Human Journey

Two Views of the Tigris: A Syrian and an Iraqi Kurd Discuss Turkey’s Dams

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.

The Iraqi Kurdish village of Faysh Khabur is seen from the Syrian side of the Tigris River. Photo by Julia Harte.
The Iraqi Kurdish village of Faysh Khabur is seen from the Syrian side of the Tigris River. Photo by Julia Harte.

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's granddaughter and relatives are seen in the courtyard of his home in Khanik. Photo by Julia Harte.
Yaaqub’s granddaughter and relatives are seen in the courtyard of his home in Khanik. Photo by Julia Harte.

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.

Deacon Hanna Dinkha is seen outside of the Chaldean Christian church in Faysh Khabur, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Julia Harte.
Deacon Hanna Dinkha is seen outside of the Chaldean Christian church in Faysh Khabur, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Julia Harte.

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.”

The Syrian village of Khanik is seen from outdoor pews at the Chaldean Christian church of Faysh Khabur. Photo by Julia Harte.
The Syrian village of Khanik is seen from outdoor pews at the Chaldean Christian church of Faysh Khabur. Photo by Julia Harte.

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.

A Syrian soldier is seen under the arch of a Chaldean church in Khanik. Photo by Julia Harte.
A guard in Syria’s Kurdish region is seen under the arch of a Chaldean church in Khanik. Photo by Julia Harte.

This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.


NEXT: 8,000 Years After its Advent, Agriculture is Withering in Southern Iraq

Julia Harte is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she focuses on social and environmental justice issues. In 2013, she received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant to travel along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting the downstream and upstream impacts of Turkey's Ilısu Dam for a project entitled, "After the Dam, the Deluge: A Final Glimpse at the Ancient Town of Hasankeyf and Traditional Life Along the Tigris". Julia's work has previously appeared in Reuters, Foreign Policy, The World Policy Journal, Global Post, TimeOut Istanbul, the Philadelphia City Paper, and Cultural Survival Quarterly.
  • Jassim Al-Asadi

    Thank u so much Julia for your efforts, See you again in Iraqi Marshes.

  • Bardaisan

    Thank you Julia for this great reporting. I would like to communicate with you directly regarding this project and the possibility of obtaining additional information from your research for a local TV program in Northern California. I would appreciate your response to my email above.

    One thing is unclear though and would appreciate any input. The title of your article states that this is person of Kurdish ethnicity while in the content of your article Hanna Dinkha is a Chaldean Deacon, and your article also mentions that both these villages of Faysh Khabur and Khanik are Chaldean Christian towns and have been in existence for centuries, your article states the church was built in 1861; I don’t know if that’s a misprint or is the real date?
    I would really appreciate some clarification. From what I know, Kurds are not Christians, also Chaldeans are not Kurds, so there seems to be some information that either I’m not understanding or they are in error.

    Iraq, Syria, SouthEastern Turkey, Urmia (western Iran) were part of the ancient Assyrian Empire which collapsed in 612 BC. Assyrians, Chaldeans & Babylonians were one people, one language, one religion, one ancestry, and they did not disappear from the face of the earth as many claim, but continued living as a minority within the country that occupied them. Not different at all from today’s Palestinians living in Jordan or Jews living in Iraq, Iran and Russia for example.
    The remnants of the Assyrio-Babylonian nation were among the first people to accept Christianity during the 3rd and 4th Century AD.
    As you will agree, today you and I and the rest of the world have come to learn that the world is not Flat as it was thought in the dark past, every day there are new discoveries and our knowledge is expanded and changes.
    These remnants of the Assyrio-Babylonian empires had adopted the identity of the countries they became citizens of, and later the Greeks and western archaeologists applied the name of Nestorians on these people, then after centuries of Christian church branching off into different theologies, a section of these Nestorians after being converted by the Vatican to Catholicism, the were given the historic name Chaldean and taught that they were the decedents of the ancient Chaldeans and are different from Assyrians, and most of them today identify themselves as Chaldeans while another segment identifies themselves as Assyrians.
    The Kurds were not the large population they are today in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran mostly. There never was a Kurdistan! This is a new invention by the western powers for a very specific purpose. Just think back of no more than 20 years ago. You would not have found the name ‘Kurd’ or ‘Kurdistan’ anywhere, however today, the name Iraqi Kurdistan is very common. Turks, Persians, Arabs and Kurds since the mid 1800’s have been implementing an agenda of eradicating the middle east of it’s Christian population, it’s original inhabitants and the rightful owners of Iraq, and especially what today is being called ‘Kurdistan’, Today the different Christian minority sects in Iraq is being merged and they are forced to be renamed again as “Christian Arabs” and “Christian Kurds”; these are facts and not made up story.
    They are encouraged to take on this identity so that they “Christian Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs” can have a share in the governing of Iraq/Kurdistan.
    I wonder if either yourself or someone else would be interested in perusing these facts and reporting them to the world. I believe it will be a great service to humanity, history, culture and truth.

    I look forward to your response.


    Bardaisan of Edessa

  • Elora xanon

    I’m really interested in the insightful comment on this article by Bardaisan of Edessa.
    I really do hope you or someone who is a journalist gets in touch with Mr Bardaisan to pursue the information he was so forthright in showing us.
    History & historians have changed the history of an entire group of people living next to the Tigris River and someone is continually changing the truth in pursuit of some agenda. This seems to be repeated all over the world when it suits the ones perpetuating confusion & untruths.
    I for one had no knowledge of the history how It was in the past for Chaldeans & Assyrians,.
    No wonder people cannot live in harmony. No wonder there is no peace.

    It’s really disturbing me that the Tigris River will be turned into a dam. I’m surprised the Tigris River and the ancient towns & villages aren’t listed as World Heritage Protected Sites, considering the history surrounding this land – the rich association of the whole area with the writing and stories from the Old Testament.
    I feel this vast valley to be the “Dawn of Mankind”. I know that may be considered a slightly romantic woman’s notion – indeed, there’s a fable the Tigris River was at one time close to the Garden of Eden I dare say, to the people who live in this valley who may lose the family home that they’ve passed down from ancient of days, this will truly be their (lost) Garden of Eden.
    Once again, The Garden will be lost to every one of us.

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