation. In Southern Iraq, recent attempts to restore the marshes, which were drained under Saddam’s regime, have brought some improvement in the water conditions of these regions. Yet the impact of Turkey’s dams are already being felt, and Iraq’s water management shortcomings and weak political position vis-à-vis its neighbor to the north following the US invasion only exacerbate the issue. Local organizations work to protect the water security of the affected regions, but the findings of Harte and Ozbek’s investigation suggest the need for better regulation of rivers that cross nation-state boundaries on the international level.
Harte and Ozbek’s coverage of water security in Iraq also reminds us of how the impacts of ecological activities in distant places can reverberate intensely on the local level elsewhere. They tell the story of Habib Salman, a Southern Iraqi father of eleven who took his own life after the stream that nourished his family farm went dry. Whether it was upstream dams or water mismanagement in Baghdad that pushed Salman to the edge, his story, and the stories of the many others like him, poignantly underscore the importance of the often-ignored issue of hydropolitics, which will likely play a role in the future of not just Iraq but also arid and rapidly growing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as regions of political conflict such as Israel/Palestine where water is a precious and contested resource.