Human Journey

Will Shrinking Rivers Force Kurdistan’s Nomads to Abandon Their Lifestyle?

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.  


Iraqi Kurdistan is home to several groups of nomads, ethnic Kurds and Arabs who migrate between winter villages and summer pastures.

“In winter, we live in houses, but in the summer, in the wild, in tents,” says Ali Tahir Ibrahim, part of a family of Kurdish nomads from the Nerway tribe.

On a recent spring day, he and his brothers were bringing their sheep to drink from the Duhok River in Northwest Kurdistan, just above the Duhok dam.

“We are just passing through here,” he explains. “The sheep can drink it, and even some people drink this water. We live far away from the water; we [usually] transport water by trucks.”

An Arab nomad girl is seen by a water-hauling truck near the Domiz refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Julia Harte.
An Arab nomad girl plays by a tanker used to haul water for her family and their sheep. Photo by Julia Harte.

Hauling water to their tents is not an easy process, however. A sheep requires at least half a liter of water per day, so an average-sized 2,000-liter truckload of water will last a flock of 2,000 sheep just two days.

Ali’s family used to haul water from the Tigris for their sheep. But as the river level drops, they have been forced to travel to more distant water sources.

“Ten years ago, the water was much higher than the last two years,” says Ali. “This has affected us badly, since we have to spend more on fuel for our trucks to get over these roads. It has also affected our animals.”

Kurdistan’s nomads are an elusive group. These days, they seem to be dropping in number, possibly attracted to a more settled life in city centers by Kurdistan’s growing prosperity. Even seasoned fixers in the region find them difficult to locate.

Akram Hallom Hussein, an Arab nomad who camps near the Domiz camp for Syrian refugees in northwestern Kurdistan, says he only knows of ten nomadic families like his own. Like Ali, he and his family also migrate seasonally and haul water from afar for their sheep.

An Arab nomad woman walks through her family's camp, near the Domiz refugee camp in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Julia Harte.
An Arab nomad woman walks through her family’s camp, near the Domiz refugee camp in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Julia Harte.

Akram and his family get most of their water from the reservoir created by the Mosul Dam, which was built on the Tigris River in the 1980s.

To Akram’s knowledge, Arab nomads have been coming to Kurdistan for more than one hundred years. He and his family used to camp outside of Kirkuk, but moved to these parts in 2007.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kurdistan has become peaceful and prosperous, while central Iraq remains mired in sectarian conflict.

Nowadays, many Iraqi Arabs are moving to Kurdistan, says Akram Rasul, who heads Kurdistan’s General Directorate of Dams and Reservoirs within Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources.

“Many people immigrated due to insecurity, having no security from the middle, south [of Iraq], coming here. Okay. They are welcome,” he says.

Grazing animals and farmland are seen on the banks of the reservoir created by the Mosul Dam. Photo by Julia Harte.
Farmland and grazing animals are seen on the banks of the reservoir created by the Mosul Dam. Photo by Julia Harte.

But if Turkey’s dams create a water crisis in Iraq by lowering river levels and increasing the salinity of the water that remains, Kurdistan may receive more migrants from Southern Iraq than its existing water resources can support, Rasul fears.

“If the Ilısu Dam is completed, it will be taking more than 50 percent of the Tigris River,” Rasul explains.

“That will affect very badly on the region. The Tigris River comes parallel to the Duhok area, which belongs to the Kurdistan region. It goes to the Mosul Dam.”

As Kurdistan’s economy grows, the region’s agricultural sector is declining, according to Talib Murad Elam, Advisor for Agriculture and Food Security in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq.

“There were generations of farmers for thousands of years,” he says. “But now people have started going to work in the towns, and villages are changing from a producing unit to a consumer unit. Coupled with a shortage of water, this will kill us.”

In Kurdistan, nomads are already grappling with the effects of the diminishing rivers.

Photo by Julia Harte.
Women from Akram Hallom Hussein’s family stand in the entrance to their tent. Photo by Julia Harte.

“If [the water] is stable, it is good for us, but when the water gets lower, it is more polluted,” says Akram. “We drink bitter water when the sweet water is gone.”

The Kurdish government is building its own new network of dams to ensure the region’s water supply, according to Rasul.

“It means we’ll have sufficient water for agriculture, domestic use, industrial use and so forth, and we will have enough water to send for the middle and south of Iraq,” he explains.

But if water levels in the Tigris and other rivers in Kurdistan continue to decline, Ali says, his family’s way of life will end. “We don’t have any other options — we will have to move to the cities,” he says.

Already few in number, Kurdistan’s nomads are one of its most distinctive and unusual communities. As water levels drop, theirs will be one of the first cultures here to disappear.

An Arab nomad child runs toward her father as he brings their sheep home from grazing. Photo by Julia Harte.
An Arab nomad child runs toward her father as he brings their sheep home from grazing. Photo by Julia Harte.

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


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

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.
  • Lex

    This is heartbreaking!

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