Mesopotamia: youth-run group that want to save the Two Rivers’ people

22 May 2020, 11:26

Middle East. Organized by activists and technicians from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, the second edition of the Water Forum is underway. A battle to protect water resources endangered by climate change and over-exploitation implemented by states. Because the water becomes, they say, a source of peace and no longer of conflict.

Last year ended with an overwhelming version of ‘Bella Ciao’ song in Arabic. The classrooms of the polytechnic of Suleymania, in Iraqi Kurdistan, served as a sounding board, after hosting the first Mesopotamian Water Forum. It seems much more than a year has passed.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the second edition of the Forum will be held on next Saturday and Sunday in the form of an online assembly, due to the health and logistical problems that everyone now knows.

The forum doesn’t promises to be less interesting for this reason. In 2019, an assembly was held and for many reasons it had an historical value: bringing together at the same table activists and technicians who deal with issues related to water resources. It was an exceptional achievement whose merit goes to the Iraqi youth of the Save The Tigris and Iraqi Marshes Campaign.

Born in March 2012, the advocacy campaign brings together Iraqi civil society organizations, local non-governmental organizations, supported by international organizations that for years (as in the case of the Italian Un Ponte Per) have sustained and supported them. The aim is to save the world heritage of Iraqi rivers, their history, the life of the communities that for centuries have drawn their sustenance from those rivers.

Since the beginning of their struggle the campaign has also involved regional actors. In fact their action and activities were immediately characterized by the refusal of sectarianism that poisons the country since the invasion of the international military coalition in 2003. Turkey’s hydro-electric projects, with the huge basin of the Ilisu dam that will submerge entire areas of Turkish Kurdistan, end up having serious repercussions also on the border states, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Neighbors that Ankara has always ignored.

At the same time, the authorities of those countries – such as Iran hosting the Daryan dam – have deployed their energy strategy which, once again, has a devastating impact on the environment and communities affected. The Kurdish-Iraqi government itself continues to develop projects in this sense: the Mosul dam in past years has become a warlike objective.

Within the context of one of the regions with the most serious problems of water scarcity, these dynamics are even more dangerous: according to United Nations data, in the Middle East lives  about 6% of the world population, but only 2% of the globally drinking water is available. Twelve of the countries with the fewer water resources in the world are located in this region, largely desert, with an arid climate that provides long and dry summers.

At the same time the region includes capacious water basins, fundamental for the resident populations. One has only to consider the Nile in Egypt, Tigers and Euphrates in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, or the Jordan river between Israel and Jordan.

The main problem lies in the excessive exploitation of these sources, together with the underground aquifers. The so-called water stress, which consists in the discrepancy between high demand and low water availability, which often indicates a shortage also in terms of quality.

In terms of water stress, the Middle East is among the most vulnerable areas in the world. Early as 2010, a study by MEnara (Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture) showed that the Tigris and Euphrates basin had lost 144 cubic kilometers of water since 2003, due to disproportionate pumping operations. Human activities weigh on water reserves both with the construction of dams and invasive irrigation systems, and through unsustainable consumption. The inefficiency in water management in many countries in the region, then, is such that over 80% of the reusable wastewater in the agricultural and industrial fields is not recovered.

Although the adoption of some strategies aims at significantly reduce these problems, the associated costs and infrastructures are often prohibitive. In this scenario, climate change could lead to a further tightening of water scarcity, causing a reduction in precipitation and an increase in sea level.

The decrease in rainfall could settle over time – according to the UN – on 25% less than the decade just ended, also due to the increase in the average surface temperature. Some studies predict a rise to 4.5 ° C in the eastern Mediterranean, with a consequent extension of the water deficit in the Jordan basin and a 50% drop in drinking water levels in Syria. Furthermore, the continuous increase in temperatures could lead to a decrease in the flows of the Euphrates and Jordan by 30% and 80% respectively, by the end of the century.

The young activits of the ‘Save the Tigris Campaign’, little by little, have become a regional point of reference with their battles in defense of the peoples of the marshes, in the delta of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Their efforts aim at defending the traditional culture of the communities grown around the two rivers and seeing the recognition of the right to access to water for Iraqis. Year after year, a community has been built around them, with activists from Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon.

International activists and researchers who deal with water, from all points of view, joined them. To mention a few the British John Croofot, the Russian Eugene Simonov, the Sudanese Ali Askouri, the Chilean Alexander Pinto. The struggles in the region are many. In addition to the aforementioned situations of the Ilisu dam, the Daryan dam and Mosul, the battle stories are many.

One example above all, an issue still alive in Lebanon: the Bisri Valley. It consists in a mega dam that, on paper, should solve the supply problems of the area of the so-called ‘great Beirut’. But it would devastate an extraordinary archeological area and a fundamental agricultural territory.

During last year’s forum a final statement was produced. It was drawn up by an assembly, attended by international companies such as Un Ponte Per, the Italian Forum for Water and WaterGrabbing Observatory from Italy, the British CornerHouse, the Americans of International Rivers, the Swedes of Dam Removal and many others. That document is a text that offers a global view of what is only a relatively regional problem. A battle of rights and civilizations is being fought around the defense of Tigers and Euphrates.

Today is clearer then never that a multitude of factors are closely related, and this is evident for those who experience this situation on their own skin, from Lebanon to Iran.

Last year’s document denounces the serious impacts of water resources and social structures on river ecosystems, on cultural heritage and on local economies. In the document the unacceptable lack of democratic and decisive mechanisms were particularly emphasized. It was also stressed how the use of dams as weapons of hegemony by upstream states against downstream communities becomes an instrument of inequality and potential conflicts, including armed ones.

All this contributes in a devastating way to the pollution of the territories and resources.

This year’s forum has hosted other contributions, in addition to complaints. An alternative system has been worked out which includes the community practices of Rojava, in Syrian Kurdistan, to the development of sustainable, democratic and non-conflictual practices,

“We support policies that guarantee sustainable and fair use of water for all those living in the region. Our campaign calls for a paradigm shift: instead of being a source of rivalry, water could be a force for peace and cooperation between all the countries and peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. Our advocacy and awareness-raising activities involve all relevant actors: local communities, civil society organizations, the media, national and local institutions, expert and intellectual societies, research centers, universities and others “, says the forum release.

Those who had the fortune to participate last year, were able to see the level of involvement of the individual realities, in a constant comparison, which comes after the preparatory work of the forum, held in the previous days with the various regional assemblies.

“Discussing Water at the time of Corona” is the title of the second Mesopotamian Water Forum, which will be held on Saturday and Sunday, in two sessions. The pandemic theme, in fact, impacts even more on the political viability of activists in complex regions for the realities of civil society.

As the virus continues to penetrate the region, the human and political consequences could be high. It remains to be seen what the impact will be on water supply, on water infrastructure. Since the crisis is transnational, we believe that international solidarity and debate are important. Confined to our homes, this is an opportunity to connect digitally and convene the first virtual assembly of the Mesopotamian Water Forum”, the organizers announce. And basically we talk about the rights of all of us.

By Christian Elia, originally published on “Il Manifesto”, 15.05.2020