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Waking Ninawa’s ‘Giant’:
Fighting Terrorism With Water In Northern Iraq

Nawzat Shamdeen
Locals living around Mosul hold out great hope for a long-stalled irrigation project that, if operational, could bring back prosperity and reduce opportunities for extremist recruitment.
Irrigating fields in Iraq. (photo: المصدر: الموسوعة الحرة)
Irrigating fields in Iraq. (photo: المصدر: الموسوعة الحرة)

It’s been years but in May this year, it was announced that work on the long-stalled Al Jazira irrigation project in northern Iraq would begin again.

The project’s manager and chief engineer Jasim Mohammed Khalaf has said that the newly started work should eventually be able to irrigate around 100,000 dunums (100 square kilometres) of the 240,000 dunums it was supposed to originally – this is because much of the work already done has been damaged by fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

Khalaf believes the project will also lead to the creation of between 500,000 and 600,000 jobs in the area.

Locals in western and southern Ninawa have been waiting three decades for this project, which they nickname “the giant”. The northern phase of the project was initiated in the early 1990s under Saddam Hussein’s government and at the time, was one of the most ambitious and biggest in the Arab world.

Part of the reason extremist groups were so easily able to hide and train in the desert was because of all the abandoned villages.

But, as a special investigation by Reuters reported, “Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to UN sanctions, and foreign firms involved in the irrigation project … left Iraq. Plans for the east and south facilities were abandoned.”  

Most recently the facilities were damaged during the security crisis started by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. It did run intermittently but only at minimal capacity.

When the fighting stopped, much of the irrigation system -  280 canals were out of commission, often filled with debris or explosives, 30 of 38 metal bridges had been blown up and 800 sections of elevated canal were destroyed – was out of action, Reuters wrote.

There were two other phases planned too: the eastern and southern parts of the system. But both of these have also experienced problems.

Designs for the eastern phase were completed in 2009 and a contract signed with a Turkish firm to begin work. However due to a lack of funds, work proceeded very slowly and stopped altogether in 2014. According to the government, the areas that will eventually benefit from the eastern phase are the towns of Hamdaniya and Tal Kaif as well as the districts of Bashiqa, Bartella and Namroud.

The southern phase is even more problematic, especially because some locals further south fear that if the project goes ahead, it will reduce their share of precious water from the Tigris River. In fact, there are not even any real plans for the southern phase, officials claim. They suspect this is due to a lack of funding and the responsible authorities’ reluctance to approve any of the project, even in the short term.

Sources suggest that in 2009, the Japanese government had pledged US$2 million  to help fund the project but withdrew the offer after pressure from the Iraqi government. All this is apparently because locals in the south are worried they won’t get enough water from the all-important Tigris river, especially when recently, Turkey, which is located upriver, has started to block more of the river’s flow.

The fact that the southern phase is held up like this is particularly concerning. Some locals have suggested this phase is the most important because it would bring life back to the area south of Mosul and areas like Tal Abta and Baaj.  There drifting sands have swallowed up villages and destroyed any possibility of agriculture in a region once known for its harvests.

If the irrigation project is not completed this would pose an ongoing threat to the southern parts of Ninawa province, another local engineer Salim Jassim argued. Part of the reason that the extremist IS group found it so easy to convince inhabitants to support them was because they promised to bring prosperity back to the area. And part of the reason extremist groups were so easily able to hide and train in the desert was because of all the abandoned villages. Additionally it was easier for the extremists to take control of the city of Mosul due to the amount of lower-income villagers who had been unhappily driven into the city to find work after their farms failed, due to lack of water; these people are thought to have been more supportive of the IS group.

“An irrigation project will transform the south west of the province into a green area with great economic potential,” Jassim argued.