A jouney on the water from Mosul to Basra
Iraq, the country of rivers, is losing its water resources. Climate change, drought, upstream dams in Turkey and Iran, pollution and mismanagement threaten the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Mesopotamian marshes, one of the largest wetlands in the world. The water crisis is complex, with with multiple causes and the potential for future conflicts. A group of young Iraqi activists are trying to raise public awareness of the issue.
Iraq’s environmental misfortunes stem from its geopolitical position. Almost 91% of Iraq’s water supply is not of domestic origin but it flows first through Turkey, Syria and Iran. Turkish and Iranian dams, an instrument of regional hegemony, represent a real threat to the course of the millenary rivers and to their peoples.
Turkey is taking advantage of its upstream position to implement the Southeast Anatolian Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP) that envisioned to build 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric plants and extensive irrigation systems along the Tigris and Euphrates. This infrastructure is drastically reducing the amount of water received by Iraq.
The water crisis is also the result of many internal factors: poor management, obsolete agricultural practices, inadequate regulation of pollution and sewage. Violent conflicts and wars over the last 30 years have worsened the problem. Going south, the situation exacerbates, depriving thousands of people of their right to water.
This journey “on the water” begins in Mosul, a city located on the western bank of the Tigris river and ends in Basra, the city situated on the Shaṭṭ Al-ʿArab, the waterway formed by the union of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It goes through Sulaymaniyah, Baghdad, and the Mesopotamian marshes, one of the world’s great wetlands, it’s an area deeply affected by drought and pollution.
Mosul and the Nineveh Plain were once considered the breadbasket of all Iraq.
Today Iraqi farmers are facing drought, a significant drop in annual rainfall and increasing salinity in the once water-rich country.
The Iraqi agricultural heart is increasingly dry.
2018 was marked by a severe drought in Iraq.
As a result, the government banned summer crops plantation.
Some farmers say they are thinking of leaving the land.
Others have joined local militias to get a regular wage.
In addition to the weather conditions, crops were also affected by the lack of infrastructure, damaged by the war.
Three years after Iraq declared victory against the so-called Islamic State in the extremist group’s stronghold of Mosul, much of the northern city is still rubble.
Thousands of houses, bridges and civil infrastructures are damaged. This includes also water facilities. As a result, thousands of people have no access to drinking water.
Without drinking water, most of the Iraqis are obliged to buy bottle water cooler.
Poor families cannot afford buying them. Lack of potable water is directly linked with the transmission of diseases and environmental pollution, due to the high consumption of plastic.
The second stop of this “water journey” is Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, surrounded by mountains, water sources and beautiful landscapes.
A magnificent and untouched place. However, part of the pollution that reaches the south of Iraq, contaminating the Tigris river waters, comes from here.
Ranj Atta is a waterkeeper. He is an environmentalist committed to defending water and the environment in Iraq.
He is a member of Nature Kurdistan and Waterkeepers Iraq, two environmental associations that protect the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the everyone’s right to clean water.
For decades the municipal and industrial solid waste of Sulaymaniyah have been dumped in a landfill on the banks of the Tanjaro River, a tributary of Tigris River. Poor management and lack of waste treatment have resulted in a serious contamination of soil, water and air of the surrounding area. In addition to municipal waste, there is also waste from oil refineries, cement plants and medical waste from local hospitals.
Local environmental NGOs such as “Waterkeepers Iraq” and “Nature Iraq” are monitoring the situation and calling the government to comply with minimum environmental protection requirements. On April 2019, activists from various civil society organisations, researchers, experts and citizens from all over Mesopotamia, in particular members of the “Save the Tigris” campaign, organized the first Mesopotamian Water Forum in Sulaymaniyah.
Moving from Sulaymaniyah to Baghdad, the water and environmental situation is rapidly deteriorating. The water quality of the Tigris river, the city’s lifeline, has deteriorated in recent times mainly due to industrial and domestica discharges dumped directly into the Tigris river without any treatment. According to a report published by the “Save the Tigris and Iraqi Marshes Campaign” in 2018, more than 1.200.000 cubic meters of pollutants are inside the Tigris river in Baghdad and they represent one of the most common causes of water-related diseases.
