29 Oct, 2020

Hydropolitics and Food Security in Mesopotamia

by Omar Aziz

The age-old dispute over water resources in the Mesopotamian basin sees geopolitical interests threatening local communities’ livelihood. By diverting water streams, regional countries cause mass displacement and jeopardise their own food security and that of downstream countries. 


The most well-known case is perhaps the tragedy of the marshes (al-Ahwar in Arabic) in Nasiriya, Amarah and their surroundings in southern Iraq, where a unique ecosystem has been endangered by droughts, as well as Turkish, Syrian and Iranian - and even Iraqi - hydropolitics. 

Prior to that, between the Fifties and the Sixties, Iraqi governments have approved the reclamation of parts of the swamps to benefit agriculture and the oil sector, thus also contributing to the environmental harm inflicted on these territories [1].  

Saddam Hussein (1979-2003) also resorted to hydropolitics with the aim of punishing the marshes’ farmers for their rebellion in the early Nineties. The marshes were known to shelter revolutionaries, and the Baathist regime turned to ditches, dikes and drainage techniques to hit their livelihood. These policies resulted in depopulation and in the shrinking of functioning marshlands to 10% of their original extension by 2000 [2]. 

To understand the scale of this environmental catastrophe, it is worth mentioning that these were once the largest wetlands in southwest Asia, covering more than 15,000 square kilometres, an area which is equal to twice the original size of Florida’s Everglades [3]. In the current desertified landscape, when the wind blows over the Iraqi wetlands, blinding sandstorms strip off the remains of arable topsoil [4]. This happens within the devastating global trend that has seen half of the world’s topsoil disappearing over the past 150 years thanks to conventional farming practices. As a consequence, 95% of food products are grown in the uppermost layer of soil [5].  

In July 2016, after years spent denouncing its neighbours’ policies, the Iraqi government succeeded in declaring the marshes a UNESCO heritage site [6], which was expected to protect it further from its neighbours. The Sumerian settlements of Ur, Uruk and Eridu - all located in southern Iraq - were also included in the Iraqi application and successfully listed as UNESCO sites.

However, the UNESCO listing was not able to prevent the depletion of water resources in the Iraqi Mesopotamian basin over the following years. The completion of the Ilısu Dam on the Tigris in Turkey in early 2018 triggered concerns in Iraq that the country’s share of Tigris waters would fall from 20.93 billion cubic metres to 9.7 billion cubic metres [7], thus depriving at least 696,000 hectares of agricultural land from fresh water [8]. This prompted Iraqi officials to halve the irrigated area the country plants with wheat for the 2018-19 growing season [9]. 

The impact of the policies of upstream countries is aggravated by other environmental factors. In October 2018, a report by the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics revealed that Iraq’s farmlands were declining due to lack of rainfall and depleted soils. Wheat and barley were the most affected crops, within a general decline in the yield per acre of Iraq’s farmland due to “off-season rainfall and dust storms” [10]. Water scarcity was also among the factors that contributed to the outbreak of the Iraqi uprising in October 2019 [11].

Even prior to the UNESCO listing, Iraqi experts pointed out how the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands signed in Iran in 1971 did not deter Tehran from draining the Iraqi marshes and flooding them with salted water [12]. Iranian dam projects on the Tigris’ tributaries have also contributed to lessen downstream Iraq’s share [13]. The subservience of Iraqi political elites to Iranian interests, both politically and economically, were also among the components that ignited the ongoing anti-government protests [14].  

Iraqi dam projects have also contributed to the current dire situation [15]. Some commentators also highlighted how the Iraqi authorities have been largely negligent in adopting preventive measures, such as a better allocation of irrigation water, that would have limited the environmental and socio-economic impact of the Turkish dam project [16].

Water diversion has also negatively affected the Iraqi freshwater fishing industry, which plays an important role in the country’s economy. In November 2018, thousands of tonnes of freshwater carps washed up dead on the banks of the Euphrates, impacting severely the earnings of Iraqi fish farmers. Iraqi officials have ascribed the loss to cramped spaces in breeding cages and to stagnant waters caused by a decreasing inflow from Turkey. Rice paddies have also been severely impacted by water diversion. Some birds are now extinct, or their migration cycles have been disrupted. According to UN estimates, some 1 billion migratory birds used to stop over in the marshes on their way from Africa to Asia [17].  

