Iraq's prolonged drought reveals historic sites flooded by Mosul dam

Exclusive photos show Yazidi primary school, cemetery and religious shrine in village that disappeared 40 years ago

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A climate change-induced drop in water levels at Iraq's biggest dam has revealed three Yazidi landmarks that were submerged for about 40 years.

The emergence of a primary school, cemetery and religious shrine in old Khanki village, on the banks of Mosul Dam Lake, is bittersweet for locals.

“It is a joyful and sad feeling to see our landmarks again after about 40 years of burying them under water … but we are sad because this drop in the water level is very dangerous and warns of a disaster,” Hamza Eido, head of the old Khanki village, south-west of the city of Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, told The National.

After fishermen on the dam noticed a drop in water levels, former residents of the village began to visit. One family travelled from Germany.

The remains reappeared last month for the second time since they were covered by the Mosul Dam’s waters in 1985, but more damage has been done since the area last dried out in 2018.

“This cemetery is called Sheikh Bazid's cemetery or the old cemetery of Khanki. It dates back more than a thousand years and contains more than a thousand tombs. What appears of them now is only about 400. Nothing remains of the shrine except stones,” said Mr Eido, 69.

“The first time the shrine was still in its old form, and now only some stones are left.”

Hamza Eido and Sheikh Khalat travel to the site by boat. Ismael Adnan for The National

Before the $1.5 million dam was built, the site was regularly visited by the Yazidi community, who would walk long distances from surrounding villages to perform rituals like circumambulating the shrine each May or, more regularly, visiting the graves of relatives.

Sheikh Khalat, 58, is part of a two-family team who kept the cemetery site in better days along with Mr Eido. Both men, grandsons of caretakers, now look after the new cemetery and shrine.

“We used to walk about 10km in all weather, in order to serve the cemetery and the shrine. We came twice a week and lit a fire according to the customs of the Yazidis,” he told The National, adding that the real beauty of the place was its service to coexistence.

“There was peace between us and the Arabs, and there was no difference between any religion or sect, and our Arab brothers used to join us annually on the occasion of the circumambulation that takes place in the month of May.”

The Yazidi people are a religious minority in Iraq who have faced persecution, particularly from the extremist group ISIS, who enslaved or killed those who refused to convert to Islam. Mass graves of Yazidi people are still being uncovered.

To make room for the 380 square kilometre dam, the residents of Khanki and 75 other villages were forcibly removed. They built a new village and a replica of the shrine in a new area.

Call to action to stop Iraq’s thirst

Today's Mosul dam has a storage capacity ranging from six to 11 billion cubic metres but has been forced to release stored supplies after water levels Iraq's main rivers — the Tigris and Euphrates — plunged 30 per cent, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources said.

Iraq has blamed neighbour Turkey's huge network of dams for the drop in water levels, but climate change and irresponsible water use is also a factor.

“The water was abundant when the dam was filled,” said Hamza Ramadan, a professor at the University of Duhok and director of the Institute for Water and Energy Strategies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

“These landmarks appeared due to the fourth season of drought in Iraq, Turkey and Iran's continuing control of Iraq's water shares, the weakness of the state in taking quick measures to reduce excessive use of river water, and an increase in water for irrigation of wheat in central and southern Iraq.”

Mr Ramadan said inaction could run the Mosul lake completely dry. That would leave the 1.7 million residents of the nearby city of Mosul without power and crops unirrigated.

“The future is dangerous if the Iraqi government does not initiate negotiations and start serious talks with Turkey on water,” Mr Ramadan said.

Iraq's Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al Sudani was scheduled to visit Turkey on Tuesday for talks on water share in hopes of alleviating the immediate issues and coming to a better long-term agreement on the rivers’ waters.

Updated: March 22, 2023, 5:48 AM