Where possible, the course presents students with writings or media produced by different stakeholders, showing how their values and interest color their conceptions of and approaches to water problems. Examples of this in the course’s case studies include 1) conflicting viewpoints of the Turkish government, Kurdish villagers in southeastern Turkey, and downstream Syrian and Iraqi citizens on Turkey’s construction of massive hydroelectric dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; 2) diverging assessments by the Iraqi government, the former “Marsh Arabs,” and environmental conservationists of the feasibility and desirability of re-flooding the drained Iraqi marshes; 3) different conceptions between two government agencies in pre-war Yemen of how to resolve water scarcity via technical versus social changes.
The course encourages students to probe the different social, political, and technological contexts that can underlie what on the surface may appear to be similar uses of a particular environment. For example, the Ma’rib Oasis in lowland northern Yemen is a major agricultural area for that country today, as it was at the time of the Iron Age Sabaean kingdoms 2000 years ago, whose inhabitants built the famous Ma’rib Dam mentioned hundreds of years later in the Holy Qu’ran. But the water and institutional contexts of the Sabaeans and the modern Yemenis show two radically different choices of how to exist in the same place under similar climatic conditions. The local Sabaean kings took responsibility for organizing labor for the construction and repair of the dam and the oasis communities relied on the dam to lift and redirect season mountain floodwaters into oasis fields planted with native drought-tolerant crops and trees. In the 1980s, the president of the UAE financed the construction of a new dam at Ma’rib, but locals do not use this water for agriculture, preferring instead to remain independent from the Yemeni and foreign governments by installing their own groundwater pumps to supply fields of water-thirsty non-native crops. Meanwhile, the water stored in the new dam (the ancient dam did not have a storage function) has caused a humid microclimate in the desert oasis that increases mosquito-borne illness. The Ma’rib Oasis is as green today as it was in the past, but the water comes from a completely different source, with different environmental effects, water needs have changed, and water management occurs in a completely different social context.