How Iraq’s Race for Water Security Impacts Cultural Heritage and Environment

By Harry Istepanian and Noam Raydan

Iraq Energy, 5 May 2021

Iraq is pressing ahead with a controversial dam project that threatens to flood the remains of the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire—dating back to the third millennium BC. Known as the Makhool Dam project, the Ministry of Water Resources is citing concerns over severe water shortages to justify the resumption of its construction in May in the northern Salahudin province. Aside from the threats it poses to cultural heritage, the geologic structures of the reservoir area are inadequate to support the dam, according to geologists who have studied the site.

What’s At Stake?

The ruins of the ancient city of Ashur (modern Qal’at Shirqat), are located around 230 kilometers north of the capital Baghdad, on the west bank of the Tigris river. In 2003, UNESCO listed Ashur as a World Heritage site, and simultaneously added it to the List of World Heritage in Danger due to plans to construct the Makhool Dam.

At the time, an Associated Press report quoted a researcher as saying that losing Ashur was akin to “losing the Vatican.”

Satellite image taken by Planet Labs on December 12, 2020 showing the remains of Ashur (Qal’at Shirqat) on the western bank of the Tigris river.

Plans for building the Makhool dam have been around since at least 2000, and the project was supposed to be concluded in  2007, according to a study on the impact of dams on cultural heritage in the MENA region, published in 2019 in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

Following the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, the dam project was put on hold. This did not, however, put an end to the threats surrounding this integral part of the Mesopotamian civilization.

In 2014, the so-called Islamic State launched attacks on Iraq’s heritage sites, badly damaging Ashur’s iconic monument, the Tabira Gate, according to the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), which has recently partnered with conservation groups to prevent its collapse.

In a region still reeling from a years-long conflict against the militant group, the federal government of Iraq is now planning to resume the construction of the Makhool Dam on the Tigris river in the Salahudin province, around 40 km downriver from Ashur (see satellite image). Despite some government assurances that the dam will not affect cultural heritage, scientific studies confirm that numerous archaeological sites will be put at risk.

Satellite image taken by Planet Labs on March 13, 2021 showing the location of Ashur, and the proposed location for constructing the Makhool Dam, in addition to some of the areas that will be affected
Satellite image taken by Planet Labs on March 13, 2021 showing the location of Ashur, and the proposed location for constructing the Makhool Dam, in addition to some of the areas that will be affected

On top of endangering Ashur, the dam will potentially threaten at least 184 other archaeological sites in the reservoir area, based on the aforementioned 2019 study published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.  And most of them “are only known by satellite remote sensing investigations”, noted one of the authors, Dr. Simone Mühl, from the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology. Previous salvage excavations were carried out on a very small number of the surveyed sites, “dating from the late Neolithic (c. 7000 BCE) to the Islamic Period (c. 1300 CE),” according to the study.

In a private interview, Mühl explained that these include ancient villages and cities that “played an important role in the early Islamic history of the region,” and a vast amount of this archeological knowledge has yet to be excavated.

Archaeologists have excavated only 10 percent of these sites, according to Mühl, who has visited and studied this area, while less than 50 percent has been surveyed on the ground. “The majority of archaeological sites is therefore unknown and will be lost for the local communities [that] lived next to them, [and] the scientific community,” she warned.

In addition to the threats it poses to archaeological knowledge, the dam would flood villages and uproot communities on the banks of the Tigris river. Yet it remains unclear how the relevant authorities are planning to address the social impact of the Makhool Dam project.

Why is the Government Proceeding with the Project?

On April 21, a spokesman at the Ministry of Water Resources said the work on the Makhool Dam will resume in May, calling it “a strategic project,” that would help increase water storage capacity, generate electricity, and offer “more than 20,000 job opportunities.”

The Makhool Dam project, which would reportedly cost nearly $3 billion and require  around three years to reach completion, is mainly the result of regional competition over fresh water resources. Dam projects in neighboring countries, such as Turkey and Iran, have affected the flow of water in two main rivers Iraq relies on, the Euphrates and Tigris, which originate in Turkish highlands.

