The Ilisu Dam: Turkey, Iraq, and the Future of the Tigris

 

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Damn. Image from Global Water Blog

We interrupt the Daily Regreatening to bring news from Southeast Turkey, where the great rivers of yore are no longer yoked to nature

Turkey said Tuesday that Iraqis have nothing to fear from the filling of an upstream reservoir on the Tigris River, saying “sufficient quantities of water” would continue to flow to the neighboring country.

For decades now, in one of the slow-moving but earth-changing stories of our time, Turkey has been reinventing its power supply by building a series of dams and reservoirs along the ancient Tigris and Euphrates rivers, along which the first major civilizations in human history were watered and grown. This has made Iraq and Syria less than thrilled, needless to say.

The final dam, the Ilisu, has slowly started filling, after years of construction interrupted by local protests, international disputes, and Kurdish militancy (the three are not entirely unrelated). The reservoir won’t be completely filled for at least a year, but it is expected to drop the water level in the Tigris by 8 billion cubic meters, leaving it at 17 billion cubic meters.

I don’t know if that is enough (like, I literally have no idea). Iraq’s Minister of Water Resources says it will be fine, but then, I guess, he says a lot of things.

He said Iraq and Turkey reached a “fair” agreement whereby Turkey will release 75 percent of the river’s volume while keeping the rest to fill the dam over the next six months. He said the two sides are set to meet again on Nov. 1. However, when asked about it at the press conference, the Turkish ambassador denied any agreement had been reached.

That’s kind of awkward, and telling as well. Why would Turkey reach an agreement? An agreement means that both sides have power, and if Turkey were to break it, they’d be in the wrong. Without an agreement though, Turkey holds all the cards.

None of this is to say that Turkey won’t release “a sufficient amount of water”, a coldly clinical phrase which carries with it a sort of reluctant and patronizing oblige. It’s not actually in their best interest to have Iraq turn into a waterless hellscape, a nation of 37 million wracked by drought and finally broken. Turkey doesn’t need another Yemen on its border.

But…I mean, things change, man. Even if Erdogan’s government is 100% sincere about releasing a sufficient amount of water–and why wouldn’t you trust him??–who’s to say what the future could bring? Conflict between the nations could easily lead to a withholding. Climate change could make Turkey reluctant to give up any of the water it is storing for itself. Maybe Turkey would want Iraq to turn the vise a little more on its Kurdish population. Who knows?

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It’s actually OK to make a Batman joke

No matter what, though, Turkey has already changed the water in the region through their projects. In a great interview with the UVA Darden Global Water Blog, Julia Harte of Reuters talks about what Turkey’s vast modernization projects have meant in the region.

Turkey’s hydroelectric dams have reportedly reduced water flow into Iraq and Syria by about 80 and 40 percent, respectively, since 1975. The Ilisu Dam is expected to open on December 31, 2017, but it will take several years for the 10.4 billion-cubic-meter reservoir to flood completely. When it has, Iraqi officials estimate it will reduce the downstream flow of the river by at least half, allowing more salty water to flood into the river from the Persian Gulf in southern Iraq.

Together with a severe drought that has afflicted the region for the past decade, this decline in the quantity and quality of Tigris River water is expected to strangle Iraqi agriculture and hobble the recovery of the Mesopotamian Marshes, vast wetlands in southern Iraq where Sumerian civilization began. The Arabs who live in the marshes were seen as security threats by Saddam Hussein, who accused them of sheltering Shi’ite rebels. He drained the marshes in the 1980s and 1990s by diverting the Tigris into a giant canal. Since the U.S. invasion, the marshes have been making a slow recovery, but the Ilisu Dam will place their survival in jeopardy once more, according to environmental scientists.

This has huge, regional-and-global changing impacts. Over the last 40 years, which is honestly nothing, the entire water ecosystem of three countries has entirely changed. It’s a vast experiment with real human lives at stake, and no one can really say how it will play out.

