The Dangerous State of Iraq’s Rivers

Letter From Abu Ghraib

A general view of the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, August 2014. Stringer / REUTERS

From the moment in early 2014 that fighters from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) surged into Fallujah and seized the city’s dam, Mohammed Amin feared the worst. As a farmer who was heavily dependent on an aging network of canals that flow east out of the Euphrates River, Amin knew how easily the jihadists might sabotage his crops. And so when the group slammed the Fallujah dam shut that August, flooding much of Baghdad’s agricultural belt and halting an Iraqi army advance, Amin was better prepared than most. “I kept my seeds, my fertilizer, everything up high. I had this feeling,” he said.

But what neither he nor his neighbors, all farmers working the land in the shadow of a notorious former U.S. prison, could have anticipated was the long-term environmental damage that ISIS might inflict on the area, even in defeat. After being driven from Fallujah in May 2016, the jihadists blew six of the dam’s ten gates, forcing officials to cut flow into the canals. Nine months later, and still without water, swaths of eastern Anbar Province are bone dry. “Dirty water, low water, bad canals: we thought we’d seen everything,” Amin said, staring out over his parched fields. “Now it’s even worse, though. After those animals, there’s no water at all.”

Much of the reporting on ISIS has—understandably—centered on the human toll of its terror. But Iraq’s two great rivers have also been hit hard, and the consequences are likely to last well beyond the group’s eventual demise. Already beset by an array of problems, the Euphrates and Tigris have been dirtied with corpses, sullied with munitions waste, and littered with defunct water infrastructure over the past three years. For a country that depends on these famed waterways to irrigate over 80 percent of its agriculture, the additional woes have pushed Iraqi farmers to the brink. “The people have survived, but with no water and all this damage,

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