Locals Be Dammed

Years after Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group (ISG), locals in the territory it formerly controlled continue to complain of a campaign of retribution. After years of accusations that the government has tortured detainees, rushed trials, and unleashed murderous Shi’ite militias, residents of a valley to the south of Mosul believe the government has a new strategy to punish them—building a dam.

In 2021, the Iraqi government began construction on a multi-billion-dollar dam in the Makhoul basin. Officials argue that the dam will help tackle Iraq’s crippling water stress at a critical moment. Water levels in Iraq’s major rivers have dropped 50 percent over the past few years after Turkey built more than 20 dams upstream. The government argues the dam will boost irrigation, create jobs, and generate power, helping alleviate Iraq’s electricity problems which contributed to widespread protests last summer.

But critics argue that the government’s justifications don’t hold water. Iraq’s rivers fail to fill the dozens of existing dams as it is, indicating that Iraq’s water problems stem from something other than lack of capacity. In addition, reservoirs’ large surface areas significantly increase the amount of water lost to evaporation compared to rivers. A former minister of water warned that studies commissioned in the early 2000s have already highlighted the plan’s significant geological and technical shortcomings.

With so many clear flaws, locals believe something other than water stress is driving government action: a determination to punish local residents for having harbored ISG fighters. The dam will flood dozens of Sunni-majority villages and thousands of acres of farmland. More than 100,000 people will have their livelihoods disrupted, and local tribes will be uprooted. Whatever the government’s true motivations, the local outcry is a stark reminder that the wounds of the ISG period have still not healed.

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

Soukayna Lakhsassi

Intern, Middle East Program