Salman Khairallah is an environmentalist, human rights defender and water expert. He is 29 years-old, he is member of the Iraqi Social Forum and the coordinator of the civil society advocacy campaign “Save the Tigris and Iraqi marshes”, launched in 2012 by several Iraqi associations and supported by the Italian non governmental organization Un Ponte Per with the aim of raising international attention on Iraq’s heritage and water resources. Salman frequently monitors the level and pollution of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He also founded “Humat Djilah” association and works with the Iraqi civil society to promote and defend the right to clean water.
In the last years, Salman and his friend Ali AlKharki were able to build a network of young water activists across Iraq. Among them, there is also a young lawyer.
The Mesopotamian marshlands, also called the ‘Garden of Eden’, are one of the world’s great wetlands and represent an important center of biodiversity, rich in vegetation, birds, fish, buffalo, and humans. They play a vital role in the intercontinental migration of birds and have long supported unique human communities. Historically, the Marshes were the largest wetland ecosystem in Western Eurasia. It is a rare aquatic landscape in the desert, providing the habitat for the Ma’dan.
The Ma’dan, also called the Marsh Arabs, live here and their life has revolved around the marshes for 5,000 years, since the Sumerian time. Today, the Marsh Arabs are struggling to cope with the country’s water shortage. This is not the first time. The draining of the Marshes began in the 1950s and continued until the 1970s to regain land for agriculture and oil exploration. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s, during Saddam Hussein government, this work was expanded and accelerated to evict Shia Muslims from the marshes, opponents of the regime.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the marshes have been partially recovered but drought together with upstream dams in Turkey, Syria and Iran could drastically reduce the flow of water to the Tigris and the Euphrates and pose a serious threat to the Mesopotamian marshes, listed on the UNESCO list of heritage sites, with the Sumerian sites of Ur, Eridu and Uruk in 2016, thanks to a campaign made by Iraqi activists. In order to draw attention to the problem, a group of young Iraqis launched the “Iraq without rivers” campaign.
The last destination of this “water journey” is Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and a key center of the country’s oil industry. Once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its canals, today the city suffers from pollution and lack of water. The main source of water in Basra is the Shaṭṭ Al-ʿArab, the waterway formed by the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris, which flow through the city.
Basra’s water resources have fallen victim to “decades of pollution, mismanagement and corruption”, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch published in 2019. Increase in saline water from the Persian Gulf, decline in water levels in rivers, an increase in chemical and biological contaminants in the Shaṭṭ Al-ʿArab, from sewage and industrial waste, exacerbated with lack of proper water treatment plants, have led to an unprecedented environmental and health crisis.
In the summer of 2018, at least 118.000 people were hospitalized due to water-related illnesses such as diarrhoea, vomiting, rashes, while thousands protested in the street over a lack of drinkable water.
This situation in Basra is badly exacerbated by the oil industry which has been accused of exceeding water-use quotas set by the province by injecting oil wells with more water than permitted. The oil industry is not only worsening droughts, it is actively polluting local water resources. In 2018 a civil society fact-finding mission found dangerous levels of pollution in Basra’s water supplies caused by the oil companies.
Basra is one of the most cancer-afflicted provinces, especially in areas close to sources of pollution (oil and gas facilities). Health institutions refuse to disclose their official figures, but experts and specialists have made it clear that some stages of oil extraction, in particular the flaring of gases, may lead to the emission of carcinogenic gases.
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The site was published on 22/03/2020.
Reporting, Videography, Montage and Sound
Arianna Pagani and Sara Manisera
Design and development
Cecilia Dalla Negra, Stefano Rea
Yahia Kareem and Giulio Asta
Special thanks to
Thanks to all the activists who have supported and accompanied us during this journey