However, the current poor status of aquaculture cannot be ascribed exclusively to damming. Better internal regulatory frameworks could be developed to foster a much-needed biodiversity [18]. Isolation from the international scientific community has also damaged Iraq’s fishing sector under Saddam Hussein [19]. In the near future, isolation could also exact its toll on Syria’s food security, in a context where US sanctions - and not only the Syrian government - have been already observed to hinder humanitarian aid [20].


Inside Turkey, earlier this year, the aforementioned Ilısu Dam project resulted in the flooding of the historical Kurdish-majority town of Heskîf (Hasankeyf in Turkish), a settlement which dates back to at least 10,000 BC [21]. The dam, approved in 1997 with the official purpose of generating electricity and job opportunities for the neglected Kurdish-majority south-east, is expected to bring about the displacement of roughly 80,000 people [22]. Although part of Heskîf’s heritage buildings were relocated to a newly built settlement, and in spite of the Turkish government’s resettlement and financial compensation plans, the project still falls well below international standards, with affected people denouncing it as mere expropriation [23]. Kurdish media have long highlighted the ecological, human and cultural devastation the project is expected to cause [24].

In terms of food security, the resettlement plan drafted in 2005 by the consultancy firm working with the Turkish government’s General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI) admitted that most resettlement sites were not suitable for agriculture because of their steep terrain, lack of water and poor quality topsoil [25].  

In 2007, Germany, Switzerland and Austria granted funding via state export insurance to Turkish companies but withdrew it in 2009 under international pressure and because of their own assessments of non-compliance with their standards. The Turkish government has since used public and private bank loans to self-finance the Ilısu Dam [26]. International pressures failed to persuade Turkey to backtrack on its plan, thus confirming their ineffectiveness if not accompanied by enforcing mechanisms, financial incentives, or targeted sanctions. Turkey is considered one of the world’s most active countries in building dams.


Most recently, Turkey was repeatedly accused of cutting off water supplies through a station controlled by its allied Syrian factions, in an alleged attempt to target communities living in an area in north east Syria that is currently administered by a Kurdish-led authority with friendly ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latest episode of this alleged hydro-conflict was registered in August 2020, amidst high temperatures and the desperate need for water dictated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic [27]. The Syrian Kurdish-led administration accuses Turkey of cutting off water to extort power supplies for the stretch of land controlled by its proxies in north east Syria [28]. Turkey’s Syrian allies accuse in turn the Kurdish-led administration of having sabotaged the water station by cutting off electricity [29]. The conditions of Syrian civilians living under Turkish rule are therefore also periodically at stake. 

Over the past decades under the ruling Baath party, the soil and groundwater of Syria’s Upper Mesopotamia, otherwise known as Jazira or the country’s “breadbasket”, have been depleted by widespread use of chemical fertilisers and wheat and cotton monocultures [30]. In spite of ecologist slogans and a number of grassroots organic cooperatives, the new Kurdish-led administration’s approach to agriculture does not differ significantly from Damascus, with emphasis still placed on wheat monocultures, subsidised chemical fertilisers, and fuel-driven irrigation [31].  

Experts have indicated that unsustainable management of water and land resources, socio-economic inequality, droughts and badly timed government policies - such as the cuts on subsidised fuel and fertilisers under Bashar al-Asad - all played a role in the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011 [32]. Upper Mesopotamia’s farmers were among those affected. These factors, combined with the decades-long brutal rule of an authoritarian regime, turned large segments of rural communities against the government, in a further confirmation of how environment and politics remain deeply intertwined.  

In the seventies, under Hafez al-Asad, the decision of the Syrian government to build the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates, near Raqqa, resulted in the flooding of a number of Arab villages. The need to compensate the displaced communities (who became known as Maghmourin, “The Flooded”) served as the perfect pretext to enact the chauvinist Arab Belt policy, according to which the Arab villagers were resettled in Kurdish-majority areas near the Turkish border [33]. Although these settlers have not been expelled by the Kurdish-led administration, their presence is still a source of resentment among some Kurds. 

Upstream damming in Syria has also historically disrupted the snowmelt floods that feed the Iraqi marshes [34].

Until today, governments tend to legitimise major hydraulic projects with purported economic benefits that are supposed to trickle down to local communities. Despite the creation of new job opportunities, these public works often leave permanent scars on residents on multilayered levels: ecology, politics, food security, heritage are all affected. International pressures and conventions have often failed to affect policy makers, while hardline approaches (i.e. economic sanctions) can be more harmful for the wider population than the intended targets.