Dams and Damn Lies and Where Dams Lie

All of this gets to the insanity of national aspirations in a world built on geology. It’s maddening and impossible to think that a border that is drawn arbitrarily, based just on a war here or there or some dusty treaty or just because that’s where we decided, means that some people control the water, and some don’t. Water is real; borders are not. But if you are on one side of that border, if you are upstream, you make the decision.

The decision on what to do with water is true power politics, because it gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We all need water, and whoever controls the headwaters somehow gets to decide who is sated and who is thirsty.

We see this in North America, where the US has essentially cut off the flow of the Colorado River into Mexico. There are treaties to restore it, and technical experts have been working their best to stay away from the heated politics of the moment, and many (though not all) are working in good faith, but it essentially comes down to: we have the river, you can pound (and maybe eat) sand.

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Pictured: not a healthy delta

When you think of the history of the US and Mexico, and the stolen land, and the cheap and phony wars, and the racism and xenophobia that follows, and the idea that those sentiments and actions can control a river, you start to see the ridiculousness of it.

When you reflect on just how recent these activities were (about 170 years), and then think of how recent these enormous dams were built, and think about the endless power of the Colorado River, which over countless eons carved out the goddamn Grand Canyon, you see how absurd this whole thing is. Mexico and the United States? Eyeblinks. That border? Sand. The idea that one country “owns” the Colorado? Mind-boggling arrogance. An insult not just to nature, but to the very concept of time.

And dams, ultimately, remind us what time and human life really mean.

Le Deluge: The Past and The Future

One of the effects of a dam is that the reservoir built by the dam is, well, a reservoir, and therefore underwater. Anyone around there has to leave or drown. Towns get submerged, drowned in the depths. There’s something haunting and ghostly about the idea, full cities suddenly made into Atlantis, being eaten away by our attempts to control the very agents of their deliquesence.

But these are real lives that the slow flood will ruin. Harte estimates 25,000-30,000 people will be displaced, with one of the towns being a true gasping tragedy.

Hasankeyf is one of the towns along the Tigris that will be completely submerged by the Ilisu Dam. Unlike most of the other towns, however, Hasankeyf has been continuously inhabited for 12,000 years. From Neolithic settlements to medieval tombs and temples, the town is a living museum where some people alive today grew up in caves built into cliffs overlooking the Tigris. Archeologists are still discovering new artifacts in the town – the most recent Neolithic settlement was unearthed in September – and they estimate that most of Hasankeyf’s archeological sites will be flooded before they can be excavated.

But flooded they will be, and gone under will be that seemingly-endless chapter of human history, in which people lived thousands of years before we started to decide that civilization meant cities and borders and power.

That’s an inevitable side effect of dams, of course: the submergence of history. It happened when the Aswan High Dam flooded the site of the ancient and enormous Abu Simbel temples, forcing Egypt to pick them up and move them, block by block, away from the drowning waters.

It’s really the damnedest thing

It happens in the United States too. Many communities were drowned when the TVA filled the valleys, and the Glen Canyon Dam destroyed thousands of years of Native history and sacred sites under the waters of Lake Powell.

But flooding, when looked at this way, is inevitable. While changing the flow of a river demonstrates an awesome power, it also is a temporary and transient one. Those ancient sites are not so ancient. They only seem so because of our graspingly desperate misapprehension of Deep Time. The rivers will, ultimately, win.

The Ilisu will one day erode and burst. So will the Hoover and the Aswan. It’s not just that dams are faulty and sometimes, like with the Oroville, can’t handle the weather. It’s that they are impermanent. The Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon. It eroded mile-thick volcanic dams over a dozen times during the Pleistocene. It always wins.

No matter how responsible the government of Turkey is, it will one day fall. Human habituations will change. We might flee a region altogether, or disease may wipe out a huge chunk of the population. None of this may happen soon, but it will happen. That none of the megadams have burst yet doesn’t mean they won’t; it is just a reminder of how impossibly new an idea these actually are.

Humans will stop tending them, or lose the knowledge, or just leave altogether. It may be war, but most likely, it will just be time and its insistence. The water will start finding cracks, and will grow them a forceful laziness, and persistent path of least resistance. These towering structures, which need a word beyond Pharaonic, will weaken and crumble and burst, and the water will burst forth. Ancient cities onces submerged may be see in outlines, while existing cities, themselves now ancient, beaten and strangled by the floodtide.

