“There is no soul that will not burst into tears when [he/she] sees dried date palms and their blood-shedding sprouts in Hilla and Diwvaniyya, where once was a beautiful garden.” These were the bitter words of the people of Hilla, who feeling neglected by the imperial center, petitioned for justice in 1904. More than a century previously, Asaf-ud-Daula (d. 1797), the famous Indian nawab of Awadh, had sponsored the construction of the Hindiya diversion project to carry water to Najaf in order to show his pious patronage for this sacred pilgrimage center of the Shi‘i world. With the opening of the Hindiya branch, Istanbul and the local government in Baghdad tried to slow down the over-flowing of the Euphrates by opening canals and building embarkments on this branch. However, these attempts failed to maintain a reliable supply of water for the region’s inhabitants and eventually precipitated a major crisis at the beginning of the 20th century.
While the complete drying up of the Euphrates’ Hilla branch left four districts and fifteen subdistricts without water, the inhabitants of Hindiya basin were plagued by repeated floods, which resulted in economic ruin, turned agricultural lands to marshes, and displaced many villagers. Drawing upon Ottoman and British archival sources, this presentation explores the changing course of the Euphrates in two ways. First, it tries to understand what kinds of strategies the local inhabitants of the Euphrates basin adopted to respond to the changing environment around them. Second, it attempts to understand how the Ottoman state reacted to material demands and social grievances resulting from the river’s changing course.
Benefiting from the interdisciplinary discussions about infrastructure, this presentation questions the modern infrastructural projects’ promise of modernity, progress, and development to all inhabitants of a region when inaugurated. Alternatively, this study portrays the water infrastructure projects in late Ottoman Iraq as open-ended and contingent processes in which some groups, such as the inhabitants of Hilla and Diwvaniyya, had to struggle continuously in dealing with the consequences of infrastructure necessary for their survival.