[1] See Limesonline (10 June 2016), “Kirkuk indipendente dall’Iraq...e dal Kurdistan [Kirkuk independent from Iraq… and from Kurdistan]”. Available in Italian via subscription at https://www.limesonline.com/kirkuk-indipendente-dalliraq-e-dal-kurdistan/92342. [Accessed on 28 October 2020].  

[2] See Richardson, Curtis J. and Hussein, Najah A. (June 2006), “Restoring the Garden of Eden. An Ecological Assessment of the Marshes of Iraq” in www.biosciencemag.org, Vol. 56 No. 6, p. 477. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232676297_Restoring_the_Garden_of_Eden_An_Ecological_Assessment_of_the_Marshes_of_Iraq. [Accessed on 26 October 2020].  

[3] Ibid.  

[4] See Kitto, M. R. and Tabish, Mohd. (January-March 2004), “Aquaculture and Food Security in Iraq”, in Aquaculture Asia, Vol. IX, No. 1. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268416882_Aquaculture_and_Food_Security_in_Iraq.  [Accessed on 27 October 2020]. 

[5] See Cosier, Susan (30 May 2019), The World Needs Topsoil to Grow 95% of its Food – But It's Rapidly Disappearing, The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/30/topsoil-farming-agriculture-food-toxic-america. [Accessed on 28 October 2020].

[6] See Al-Arabiya (18 July 2016), “Al-Iunesco Tudrij Ahwar al-Iraq ‘ala Qa’imati-l-Turathi-l-‘Alamiyy [Unesco registers Iraqi Marshes on World Heritage List]”. Available in Arabic at https://bit.ly/3orLBNx. [Accessed on 26 October 2020]. 

[7] See Al-Samarrai, Majed (9 June 2018), Ilisu Dam Crisis Proves the Failure of Iraq’s Successive Governments, Arab Weekly. Available at https://thearabweekly.com/ilisu-dam-crisis-proves-failure-iraqs-successive-governments. [Accessed on 27 October 2020]. 

[8] See Relief Web (29 November 2006), Iraq: New Dam Threatens Agriculture and Marshland. Available at https://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/iraq-new-dam-threatens-agriculture-and-marshland. [Accessed on 27 October 2020].  

[9] See Kenany, Moayed (11 September 2018), Exclusive - Water Shortages to Cut Iraq's Irrigated Wheat Area by Half, Reuters. Available at https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-iraq-wheat-exclusive/exclusive-water-shortages-to-cut-iraqs-irrigated-wheat-area-by-half-idUKKCN1LR13Z. [Accessed on 27 October 2020]      

[10] See Fakhir, Adel (11 October 2018), Wheat and Barley Shortage Devastates Iraq, SciDev.Net. Available at https://www.scidev.net/global/agriculture/news/wheat-and-barley-shortage-devastates-iraq.html. [Accessed 29 October 2020]   

[11] See Kenany, Moayed (11 September 2018). 

[12] See Jihad, Ahmad Thamer (8 June 2016), “Al-Iraqiyyun Yanshuduna al-Himaya al-Duwaliyyah: Ahwaru Janub al-Iraq wa Mudunuhu al-Athariyyah taht Anzar al-Iunisco [Iraqis Appeal to International Protection: Southern Iraq’s Marshes and its Archeological Cities under UNESCO Sight]”, Niqash.org. Available in Arabic at https://bit.ly/37KaCO7. [Accessed on 27 October 2020].  

[13] See Badawi, Tamer (26 February 2020), Iran’s Upstream Hegemony and Its Water Policies Towards Iraq, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). Available at https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/irans-upstream-hegemony-and-its-water-policies-towards-iraq-25173. [Accessed on 27 October 2020].  

[14] See Mamouri, Ali (2 October 2019), As Anti-Iran Sentiments Rise, Protests Erupt in Iraq, Al-Monitor. Available at https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/iraq-protests-violence-dignity.html. [Accessed on 27 October 2020]. 

[15] See Muir, Jim (24 February 2009), Iraq Marshes Face Grave New Threat, BBC News. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7906512.stm. [Accessed on 27 October 2020]. 

[16] See above Al-Samarrai, Majed (9 June 2018) and Jihad, Ahmad Thamer (8 June 2016). 

[17] See Kitto, M. R. and Tabish, Mohd. (January-March 2004). See also Reuters (5 November 2018), Iraq fish farmers hit by carp deaths, amid fears over pollution. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-fish-idUSKCN1NA1QT. [Accessed on 29 October 2020].  

