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Pages from World Bank History: Development in Iraq

August 15, 2003—In September 1957 Bank staff member Orville J. McDiarmid began a leave of absence to serve as Economic Adviser to the Development Board of Iraq. His description of Iraq in the excerpted piece that follows—which appeared originally in the January-February 1959 issue of International Bank Notes—gives an indication of the challenges faced by development efforts in that country almost half a century ago—some of which remain today.

When the Beirut plane on which the McDiarmids were vacation-bound last July rose above the mile-high opaque blanket that shrouded Baghdad, my son congratulated the family on finally breaking the dust barrier. Dust was an important fact of life in Iraq in the spring and early summer months of a year of exceptional drought. About one-third of a year’s normal 5 to 6 inches of rain fell on a day in November. Then, lack of the usual mid-winter showers meant parched earth and stunted barley in the normally rain-fed liwas of northern Iraq. Crop failure there was 30 to 50 percent. On the irrigated plains of the center and south lack of water from the skies is of lesser concern.  

Orville J. McDiarmid

There, the non-appearance of the usual rain-fed desert shrubs meant hotter days and more dust in May, usually the last reprieve before the 115-130 degree heat of the Iraq summer. But from October till April, weather was no problem. Only the odd shower, of liquid mud, if the rain fell through winds bearing the western desert to Baghdad, interrupted clear skies and pleasant temperatures.

The first two gates for the Wadi Tharthar Flood Control Project being constructed. Photo: Ransomes & Rapier, Ltd.

 I would not like to give an impression that the McDiarmids were entirely immune to the ruins of Nineveh, Babylon and other relics of ancient glory in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Indeed our children stocked a respectable museum in our Baghdad house with priceless pieces picked up from atop many famous picnic mounds, the spelling of which escapes me at the moment. These included a genuine statue of Hammurabi’s wife or mother-in-law purchased at a nominal figure from an energetic urchin in Babylon. It is as well that it, along with my other household effects, remain in Iraq.

More seriously, there are few places on earth of greater historical interest than Iraq. This is some compensation for the climate. A layman like myself may confuse the Abassid Caliph Haruun al-Rashid, who built Baghdad in the eighth century as the capital of Islam, with Rashid Ali of the abortive 1941 coup. He must be impressed, however, that the ruins of the work of Sargon and Hammurabi built in the second and third millennia B.C. provide lessons for modern irrigation that the Iraqi Development Board has considered worthy of study.

No tourist should miss a visit to the Iraqi National Museum where the remarkable English woman, Gertrude Bell, saved for Iraq some of the best of the Ur and Babylonian finds. More would be there if archeology in the last century had not been closer to grave robbery than to the scientific business it is today. While the visitor may not approve of a religion that dictated the slaughter of so many courtesans in the royal death pits of Ur, he must agree that the headdresses they wore in 3000 B.C. would be difficult to buy in Washington today.

Iraq is truly the land of the two rivers, whether one’s interest is in the past or the future. Without Tigris and Euphrates water, the part of the ‘fertile crescent” formed by the great valley would be barren desert, as are the vast reaches to the west between the Euphrates and the Jordan. The civilizations of Sumer in the south and Assyria in the north were of course fed from lands irrigated by the rivers in ancient times. So also was the region around Baghdad in the more recent Islamic period of Haroun as-Rashid and his successors up to the Mongol invasions of the 11th and 12th centuries, when most of the irrigation works were destroyed.

However, wit has only been in late years, when oil and a Bank loan were added to ancient resources of land and water, that the control of the rivers, as distinct from the use of their waters, has been accomplished. This was done first by the Ramadi Barrage, which diverted excess Euphrates waters into Lake Habbaniyah 100 kilometers west of Baghdad and only two years ago, when the Bank-financed project at Samarra, 80 kilometers north of the capital, began to pour Tigris flood waters, that devastated Baghdad in as late as 1954, into Wadi Tharthar. This basin, larger than the Dead Sea, will store enough water for most of southern Iraq if it does not leak. If even larger works now underway on the Tigris tributaries Zab and Diyala are completed, fluctuation in flow will largely be eliminated and the erstwhile, erratic monster will be in reality a canal.

Thus at this stage in its development program, Iraq is well on its way to controlling the two rivers. However, the problem that seemed to have been so masterfully handled by antiquity is again in the forefront of discussions in Iraq. How can irrigation water be used without destroying the soil to which it gives life? Drainage, while less spectacular than Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for a Baghdad opera, is of much greater concern to the Development Board. We have heard that at one time or another the population of the Tigris-Euphrates valley was 20 to 30 million. This estimate was based largely on what the ancient irrigation systems would support if all were in active use at the same time.   

The barrage floor of the Wadi Tharthar Flood Control Project under construction, January 5, 1955. Photo: Goode & Partners

Experts question this conclusion, however, pointing out that the multitude of abandoned systems indicate the long prevalence of the drainage and salination problems and not that they supported a population 3 to 5 times that of modern Iraq. People moved and cities fell as the adjacent lands salted up. In the past as well as more recently, and perhaps in the future, irrigation without adequate drainage destroys the productivity of the flat and heavy soils of central and southern Iraq in which the natural lateral flow of water is slight.

Despite little rain and high temperatures the water table is so high that stagnant puddles remain for long periods after every shower or whenever even a shallow excavation is made, but the surrounding surface is so dry and hot in summer that vegetation-destroying sub-surface salts are washed up and deposited. As tourists will allow, it will take a lot of leaching to make the soil around Babylon produce again the grass that Nebuchadnezzer was supposed to have eaten during a period of despondency.

Construction of the barrage site of the Wadi Tharthar Flood Control Project, January 1, 1955.  Photo:  Goode & Partners


As we bedded down on July 9 as the only guests of Beirut’s spacious Hotel Capitol, and were lulled to sleep by the spatter of rifle fire from the rebel stronghold above, punctuated by the occasional burst of a bomb or grenade, we had nostalgic thoughts of Baghdad lying peacefully under its blanket of dust beside the now smooth-flowing Tigris. Our short sojourn in Iraq was over. Confirmation of the fact came a month later in a cryptic telegram from the new Government.

Without records there is no history. Courtesy of ISG’s World Bank Group Archives.


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