What Iraq Needs More Than Oil
How a 1964 Turkish film explains water politics in the Middle East today.
Oil isn't the only natural resource that matters in Iraq. Last month, the country announced it had begun receiving over 50 percent more water from the Euphrates River thanks to an upstream neighbor, Turkey.
Oil isn’t the only natural resource that matters in Iraq. Last month, the country announced it had begun receiving over 50 percent more water from the Euphrates River thanks to an upstream neighbor, Turkey.
Mesopotamia was once home to muscular rulers who tamed the abundant waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, making possible a thriving, advanced civilization. As a result, Iraq always had more water than most other countries in the region. The only problem was how to store and distribute it, especially in drought years like the current one. But today, crumbled infrastructure and inefficient water management leave Iraq — once a preferred backdrop for biblical flood sagas — reliant on the flow from foreign reservoirs to keep its many wheat and barley farmers afloat.
And it’s not the newly behind-the-scenes occupiers, the Americans, or even the Iranians that Iraq needs to woo for continued supply. It’s Turkey, the other up-and-coming regional hegemon, that controls most of the floodgates.
Substitute Russia for Turkey and gas for water, and we’d be hearing all about another high-stakes struggle for natural resources. Periodic Russian threats to cut off pipelines have, after all, literally chilled some of its former satellites into compliance.
So why hasn’t the world heard more about the Middle East’s water dynamics and the threat of "aquadictators"? For one thing, the kind of searing images that link oil riches to corruption and belligerence in the popular imagination don’t readily accompany the politics of water. Cinematic depictions of aquapower (which have typically hovered in quality somewhere around Waterworld) are also wanting, unable to compete with movies like Syriana, which provides a complex look at Middle Eastern power politics.
But the imagery was always there; it was just waiting to be rediscovered. In fact, this age-old drama of scarcity was encapsulated decades ago in an almost-forgotten gem of Turkish cinema, lovingly restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation — and now available to watch for free online. The film was apparently suppressed by the Turkish government shortly after it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1964. Dry Summer reappears at an opportune time, both for modern-day comparisons and for another look at the rich social realism offered by the director, Metin Erksan. It deserves a receptive audience.
What’s striking about the film — besides its frank erotic undertones and its stark depiction of rural Turkish village life — is how relevant its subject matter remains. In the simple story of a ruthless farmer’s claim to a source of water on his land, it dramatizes competing notions of property rights that still trouble us today. And it successfully straddles that line between modernity and tradition so often referred to when talking about present-day Turkey. Even as the characters channel ancient rivalries of Cain and Abel, the female lead’s blend of head scarf and billowy salwar pants wouldn’t look at all out of place in a Middle Eastern music video.
The story begins simply enough with two brothers who are farmers in a small village. The eldest, Osman, an amoral brute who lusts after his brother’s wife, decides that the spring on the brothers’ property should irrigate their own land first, at the expense of the disorganized peasants downstream. The younger brother, Hassan, the film’s principled, prudent foil, disagrees, arguing that they should let the water flow freely, but he obeys Osman’s will.
Layer by layer, the film constructs a debate between two irreconcilable views. On one side is Hassan and the villagers who embody the communitarian view that water belongs to no one and should be shared by all; the spring on Osman’s land is "as old as Adam," says one villager. Osman’s view, meanwhile, is that the water belongs to whoever owns the land around it. It’s to the film’s credit that when these admittedly self-serving views clash, both sides seem to have a point.
Even more impressively, the film was completed more than a decade before Turkey actually began to enact this parable on a national scale. Starting in the 1980s, the government began constructing a series of dams and reservoirs to tap into latent hydroelectric potential and wean the country off of foreign energy sources (sound familiar?). The Southeastern Anatolia Project, as it’s called, is targeted for completion by 2013 and would be great for some people, especially those in Turkey who would benefit from more-reliable sources of power and better irrigation. Others stand to lose out. The Ilisu Hydroelectric Dam, begun in 2006 on the Tigris River, could displace thousands of Turks and destroy ancient historical sites in addition to affecting those farmers across the border in Iraq.
The point is not to argue that Turkey is a ruthless bully (though Syria, worried about a choked water supply after tensions rose between the two countries in 1998, may beg to differ). Nor is it advisable to exaggerate the likelihood of "water wars" to destabilize the region. Put simply, this prescient film efficiently makes the point that as long as neighbors rely on each other for scarce resources, their interests won’t necessarily align. Although it thankfully makes no appearance in the movie, that’s the essence of the U.N. Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, a treaty that Turkey incidentally refuses to sign.
But even without legal arbitration, actors in such cases tend to understand the value of compromise. After all, there aren’t many options available to desperate thirsty people besides force. Dry Summer delivers this point with a memorable ending and a suggestion for how an agreement might be reached. If the person standing between you and a well understands only greed, offer the only thing he will respond to: money. You’ll still be downstream, but at least you’ll both be drinking from the same source.
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