[18] See FAO, National Aquaculture Sector Overview: Iraq. http://www.fao.org/fishery/countrysector/naso_iraq/en. [Accessed on 27 October 2020].  

[19] Ibid. 

[20] See Lund, Aron (25 April 2019), Briefing: Just how ‘smart’ are sanctions on Syria?, The New Humanitarian. Available at https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2019/04/25/briefing-just-how-smart-are-sanctions-syria. Accessed on 28 October 2020.  

[21] See Ruptly (uploaded on YouTube on 17 July 2020), Turkey: Watch the Ancient Town of Hasankeyf Disappear in Dam Reservoir. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mH6CYxcmUZU. [Accessed on 28 October 2020]  

[22] See Kucukgocmen, Ali (25 February 2020), 'History disappears' as Dam Waters Flood Ancient Turkish Town, Reuters. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-dam-idUSKBN20J1TW. [Accessed on 28 October 2020].  

[23] See Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (18 July 2017), Lessons Not Learned: Turkey’s Ilisu Dam, p.2. Available at https://bit.ly/3oBudWv. [Accessed 28 October 2020].   

[24] See ANF News (27 May 2013), “Dêra Sor Dikin Bin Parastin [(Armenian) Red Church Placed Under Protection]”. Available in Kurmanji Kurdish at https://anfkurdi.com/civak-ekolojI/dera-sor-dikin-bin-parastin-16744. See also Mezopotamya Ajansi (15 October 2018), “Derhêner Ergûl: Li Diji Talankirina Heskîfê Bêdeng Nemînin [We Will Not Remain Silent in Front of the Plundering of Hasankeyf]”. Available in Kurmanji Kurdish at http://mezopotamyaajansi.com/kr/HEM-NCE/content/view/36728. [Accessed on 28 October 2020]. 

[25] See Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (18 July 2017), p.7.  

[26] Ibid., p.2. 

[27] Cookman, Liz (25 August 2020), Syrians Fear 'Dying of Thirst' as Turkey Cuts Water Supply in North-East, The National. Available at https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/syrians-fear-dying-of-thirst-as-turkey-cuts-water-supply-in-north-east-1.1068287. [Accessed on 28 October 2020]  

[28] Zaman, Amberin (24 August 2020), Turkey Starves Syria’s North East of Water as Virus Death Toll Mounts, Al-Monitor. Available at https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/08/turkey-starves-water-syria-northeast-coronavirus-hasakeh.html. [Accessed on 28 October 2020]. 

[29] See Syria TV (22 August 2020), “Al-Kahraba’ Ta‘ud ila Ras al-‘Ayn wa Anba’ ‘an Bad’ Dakkh al-Miyah ilal-Hasakah [Electricity Returns to Ras al-Ayn and Reports About Water Being Pumped to Hasakah]”. Available in Arabic at https://bit.ly/2HLoIEj. [Accessed on 28 October 2020].  

[30] See Selby, Jan (2018), Climate change and the Syrian civil war, Part II: The Jazira’s agrarian crisis. Geoforum, p.7. See also Younes, Sameer Fayez (2012), Potentials of Cropping Systems’ Diversification in North-East Syria, for Enhanced Sustainability in Farming Systems, Master’s degree thesis at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, pp. 26-27.

[31] See the following reports on Smart News Agency, available in Arabic at https://bit.ly/2PZ7i8l  and https://bit.ly/34AAM3Q. See also the following statements posted on the Facebook page of the Kobanî Democratic Autonomous Administrations’ Agricultural Commission, available in Arabic at https://bit.ly/34Epagk and https://bit.ly/2TB2De4. [Accessed on 29 October 2020].

[32] See Eklund, Lina (17 October 2017), Drought Not the Only Environmental Problem in Syria Before 2011, SyriaUntold. Available at https://syriauntold.com/2017/10/17/drought-not-environmental-problem-syria-2011/. [Accessed on 29 October 2020]. 

[33] See Glioti, Andrea (8 October 2013), Rojava: What About the Arabs?, Mabisir. Available at https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/rojava-what-about-the-arabs/. See also Human Rights Watch (October 1996), Syria: The Silenced Kurds, Vol. 8, No. 4(E). Available at https://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Syria.htm. [Accessed on 29 October 2020].

 [34] See Muir, Jim (24 February 2009).