And the rivers will run again, unconcerned. Looking downhill. Glimmering toward the shining sea.

 

 

 

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The Coming Assaults on the Environment

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The Russia investigations are a grand opera, and there is a strand of thinking among the clever set that it is a Distraction from the real evil of the Trump campaign. To that, as part of the meta-clever set (and we’re just as irritating), I say: very true! But also: nonsense.

It’s nonsense because the Grand Guignol corruption, of which the Russia element is a key part, is a direct threat to our democracy.  That this is making an already deeply-ignorant and hair-trigger dumb President even more unhinged is an enormous issue. Trump’s respect for the mechanisms of our republic are already paper-thin, if that (witness the CinC telling active-duty service members to call their Congressmen in support of GOP policies); if he feels his misdeeds threaten his power, who knows what he’ll do. To say this is a distraction is to say an earthquake is a distraction from your looming heart attack. Both things are bad!

Because, yes: we do get distracted from the day-to-day awfulness of this administration, and the GOP in general. Perhaps the longest-lasting impact will be on the environment, or what is left of it.

Regulations Are For Chumps

 

Mulvaney: As you can see, freedom is dead. 

 

Last week the WaPo did a deep dive on the administration’s dismantling of the regulatory state. This has little to do with Trump, except for his self-sworn and entirely self-centered belief that businesspeople (businessmen, really) would do great if they were just left alone, because they are geniuses and don’t need any interference or help from Uncle Sucker, except when it comes to bankruptcy protection. And patent protection. And the police that protect the interests of the monied class. But still.

It’s mostly gnome-standard GOP stuff above and beyond Trump. The stated philosophy is to unleash the power of the market. The sub-philosophy is that government has no role and that any regulation is bad. The underlying idea is that there is no common good and the rich should be able to plunder.  That’s why they want to dismantle any worker and environmental protections.

We can argue about which regulations are needed and which go too far. We can argue about the role of government. But they truly believe there is no role. And they believe that because workers and the environment are the fodder of capital for other people. They go in, get churned up, and money comes out and into the pockets of the rich.

Congress Takes on Pipelines and Conduits, With Expected Results

Congress is involved too. Last week, a couple of bills passed the House and were sent on to the Senate.

One, HR 2786 seems noncontroversial (and indeed was almost unanimously passed). This makes it easier to build hydroelectric conduits. The good people at Circle of Blue, who flagged both of these bills, explain.

The bill amends the Federal Power Act to encourage the development of small hydropower projects. Currently, a hydropower project installed in a conduit — a pipeline or canal, generally — is exempt from the licensing process if it is less than five megawatts. The bill eliminates the five-megawatt cap. The bill also shortens the time frame for issuing a licensing exemption from 45 days to 30 days. There have been no national assessments of hydropower potential from adding turbines to conduits, but it is assumed to be far less than adding turbines to dams without them. Conduit projects, however, can have significant local benefits.

I admit I don’t know much about this. This might be very needed, and very good. It might be completely insignificant. But it is part and parcel of a desire to step back, to regulate less, to have less interference by experts. Maybe it will turn out great. But when we mess with water, when we alter it, it has a way of coming back to bite us. Dams break down. Cities flood. I think, as we enter an era of water instability, we shouldn’t make moves that make it easier to tamper with the flow.

The second one is less ambiguous and more immediately insidious. H.R.2883 is known as the Promoting Cross-Border Energy Infrastructure Act, so you know it is going to suck. And it is a doozy.

This bill prohibits any person from constructing, connecting, operating, or maintaining a border-crossing facility for the import or export of oil, natural gas, or electricity across an international border of the United States without obtaining a certificate of crossing.

Great! Totally approve. Seems uncontroversial so far. Who wants Canadian companies to lay pipelines willy-nilly?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), with respect to oil or natural gas pipelines, or the Department of Energy (DOE), with respect to electric transmission facilities, must issue a certificate of crossing for the border-crossing facility within 120 days after final action is taken under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, unless it is not in the public interest.