Among the river blockers that have amplified concerns in Iraq over water scarcity  is the Turkish hydroelectric Ilisu Dam in the Tigris river in southeastern Turkey. Beside reducing water flow into downstream Iraq, the barrier, which is part of Anakra’s controversial Southeastern Anatolia Project, has flooded the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankyef.

To increase the flow of water into Iraqi lands, Baghdad reached out to Ankara in the past as Iraqi provinces, particularly Basra in the southern region, faced severe shortages. The water scarcity has been exacerbated by poor water quality, which is blamed on the inadequate management of Iraqi water infrastructure in a country of nearly 40 million people.

Still, as long as there are no agreements to manage the waterflow in the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, Iraq will remain vulnerable to dams built by its neighbors. And what will make matters worse, is the act of rushing to build a new dam in Iraq whose dangers would outweigh its advantages.

By constructing the Makhool dam, Iraq says it aims to store more than 3 billion cubic meters of water, mostly for irrigation purposes, according to the Ministry of Water Resources.

Geologists, however, have warned that the site where the Makhool Dam will be built is unsuitable, and will contaminate the water.

Satellite images taken by Planet Labs on April 23, 2021 showing two areas along the Tigris river that will be affected by the rising water once, and if, the Makhool dam is constructed and completed.
Satellite images taken by Planet Labs on April 23, 2021 showing two areas along the Tigris river that will be affected by the rising water once, and if, the Makhool dam is constructed and completed.

“Worse Than the Mosul Dam”

Varoujan Sassikian, a former geologist at the Iraq Geological Survey, and currently part of the University of Kurdistan Hewler in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, noted in a private interview that the dam reservoir area is known for sulfur seepage, which will affect the water quality. In addition, he explained that once the reservoir is filled up, the areas surrounding it will be exposed to landslides.

Moreover, the right and left abutments– the valley sides against which the dam is constructed– will rest on non-identical surfaces made up of different soil and rock properties. This difference will cause serious structural problems to the dam in the long run, in addition to geological complications, according to Sassikian.

The geological site of this dam is even worse than the area where the Mosul Dam is located, upstream from the Makhool site. Ever since the Mosul Dam was built on the Tigris River in the 1980s, it has required constant maintenance partly due to the soluble geological foundation, explained Sassikian.

“Iraq will face more problems than those which exist at the Mosul Dam”, he said. The Mosul Dam has been referred to as the “world’s most dangerous dam” due to its weak foundation, and the threats it poses to human lives and thousands of archaeological sites in the event of collapsing.

Asked about alternatives to the controversial Makhool dam, Sassikian said: “It is better to move the site upstream, north of Shirqat, where no gypsum rocks are exposed and [where Ashur remains] safe.” He noted, however, that “the topographic problem will be the most challenging for the designers.”

Professor Nadhir al-Ansari, from Lulea University of Technology, Sweden, whose research focuses on water resources and environmental engineering, also underlined the complex geology of the reservoir area, and the need for “concentrated geological studies” ahead of construction.

Solving One Problem and Creating Bigger Ones 

Amid a regional competition over water resources, the federal government of Iraq will have to find solutions to address critical water shortages. However, if this is achieved at the expense of the environment and cultural heritage, the government will only be generating further crises it cannot handle.

“The Makhool [dam] area is very complicated… Any mistake in the interpretation of the geology, then [the situation] will be catastrophic,” al-Ansari warned.

Harry Istepanian is an independent energy and water expert based in Washington D.C. He is a senior fellow at the Iraq Energy Institute. He can be reached at the following email address: harry@istepanian.co.uk and Twitter

Noam Raydan is a Baghdad-based independent energy researcher and reporter, focusing on Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. She also has extensive experience covering Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq for renowned media outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. She can be reached at: noam.raydan@gmail.com and Twitter

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