Dams Along Tigris and Euphrates Rivers Create Water Crisis in Iraq

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Posted Dec. 11, 2013

Excerpt of speech by Johanna Rivera, coordinator of Save the Tigris Campaign, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus


Johanna Rivera is a former pharmacy graduate student. In 2010, she decided to postpone her Ph.D. dissertation and travel to Israel/Palestine, where she worked for the Tent of Nations, the Palestine Solidarity Project in Palestine and the Kayan Feminist Organization. Rivera then moved to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where she worked on human rights issues ranging from violence against women, honor killings, internally displaced Camps, and most recently she has been working across Iraq and internationally in an advocacy campaign to protect the Tigris River from dams upstream in Turkey and Iran. Rivera, now coordinator of Iraq’s Save the Tigris Campaign, has traveled to Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan to talk about the need to protect water rights and the social, cultural and environmental heritage of Mesopotamia.

She recently spoke at the New Haven, Conn. public library in a program titled, "Iraq: Ten Years After Shock and Awe," sponsored by the Middle East Crisis Committee. In this excerpt of Rivera’s Dec. 4 talk, she addresses the problem of water shortages, especially for the people of the marshes in southern Iraq. Former dictator Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the early 1990s to force the Shia marsh dwellers to leave their land, but they are now returning to their former home under the current Shiite-led government. However, they are still threatened by dam projects initiated by Turkey, along both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where there are 22 dams so far and more planned.

JOHANNA RIVERA: Iraq is fed from the Euphrates and the Tigris. There have been nine dams already built, mostly on the Euphrates, and they say the flow on the Euphrates has decreased up to 80 percent. And this, of course, affects agriculture and affects the marshes, which were in the process of restoration. The marshes are also proposed as a World Heritage site, but this is based on there is enough water to keep them alive. The marshes are a unique ecosystem, both culturally and naturally. It hosts a lot of biodiversity and endangered species that only live in that area. And think about the repercussions of not having water in Iraq – more conflicts for water. They were talking about Syria speeding up the civil war because of resources and because of water. There was a big drought between 2007 and 2009. People migrated to the big cities; there was not enough accommodations or enough jobs. So the same will happen in Iraq. This area of the marshes is said to be the place of the Garden of Eden, so it has a lot of historical and cultural value for the people. The people that live there, they depend totally on the ecosystem. They depend on water. They build from reed their houses; they feed their animals, their water buffaloes from the reed. And these people were displaced; 500,000 people were displaced during the Iran-Iraq War, and after the drainage of the marshes. Some of them have come back, but if they are going to have water issues ... and now we have seen that some of the farmers and some of the fishermen have been migrated up where there is more water, so it's already causing a resource struggle.

So what we've been doing in the campaign, is that because the Ilisu Dam is built in Turkey, we have contacted the people in Turkey, the Turkish activists who've been fighting against the dam, because in Turkey it's also going to flood a potential World Heritage site, the city of Hasan Kef, it's a small village but it has history back 12,000 years – a lot of archaeological sites, it's the birthplace of the Tigris Valley, a lot of endangered species also, birds, fish. So we've been in contact with them and have been trying to build a coalition, let's say, to raise awareness of the dangers in Turkey but also in Iraq, because the Iraqi government has been very silent about this issue. There have been negotiations but Turkey, you know; it's the upstream state so they have the upper hand. They can decide what to do because the waters are born in their territory. So for them, they consider as long as the water in their territory, they can develop the river as they want.

International law, which is something we've been working with – international conventions say if there is a transboundary river, you need a transboundary impact assessment to see what are the impacts downstream. That hasn't happened yet. Turkey hasn't had an evaluation of the impacts in Iraq. And you have to have prior consultation. You have to tell the people that you're going to do this, and you have to negotiate, and that hasn't happened yet. So we've been trying to raise awareness from the Iraqi citizens so they can demand their government work on this issue. So it's also an issue of governance; weak governance in Iraq, corruption, lack of institutions that are strong enough. The Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Water Resources, and they say it's the other ministries; the other ministries say it's the Parliament. The Kurds say it's the Arabs, you know, it's Baghdad that has to deal with it. On the other hand, they have very good relations with Turkey, and they will be the upstream state when it comes inside Iraq because Kurdistan is an autonomous region. So it's international repercussions, it's national repercussions, and then provinces – how they will divide the water.

So we've been doing a lot of work inside Iraq in different provinces, especially in the south – Amara, Basra, Missan, Nasiriya, where the marshes are – raising awareness because the people know what the problem is but they don't know how to solve it. They think it's the government; they cannot do anything. They say, "It's Turkey." They don't even say it's Iraq. "Turkey – they want to build this dam. What can we do?" We say, like, "You can do something. You're not alone," so that's also why we were in Tunis trying to connect with movements at the international level. We had a session with people from India. They had a lot of experience with a big dam – the Narmanda project in the 1990s that was a big, big controversy. The World Bank removed the funds. So we heard from them. We had people from Peru, from Mexico; we had our colleagues from Turkey and then I was speaking about Iraq. So it was very good to exchange ideas on how people have fought this issue in other countries.

Johanna Rivera's talk in New Haven was recorded and produced by Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus. Find more information on water issues in Iraq and Rivera’s advocacy work by visiting http://www.iraqicivilsociety.org.

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