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In dry Iraq, a dam threatens to swallow up villages and agricultural land

Like Jamil, tens of thousands of Iraqis are threatened by the Maqhoul dam, which the government hopes to complete within five years on the Tigris River.

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In dry Iraq, a dam threatens to swallow up villages and agricultural land

Like Jamil, tens of thousands of Iraqis are threatened by the Maqhoul dam, which the government hopes to complete within five years on the Tigris River.

In an Iraq damaged by three years of drought, considered by the UN as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, the authorities are defending this project which, according to them, will make it possible to fight against water shortages.

However, NGOs denounce the harmful repercussions on around thirty villages – that is to say 118,000 people – and the consequences for biodiversity and several archaeological sites.

The village of Messahag offers a bucolic landscape. Along the banks of the Tigris, peasants sow or turn over the waterlogged earth with shovels.

But when the dam comes into being, the whole region will be submerged under three billion cubic meters of water.

"I was born and grew up here. It's hard to leave. It's a whole past that we leave behind us," insists Jamil al-Joubouri, an official in a refinery.

It is his son who takes care of the family's wheat and citrus plantations. Conciliatory, Jamil agrees to leave and put "the national interest before the personal interest", on the condition that the dam be a project "that will serve Iraq" -- and that he receive "adequate compensation" for "ensure (his) future and that of the children".

- "Serious threat" -

Already equipped with eight dams, Iraq deplores a drop in the flow of its rivers and castigates its Turkish neighbor for its dams built upstream.

Initially launched in 2001, the Maqhoul project was interrupted in 2003 after the American invasion and the ensuing chaos.

Work resumed in early 2021, with drilling, soil analysis and the construction of a bridge over the river.

The dam should make it possible to establish a 250 megawatt hydroelectric station and an "irrigation canal which will serve agricultural areas and contribute to the country's food security", pleads the deputy governor of the province of Salaheddine, Riad al- Samarai.

"The general interest requires the construction of this dam to guarantee water reserves to Iraq", he adds.

According to him, five villages are on the site of the future reservoir: "A commission has been formed by the provinces and the ministries concerned to provide adequate compensation to the inhabitants" and to move them.

However, civil society is upwind.

Because there are also the repercussions on the fauna and flora denounced by the NGOs Save the Tigris and Humat Dijlah and the dangers in particular for the ancient city of Assur, listed as a UNESCO heritage site.

In August, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) deplored the lack of "attempt to dialogue" with local communities.

"Respondents, farmers and landowners, see the Maqhoul dam as a serious threat to their livelihood," said an IOM report, based on a study by the Iraqi organization Liwan for culture. and development.

- "Lack of trust" -

"No one came to see us, no one asked us anything," Jamil's father, Ibrahim al-Joubouri, a farmer, told Messahag.

"My ancestors, my father, then me, all stayed in this region", laments the octogenarian, weathered face and arched silhouette.

The real problem in Iraq, "is the drop in the flow of water from Turkey and Iran", recalls Mehiyar Kathem, one of the authors of the Liwan study.

The country "does not need a new dam: because of the increase in the salinity of the Tigris, we have to let the river flow", he says.

His study identifies 39 villages at risk of being swallowed up, with populations ranging from 200 to 8,000 inhabitants.

More than 67 square kilometers "of fertile agricultural land, estates and orchards" will also disappear if the Maqhoul dam reaches its full capacity. And 61,146 head of cattle will have to be "sold or moved".

"The dam can disrupt the daily life of 118,412 people", summarizes Liwan, pointing to "a lack of confidence in the decision-makers" among the local populations, for whom "any protest risks falling on deaf ears".

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