120 days doesn’t really seem like a lot, to me. These are huge, often continent-spanning pipelines. The impact they have on natural resources is enormous and hard to judge. I don’t think I like this.

No presidential permit as required under specified executive orders shall be necessary for the construction, connection, operation, or maintenance of an oil or natural gas pipeline or electric transmission facility, including any border-crossing facility.

This is where the bill really kicks in. While this seems like it is taking away power from Trump, what it is really doing is taking these enormously impactful pipelines out of the realm of public dispute and accountability. It is depoliticizing them in the truest and worst sense. The decision, say, to let bitumen in leaky pipes flow under the Great Lakes will be shunted off to a bureaucracy.

While you could say: good! Let the experts decide without political considerations, what this is really doing is making sure that the decisions are made without scrutiny, and without the negative political ramifications that come with posioning the aquifers. And this isn’t a coincidence. They want this bill passed so that the decisions ultimately are in the hands of this guy.

 

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I know he’s like the least-objectionable person in the admin. He’s still really objectionable. 

 

Rick Perry believes very strongly in pipelines and in “energy independence”. He believes not very strongly in climate science or environmentalism. This bill is a way to greenlight the pumping of Canadian posion into America.

WHAT TO DO?

Call your Senators. Tell them you oppose HR 2883, because you think decisions that can impact the water we drink and the land we farm on should be decided in the open, and not by unelected bureaucrats. It’s ok that it seems hypocritical. They’re being hypocrites about it, and we’re in the right on this one. Call often.

This is a bill that can be easily overlooked thanks to the “distractions”. Which means it is one that a concerted effort can stop. If not, the whole issue of pipelines in this country will be altered, and citizens will have nearly no say in what happens to our land. Which, again, is just the way they want it.

 

Water Diversions and War

 

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Spring Break, 2030! 

 

Here’s the term you are going to need to know in the next part of your life and the life of the planet: hydro-political strife. From Science Daily. 

More than 1,400 new dams or water diversion projects are planned or already under construction and many of them are on rivers flowing through multiple nations, fueling the potential for increased water conflict between some countries.

A new analysis commissioned by the United Nations uses a comprehensive combination of social, economic, political and environmental factors to identify areas around the world most at-risk for “hydro-political” strife. This river basins study was part of the U.N.’s Transboundary Waters Assessment Program.

Researchers from the United States, Spain and Chile took part in the analysis, which has been recommended by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe as an indicator for the U.N.’s sustainable development goals for water cooperation.

Results of the study have just been published in the journal Global Environment Change.

The analysis suggests that risks for conflict are projected to increase over the next 15 to 30 years in four hotspot regions — the Middle East, central Asia, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin, and the Orange and Limpopo basins in southern Africa.

Whomever controls the water has enormous power over their neighbors. It’s a pretty terrifying situation when you think about it: just because your weird and arbitrary border has a river in it, you get to control the lives of people across that line? You can divert it, shunt it, dam it and drain it?

But really, that’s the way it always has been. America, of course, has its fair share of problems with that, like how we pretty much shut off the Colorado from Mexico (a situation that has been slowly and promisingly remediated, though no one knows what a Trump presidency will do to it).

That’s the way it has always been, sure, with resources being the reason for and tool of war, but that doesn’t mean we’re not entering scary new times. There are more people and less water. Climate change is going to be scything across the globe like a whirlwinded Queen of Hearts. Resources will be hoarded and dams will lead to war. An irrigation ditch can be a casus belli. We all know that in the 21st-century, water is war. But I don’t think people recognize just how hair-trigger and volatile it is going to be.

Think of how complex the Waukesha Diversion was. And how peaceful it was. Now imagine how difficult and fraught diversion negotiations will be when it is the life and death of a nation at stake. Think of how easy it will be to boil over into violence. Think of how that has happened in America’s past. That’s tomorrow’s world. Unless we actually come up with a legitimate mechanism for handling these situations, which means a de facto dissolving of some measures of national sovereignty, there is no chance.