Confronting complex issues, activists gather in Sulaimani for water forum

Mesopotamian Water Forum panelists Latif al-Obeidi of Nature Iraq (left), Anna Bachmann of Waterkeepers Iraq (center), and Huda Jabbar of Humat Dijlah (right) discuss the state of the Mesopotamian basin on April 6, 2019. (NRT Digital Media)

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SULAIMANI — In an effort address the complex challenges of water management in the Mesopotamian region, civil society activists gathered at the University of Sulaimani on Saturday (April 6) for the start of a three-day forum.

Coordinator of Save the Tigris Campaign Toon Bijnens told NRT Digital Media that the idea behind the Mesopotamian Water Forum was to create a space for dialogue to discuss transboundry water issues including dams, pollution, and water sharing management.

“I think people are very isolated in the countries here and I think it’s important they establish linkages with activists who are working on the same issues across the border and I think you can find strength and solidarity in transnational networks,” Bijnens said.

“In this case, it’s especially important since we’re talking about transboundary issues and it works if you’re pushing from different directions.”

During the panels on Saturday, the speakers emphasized that water management goes far beyond concerns of how to divide up an increasingly valuable resource.

It requires that communities grapple with contentious debates over state power, democratic participation, cultural heritage, economic development, displacement, and sustainable stewardship of nature.

In order to address this multifaceted challenge, the Forum’s organizers worked to bring together people from all parts of the Mesopotamian basin, as well as experts and activists from around the world to share their experiences and ideas.

Conference participants came from the Kurdistan Region, central and southern Iraq, Iran, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Turkey, and from as far away as Sudan, Chile, Europe, Russia, and the United States.

Activists start their work from the fundamental fact that the Euphrates, Tigris, and their tributaries cross state, linguistic, and cultural borders and flow through a region that has a long history of interstate and intercommunal conflicts, some of which are still active.

In fact, member of Save the Tigris and President of Humat Dijlah Ali Alkarkhi, who works on water issues in southern and central Iraq, told NRT Digital Media it was possible that the next conflict in the region could be over water.

“After the sectarian war, after the war against [Islamic State] terrorism, now some of the tribes in southern Iraq have begun to fight each other for this resource, for the water. This is a clear sign for the future. If the situation continues like this, we might be in a new kind of conflict,” Alkarkhi said.

“It’s the [kind] of situation that we don’t want to get back to, especially when we are thinking right now in Iraq about the stage of reconstruction. All of the public interest is focused on this stage, but [it] is in danger because of the possibility of returning to conflict.

“That’s why we need to protect water resources, to provide enough water for Iraqis to be able to live,” he added.

Moreover, these rivers flow through polities where decision-making about water is often undemocratic and does not fully account for the impact on local communities.

“What we are trying to do [at the Forum] is to motivate more people to engage, to connect groups over borders in a better way, to effect other people and public opinion,” Ercan Ayboga, an activist with the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, told NRT Digital Media.

Ayboga and his group work to stop the destruction of land and cultural heritage in southeastern Turkey with a particular focus on the impact that the controversial  Ilisu Dam will have on the area around the town of Hasankeyf.

He said that the Turkish government’s dam construction strategy in the southeast has had a deep impact on the people living in the Mesopotamian region, destroying wilderness areas and archaeological sites, displacing whole communities, and affecting water levels downstream in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and Syria.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced,” he said, adding that the government, which says dam construction is necessary for the economic development of the area, has been largely unresponsive to the desires of local people.

“Our struggle is also part of the democratic struggle,” he said.

Increasingly, climate change is affecting weather patterns in Mesopotamia, noted Anna Bachmann a mentor for Waterkeepers Iraq during a presentation of the current status of the ecosystem of the Mesopotamian basin.

During the past several decades, the basin has experienced several long periods of drought, in addition to unusually rainy periods, which both have had a significant impact of the ecology of the region and the people.

Several participants at the forum brought up the devastating floods that have killed an estimated 70 people and displaced thousands in Iran over the last several weeks.

Several panelists said that climate change would continue to have a negative impact on the region, exacerbating already difficult conditions for people, animals, and plants.

Asked if he was hopeful that the challenges identified during the conference could be solved, Alkarkhi said that depended on how committed the authorities were to dealing with this complex issue.

“Decision-makers and authorities of all kinds should put [water management] on the list of priorities – for us, it’s a top priority – but they have at least to put it on the list,” he explained.

“We need to take this long list of issues surrounding water seriously. We’re calling on the international community to stand with us because…we are newly active on this issue. We are a new movement in Iraq,” he added.

In the spirit of encouraging public participation, NRT Digital Media asked Bijnens what ordinary citizens could do if they wanted to get involved in water management issues.

“Here in the Kurdistan Region, we have some local organizations who are part of the network [of activists],” he said, mentioning Waterkeepers Iraq, Nature Kurdistan, and the Green Kurdistan Project as examples.

“All of them organize a lot of activities. I think it’s important to start on the local level like clean-ups or campaigns or festivals to sensitize people about water, water consumption, pollution and preservation of rivers.

Alkarkhi summed up the feeling of many at the Forum, saying: “Now is the time to think about our future, about water resources for the next generation, to think about the existence of this country after 30 years. It’s endangered.”

(NRT Digital Media)


Mesopotamian Water Forum attendees at the University of Sulaimani on April 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: NRT Digital Media)


Coordinator of Save the Tigris Campaign Toon Bijnens speaks at the Mesopotamian Water Forum at the University of Sulaimani on April 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: NRT Digital Media)


Save the Tigris member and President of Humat Dijlah Ali Alkarkhi speaks at the Mesopotamian Water Forum at the University of Sulaimani on April 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: NRT Digital Media)


Mesopotamian Ecology Movement Ercan Ayboga member speaks at the Mesopotamian Water Forum at the University of Sulaimani on April 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: NRT Digital Media)

Mesopotamian Water Forum attendees at the University of Sulaimani on April 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: NRT Digital Media)


Mesopotamian Water Forum attendees at the University of Sulaimani on April 6, 2019. (Photo Credit: NRT Digital Media)