It is the river that gave birth to civilisation.
The place where humans first developed agriculture, the written word and the wheel.
But the River Tigris is under threat.
Geopolitics and climate change have left the lifeblood of ancient Mesopotamia and modern Iraq at risk of becoming uninhabitable.
Described as the “canary in the mine” for the planet, it’s being predicted that by 2040, the river may dry up before it reaches the sea.
What did Leon McCarron discover on his journey down the Tigris River?
One man who’s experienced the shocking state of the river for himself is adventurer and journalist Leon McCarron.
In 2021, he travelled by boat along the full length of the river, in search of hope.
From its source, where Assyrian kings had their images carved into stone, McCarron and his small team journeyed through the Turkish mountains, across north-east Syria and into the heart of Iraq.
Passing by historic cities like Diyarbakir, Mosul and Baghdad, he kept the company of fishermen and farmers, as well as artists, activists and archaeologists who rely on the flow of the river.
Occasionally harassed by militias, often helped by soldiers, McCarron rode his luck in areas still troubled by ISIS and relied on the generosity of a network of strangers to reach the Persian Gulf.
His book Wounded Tigris, which was published in April, tells the story of what humanity
stands to lose with the death of this once great river, and what can be done to try to save it.
Now, as the Northern Ireland-born 37-year-old prepares to talk about his remarkable journey at a Royal Scottish Geographical Society lecture in Kirkcaldy, he told The Courier that the “environmental precipice” facing the river should be a warning to the world.
Poor water management and aftermath of Iraq wars taking their toll on Tigris
“Essentially a lot of the challenges come down to poor management of the water,” he said.
“There’s been a number of dams built at the head waters of the river in Turkey.
“This gives Turkey the ability to control the amount of water that flows downstream, briefly into Syria and then on into Iraq.
“There’s no multi-lateral water sharing agreement in place between those three countries that share the river.
“There are also dams built in Iran on some of the major tributaries of the Tigris.
“In Iraq there’s been terrible governance over the waterways.
“Ageing water management systems, very poor policy, no real enforcement of protection.
“There’s anything and everything being dumped into the river from one end to the other.
“But then of course there’s a changing climate that’s making weather systems much more erratic which is increasing desertification in the south.
“Some predictions are that within the next 10 years, or at least by 2040, the river may no longer reach the Gulf.
“That’s quite a shocking thing to think – one of the great rivers of civilisation literally running dry before it reaches the end.
“And of course a lot of the governance issues in Iraq come from the fact there was just chaos created after (the US/allied invasion of Iraq) in 2003. There was no plan made for the country.
“The government that stepped in and was put in place at that time has always been set up to fail.
“The country has never recovered from the invasion.”
Who is Leon McCarron?
Born and raised in Northern Ireland – but regularly holidaying in Aberdeenshire on visits to see his grandparents – Leon went to school in Northern Ireland before going to university in the south of England.
After a year working in Kent to save money, he embarked upon a “glorified gap year” cycling around the world.
He gained a sense of travelling more slowly and visiting more unusual places.
It inspired his first book, The Road Headed West: A Cycling Adventure Through North America.
He then embarked upon story-telling projects where he travelled “very slowly and immersively”.
Nine years ago, he ended up in the Middle East and from there his work “pivoted” towards the region.
He uses travel writing and “slow journalism” as a way to draw in a broader audience, and to truly understand key issues.
How did Leon end up in Iraq?
“I first went to Iraq in 2016 as a journalist,” he said.
“There was a war on at the time to liberate Mosul from ISIS.
“It kind of fitted what a lot of people might stereotype it as.
“I then started to see a lot of the mountains in the north in the Kurdistan region.
“I started a project then which I’ve been doing parallel to the Tigris of creating a long distance hiking trail through those mountains, connecting together all the old pilgrimage paths, shepherds paths and so on.
“But I also learned more about the region and the 12,000 years of history from this river.”
Why are we all linked to the Tigris River?
Leon was struck by how this was where some of the earliest civilisations on Earth emerged.
So much of what we know today has its roots there – the first written words, the first legal systems, the first universities, the first love songs – all of these things came from the banks of the Tigris.
Yet because of recent history – because of the Iraq wars in 2003 and 1991, because of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, because of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – the west has “collectively forgotten” its connection to this part of the world.
He wanted to show what a “fabulous, fascinating, and just incredibly friendly country” Iraq is despite a “really brutal and traumatic 100 years” since becoming a sovereign country.
He wanted to show all those “wonderful things” that get forgotten, but also to draw attention to what hardship there has been and what might come next.
“Humans cause this and humans suffer,” he said, “but it’s never the same humans that are causing it who suffer.
“People along the river: They know their lives are changing. They know they can’t swim in the water anymore because it’s too polluted.
“They know they can’t feed it to their animals because it’s too polluted.
“They can’t fish in it, they can’t use it to irrigate their crops like they used to.
“They see very real impacts of it.
“And of course there’s not necessarily much incentive for those people to protect or look after the water they have left because it just seems like such a drop in the ocean.
“But there are a number of really interesting and amazing kind of civil society and environmental activist groups that have emerged in Iraq.
“I’ve travelled with a couple of members from one of them.
“They are in their 30s like me and they’ve dedicated much of their adult lives to try and protect the waterways, to document the pollution, to document everything else.
“But ultimately, the change has to happen at policy level.
“I think what is interesting is the government in Iraq blames most of the problems on their neighbours – on Turkey, on Iran building dams.
“A lot of local people buy into this rhetoric. That is true. It is a big part of the problem.
“If you ask most people along the river they’ll say ‘it’s Turkey’s fault or Iran’s fault or it’s someone else’s fault’.
“But the hopeful thing is I was lucky on this expedition to travel all the way to Iraq with these young water activists – whatever future there is for Iraq, it comes from people like them.”
Why should the world be concerned about the threats facing the Tigris River?
Leon said it took about two years to plan the journey with British photojournalist Emily Garthwaite.
They were told travelling the length of the river would be impossible – and it almost was.
It was an “endless challenge” to make it work. But that was almost part of the point.
“One of the things I really try to emphasise is it’s humans that cause these things, that exacerbate them,” he said.
“If we as a species can destroy a river in the place where water management itself was first developed, and if we can bring one of these great rivers that started civilisation as we know it to the brink of collapse, then we are capable of doing that everywhere.
“It really it is a canary in the mine for how bad things can get everywhere else.
“But the hopeful part is that if we can destroy it we can also fix it.
“We can be the solution as well as the problem.
“My Iraqi colleagues said to me ‘you’ve always got to have hope’, otherwise what’s the point of even trying.
“But it’s a melancholy story, the Tigris. It’s not yet dead.
“But it is on the brink and there needs to be significant change.”
Where and when to hear Leon McCarron’s Kirkcaldy talk
The RSGS talk – Leon McCarron: Wounded Tigris: A River Journey – takes place at Kirkcaldy Old Kirk, Kirk Wynd, Kirkcaldy, at 7.30pm on Monday October 16.