In early June, the Kurdish Regional Government Ministry of Agriculture and Water said that Iran, through its many dams, had disrupted the flow of water to the Little Zab River in the Iraqi-Kurdish border town of Qaladze. Since then, the river’s restricted flow has squeezed the drinking water supply of Qaladze — home to an estimated 140,000 inhabitants — thrusting the town into a crisis that could easily tumble into an emergency as the summer months heat up. Appalling images of mounds of dead fish crowding the formally submerged river banks have also circulated, briefly eliciting horror and concern that faded as quickly as it began.
While the Little Zab, which begins in Iran and ends in Iraq after joining the Tigris River, has long been a flashpoint between Iraq and Iran, the recent decision to restrict the water flow is being viewed as yet another microaggressive act by Iran and Turkey — not normally allies — in their continued attempt to control Kurdish populations. More disturbingly, however, resource disputes like this will likely only increase as the effects of climate change become more palpable in the region.
The fight for water — who controls it, how it is controlled, and how it is allocated — has long existed over the intricate network of rivers that winds through ancient Mesopotamia. Disrupting water supplies as a way to defeat, dispel, or control adversaries is a tactic as old as the region itself, where epic battles over the use of water have occurred throughout history. Indeed, a recent report from the Middle East Report and Information Project partly credits enthusiasm for the Syrian uprising in the northern region of Wadi Barada to a conflict over water. Wadi Barada, which was one of the first northern Syrian regions to join the uprising, had an emboldened population that was angry over decades of regime policy that had diverted the Barada River’s supply away from Wadi Barada to more densely populated Damascus, leaving the region drier and poorer.
As for the burgeoning Kurdish state, the fight for water is as crucial as it is existential. A series of potentially prolonged water conflicts would, at best, economically stunt the fledgling state and, at worst, create mass starvation and thirst. Though Iran has assured Kurdistan and Iraq that an investigation is underway regarding the restricted water flow to Qaladze, it is unlikely much will change as a result. The last time Iran restricted and subsequently reinstated Little Zab River’s water flow, the original volume of water was never fully restored, leaving Qaladze with a lower supply of drinking water than before.
These skirmishes for water are not particularly flashy and attractive stories, and rarely penetrate the mainstream repositories of knowledge. Paying closer attention to hydropolitics is an existential necessity, however, especially for a region already fraught with conflict.