Book Review: The Wounded Tigris: A River Journey Through the Cradle of Civilization

In 2021, adventurer Leon McCarron traveled the length of the Tigris River from its source in southeastern Turkey through Iraq’s marshes and into the saline Arabian Gulf. To do so, he assembled an unlikely crew of foreign photographers and documentarians and Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish environmentalists and activists. McCarron’s new book, The Wounded Tigris: A River Journey through the Cradle of Civilization, is the sobering yet often funny and poignant account of their journey. The book is a celebration of Iraq’s heterogenous society and rich history but, at its heart, it is a warning. The lifeblood of ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq is dying. The combination of geopolitics and climate change risks making large swathes of the Fertile Crescent uninhabitable.

A studied reader will know the troubles that the Tigris-Euphrates Basin faces. Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. In 2021, almost 40 percent of wheat farmers in Iraq experienced almost total crop failure due to lack of water. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 13 percent of people in central and southern Iraq have moved due to climate change and environmental degradation.

McCarron provides faces and context for these figures. The travelers and Iraqis they meet along the way rarely blame the amorphous threat of climate change for Iraq’s woes. The direct threats to Iraq’s water security and environment are quite clear. The crew has several encounters with “electro-fishermen” (i.e., those who use generators to fish, killing anything else under the water in the process). They meet people who complain of rashes, rising cancer rates, and respiratory illnesses as a result of pollution. Iraqi environmental activist Salman Khairalla constantly points out places where raw sewage is dumped directly into the river. Khairalla’s, founder of Humat Dijlah (Tigris River Protectors Association), activism led to his detention and eventually emigration from Iraq.

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An Iraqi girl stands amid garbage on the banks of the Tigris River in the village of Wana, some 10 kms south of the Mosul Dam near the city of Mosul, on March 3, 2016.

An Iraqi girl stands amid garbage on the banks of the Tigris River in the village of Wana, some 10 kms south of the Mosul Dam near the city of Mosul, on March 3, 2016.

SAFIN HAMID/AFP via Getty Images

Corruption, geopolitical dynamics, and mismanagement are the antagonists. In the south, McCarron points out the gas flaring and oil pollution resulting from Iraq’s notoriously corrupt energy sector. If captured, the gas could provide electricity to millions and curb the pollution and health issues stemming from the flaring. McCarron suggests that Iran impedes this development in Iraq’s energy sector so that it can sell its own gas to Iraq. Iranian-backed militias are so pervasive and dangerous that the travelers create a code word for talking about them: watermelon. At one point, an Iraqi boatman warns the travelers of the Iranian-backed militias. “They think the river is theirs . . . So be careful.” As such, watermelon boats, checkpoints, and permissions are littered throughout the book.

A self-proclaimed self-powered adventurer, McCarron has written several travel accounts and filmed documentaries, including of the Middle East’s Holy Land and Iran where he travels exclusively by foot, bike, and boat. It is clear at the outset that he is not a typical war junkie, but security issues constantly arise on this journey. Though he wants to travel the length of the river by boat, that becomes impossible due to political and physical obstacles. As he notes, “In less than thirty miles, the Tigris had already been cut, diverted, and flooded beyond recognition.” But dams and irrigation canals are not the end of their troubles. Different armed groups create hurdles as the group travels through myriad vehicles from police motor boats to traditional structures such as guffas (circular hollowed-out boats made from Iraqi indigenous fauna) and keleks (rafts used since ancient times). Despite the obstacles, the team manages to get to the steamy Arabian Gulf 71 days and 1,210 miles later.

The challenges they face on the journey are indicative of the divisions Iraq faces today. The river becomes a symbol of the state of Iraq itself; torn to pieces and corrupted by years of war and governance failures. McCarron alludes to the breakdown of Iraqis’ connections to each other and their glorious past. Throughout the book, he provides reminders of past great civilizations starting from the source of the Tigris where Assyrian kings had their images carved into stone. Mentions of an ancient past often give way to chronicles of the present-day struggles of the river and the people it has served for millennia. The travelers regularly come upon the remains of empires that have become backwater villages. Looking at shards of ancient pottery from the Abbasid empire, Khairalla painfully remarks, “They had everything, but the thing they needed was the Tigris. That’s all we need too, or we’ll end up like this, and in a hundred years someone can pick over my pots and pans in the dirt, too.”

The book is not all gloom. The Tigris and Euphrates have connected empires, peoples, and cultures for thousands of years. And throughout the journey, the troupe sees the humor and the hospitality that unites the people of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, as well as the differences which enrich them from music to art. Those elements continue to unite Iraq despite the forces of corruption and violence that seem determined to destroy it. The hope lies in characters such as Nabil Musa, the Upper Tigris “waterkeeper” of Iraq and the aforementioned Khairalla, who are equally determined to preserve it. The one qualm would be that the book provides little context on the situation in Syria as they pass through and few solutions for Iraq’s water insecurity. But The Wounded Tigris is no policy memo. In the end, it is a final plea to save this river and with it, future generations of Iraqis.

  • The Wounded Tigris: A River Journey through the Cradle of Civilization was published in the United Kingdom in June 2023 and will be available in the United States on 7 November 2023.