French artist Emeric Lhuisset’s latest project uses the ruins of an ancient Mesopotamian city to warn of the potential for a water war in Iraq’s future

In southern Iraq, in the modern-day Dhi Qar Governorate, is an archaeological site that dates back almost 8000 years. The ancient city of Girsu was once among the biggest cities in the world, but when French artist and art historian Emeric Lhuisset travelled there earlier this year, he went to photograph the remains of a single structure, marooned in the middle of the desert.

Once the religious capital of the city-state of Lagash, Girsu was caught up in a war with the nearby city-state of Umma in around 2600BC. The conflict, which centred over control of irrigation canals from the river Tigris, lasted 300 years. In the end, Girsu was completely destroyed. The structure that Lhuisset went to photograph, standing alone in the middle of the desert, was once a bridge.

Like all of Lhuisset’s projects, The Last Water War: Ruins of a Future is not purely aesthetic. The project, which is scheduled to be shown at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris from September 29 to December 4, has a powerful sociopolitical and environmental message. By travelling back into the past, Lhuisset aims to shed light on the very real risk of a water war in Iraq’s future.

“I’ve been working in Iraq for a long time now, and there is actually a very high risk of a war over water, for different reason,” he says. “The first are internal reasons – the religious divisions and the presence of militia groups that are not really controlled by the government. Then there are regional reasons. The control of dams is one of the principle objectives of the Islamic State, and Turkey has a new project to build a huge dam to irrigate southern Anatolia and create a culture of cotton. The third reasons are global – global warming is increasing temperatures, and with higher temperatures water evaporates faster and sea levels rise. Salty water is progressively moving inside the delta of the Tigris and the Euphrates and infiltrating the ground water.”

If unchecked, these factors will eventually lead to parts of southern Iraq that are currently fertile agricultural lands transforming into desert, just as Girsu once did.
“It’s a catastrophe. It’s already started in the past year and a half,” Lhuisset explains. “A lot of buffalo died because they drank salty water. The fishermen are already having problems. There are problems with agriculture. And some of the people from this delta area have started to move north.”

Should the desertification continue, it will affect a population of 20 million. “This area of southern Iraq is mostly Shia,” Lhuisset explains. “If they move north, they will arrive in a Sunni area. Militia groups will probably displace the Sunni population, or, in a more horrible scenario, they might massacre the population to take control of the water.”
Some of Lhuisset’s photographs of Girsu were taken by hand, and others were shot using a drone, capturing the arid, rocky landscape from above. One of these will be blown up to a massive 100 metres square and displayed on the IMA’s patio. “It will be on the ground of the patio and you can walk on it. When you are on the patio it will be a bit abstract, and then, when you’re on the eighth floor, you can see the whole picture from above,” he explains.

Other photographs will be on show within the museum. “They will be mixing with the museum’s permanent collection,” Lhuisset says. “They have some old plates from ancient Mesopotamia… I will also probably have some pieces from the Louvre on show, because afterwards part of the show will travel to the Louvre-Lens as part of an exhibition about Mesopotamia. I worked with the conservator of the Mesopotamian department at the Louvre Museum. We took some pieces from the Louvre and mixed them with the MIA’s permanent collection and with my work.”

Lhuisset’s photographs will be accompanied by a video documentary, featuring interviews with locals about the water problem. A book published alongside the exhibition will combine art and science, featuring a broad selection of Lhuisset’s striking photographs, accompanied by a series of texts written by scientists and experts reflecting on the local, regional and global factors that could lead to the first war to be fought purely over water since the destruction of Girsu more than 4000 years ago.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Collectors Issue #38, pages 132-135.