This spring, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2 percent of Turkey’s power.
Near the point where Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet, two villages face each other across the Tigris River.
On one side lies the Iraqi Kurdish village of Faysh Khabur, home to a Chaldean Christian community for more than fourteen centuries. Atop a 7th-century underground church, the community’s “new” church was built in 1861.
On the other bank of the Tigris sits Khanik Village, another ancient Chaldean community — but one that lies in Syria. Syria’s Kurds have maintained a de facto autonomous territory in northeast Syria for the past year, since Assad’s forces abandoned the area last summer.
Boats shuttle people back and forth across the Tigris between Khanik and Faysh Khabur. Many passengers are refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict that has killed 70,000 in the past two years, or Syrians returning to their country to find loved ones.
For both villages, the Tigris is a lifeline.
Just 80 kilometers upstream, however, an 11-billion-cubic-meter-capacity dam threatens the villages’ water supply.
The Ilısu Dam, which is currently under construction in Southeastern Turkey, will supply 1,200 MW, or 2 percent of Turkey’s current power generating capacity, when it is complete.
Project managers expect the dam to open next year, and say it will save the Turkish government $400 million each year in energy costs.
But Iraqi stakeholders argue that the dam will more than halve the current capacity of the Tigris River where it enters Iraq — 20 billion cubic meters — and thus devastate the regions of Iraq that rely on it.
Yaaqub Adam Maraha, a retired Syrian civil servant, grew up in Khanik. He thinks Turkey’s downstream neighbors will lose as much in water security as Turkey gains in energy security.
Yaaqub has seen many changes to the river as a result of Turkey’s upstream activities — none of them good.
“In addition to the decreasing water level, the water is also polluted by Turkish factories,” he explains. “We can’t drink it. We are afraid of drinking it.”
In addition to its factories rendering the water increasingly undrinkable, Turkey’s dams cause the river level to fluctuate, Yaaqub says.
“Of course the water gets lower when they need it. When they don’t need it, it returns in its original quantity,” he says.
Across the river, Hanna Dinkha is the deacon of the Chaldean church on the Iraqi side. He has also seen the river level fall in recent years.
“Turkey has built some dams on the river, and the river in summer is lower than the other seasons,” Hanna agrees.
The 160 families who live in Faysh Khabur rely on the Tigris for all their water-related needs, especially farming and fishing.
Chaldean Christianity originated in this region, near the ancient capitals of Assyria in Iraq’s modern-day Nineveh province. In the 17th century, the archbishop of the Chaldean Patriarchate entered in communion with the Catholic Church in Rome, an affiliation that Chaldean Christians have maintained ever since.
As deacon of the Faysh Khabur church, Hanna speaks Syriac, the liturgical language of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Since the fall of Saddam’s regime, Chaldeans have been treated well in Iraq, and face no discrimination in Kurdistan, where most of them live.
Hanna hopes water shortages don’t push his people out of their homeland.
“We don’t want to leave,” he says. “The government made us move away in 1975, and in 2005, we came back here.”
Across the river, Yaaqub already feels displaced.
He and his wife moved to the United States in 2011 to join his daughter in Chicago. They are all green card holders, but he and his wife came back to Syria for a visit just before the civil war broke out.
“When we came back, there were some demonstrations, but we never expected that it would become such a war,” he says sadly. Ever since the fighting began, Yaaqub and his wife have been unable to return to the United States.
Yaaqub now fears that water shortage will provoke another bloody conflict in his country.
“Of course, if the water runs low, there will also be a war. It is a war, whether you die of thirst or you die from bombing. Death is death,” he says.
Yaaqub and Hanna will probably never meet. But their lives depend on the same river — and they share the same fears about its future.
This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.