The scrabble for water in Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers

River Dicle seen from Hasankeyf, Turkey (Photo: Senol Demir).

By Alberto Negri

Water Day is being celebrated in the world, but the wars for the blue gold have been forever igniting a thirsty Middle East. Mesopotamia “Land between two rivers”, Tigris and Euphrates, wriggles in drought and awaits another geopolitical upheaval between Mosul and Raqqa, the strongholds of the Caliphate, in order to decide the course of history and also the new regional “hydro-politics”. By examining it from this profile the Siraq war – that was triggered by the American invasion of 2003, by the Shia-Sunni rivalry, by the colliding interests of great and medium powers – emphasizes a new dimension: not only a political, religious, ethnical and oil clash but also one for water.

Actually, it is not that far-fetched to affirm that the drought, with the deep social crisis that it aroused in Syria, is a cause of the protests that exploded six years ago on March 2011. Some of the most interesting data that explain the civil war can be found in a recent essay “Guerra all’Acqua” (“Water Wars”) by C. Alessandro Mauceri (Rosenberg & Sellier): between 2006 and 2010 the 60% of Syrian territory was hit by a severe drought, on the eve of the uprising against the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad the output of wheat fell by 50%, in some governorates three quarters of the families repeatedly lost their crops, the breeders lost 85% of their livestock and almost a million of people had no means of sustenance anymore.

In a few years between 2008 and 2010 a million and half Syrians emigrated from countryside to urban areas. In Syria, out of 22 million citizens, half of them lived through agriculture and the drought of the 2000s hit the whole economy, triggering a mass exodus. Drought had a catalysing effect on the social and political crisis in Syria: three millions people were cast into poverty and about two million abandoned the land. For the most part, the migrants headed for Damascus, Aleppo, Hama where the urban context was already explosive because of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq.

The role of these new impoverished urban communities was significant in the movements of opposition to the Baathist government: thus, a series of social, economic and environmental changes eroded the contract between citizens and government, decisively contributing to the loss of legitimacy of the Alawite regime. In the land of the two rivers water is a strategic objective. Some of the earlier targets of Isis in its quick advance of 2014 in Iraq and Syria were the Tigris and Euphrates dams.

In Mesopotamia, water can become even more important than oil. 98% of fresh water in Iraq comes from these two rivers, but their flow is declining because of drought, of climate change, of the impoverishment of resources and of the rising population. And in addition there is a fundamental issue: 90% of Euphrates’ water and 50% of Tigris’ originates in Turkey.

In short, Ankara controls the taps of water and food security of 60 million of people. From the ’60s till now Turkey, with the Gap project, built 140 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates route. The flow of water arriving in Syria and Iraq in these years fell by a third: it is clear that it is not only about managing water resources, there, at stake, is power and control over an entire region which almost completely matches the one historically inhabited by Kurds. Hydro-politics, water management, is maybe the sharpest and most effective weapon in Erdogan and Turkey’s hands to influence what happens at the borders with Syria and Iraq.

And it was a dam that brought Italy back to Iraq when the Italian government deployed a military contingent in order to protect the work of the Trevi [construction company – TN] at the Mosul dam. This is Iraq’s greatest barrage, yet it is built on karst foundations: that is why it has been acknowledged for more than thirty years that the dam was in danger of collapsing. Featuring a height of 113 meters and a length of 3,5 kilometers, with a 1050 megawatt output it guaranteed a steady electrical power supply to Kurdistan – even when the rest of Iraq had been living for years in a constant blackout. Because of this, it is strenuously defended by the Kurdish peshmergas, more than the oil fields surrounding Mosul and Kirkuk.

Yet, Mesopotamia is only one example of the water wars in the Middle East. In 1967 with the Six-Day War, Israel took control over the Syrian Golan heights and West Bank: that means to own the fresh water reservoirs of the Galilean Sea and Jordan river. The Jewish state today uses 60% of these water resources, yet only 3% of the Jordan river basin is located within Israeli territory. Water generates conflicts. But it can also be a tool to compel enemies to enter a room and start negotiating: it happened to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, experiencing a daily struggle over the Nile, and to Pakistan and India, in competition over the waters of Himalaya and Kashmir rivers. One thing is certain: people die, emigrate, struggle for water – it is a global issue, maybe the most decisive one.

This article was first published in Italian on Il Sole 24 ore, on 21 March 2017.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kom News.