Taqtaq, Iraq – Along the Little Zab River that cuts through the Iraqi town of Taqtaq, families picnicked on a recent weekday afternoon. Children frolicked in stalls overlooking the tributary, while a pair of boats gently bobbed in the rushing current.
This spot is popular among Kurds, and hints of pollution cling to the water’s edge: soapy runoff, paper wrappers, metallic muck, strips of fabric.
Little Zab is part of a complex network of waterways that feed Iraq’s Kurdish region and, by extension, the entire country. What first passes through the semi-autonomous region to the north, eventually travels a serpentine route to connect with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which wend their way past cities such as Mosul and Baghdad. Further south towards the Gulf is Basra and the lush waterways named by UNESCO as a heritage site.
But water scarcity is becoming an increasingly pressing issue in the northern region. If neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Iran and Syria move forward with plans to repair existing dams or build new ones – such as the Daryan Dam on the Sirwan River in Iran, scheduled for completion next year – water flow to Kurdish land will be in increasing jeopardy.
That timeframe could be shortened amid increased tensions with neighbouring countries in the wake of the recent independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdish region. This summer, the Kurdish agriculture minister, Abdul Sattar Majeed, blamed a sudden loss of water to the Little Zab on Iran; the shortage affected 80,000 people.
Regional conflicts in both Syria and Iraq have been heavily reliant on water domination, experts note.
“Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside … It’s life or death,” Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute, told Al Jazeera. “If you control water in Iraq, you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems.”
At the same time, in areas such as Taqtaq, the growing scourge of pollution is endangering waterways. Water clarity in the Tigris has declined to the point of becoming a “turbid, sediment-laden environment”, according to a recent report.
Sulaimania resident Nabil Musa, an environmentalist who is part of the New York-based Waterkeeper’s Alliance – an advocacy group that aims to ensure “drinkable and fishable, swimmable water everywhere” – cited a pressing need to protect the fragile waterways of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
The term “waterkeeper” is used by Musa’s organisation to denote someone tasked with coordinating initiatives to preserve waterways. He is the only one in Iraq, and with some help from his friends, he has been working to inform locals about the dangers of heavy metals, plastic bags, sewage and oil to their waterways.
“We don’t have sewage waste treatment facilities. We are just dumping all of our waste [into our drinking water],” Musa told Al Jazeera, noting that security concerns have trumped environmental issues in recent years, raising concerns about the region’s longer-term future.
“The Peshmerga is taking care of our borders, but who’s going to protect our drinking water in the community?”
Anna Bachmann, who founded the Waterkeepers of Iraq in 2011 and is now based in the United States, noted that Musa is just one among more than 300 waterkeepers around the world.
“They’re a voice for rivers and river-dependent communities … Rivers can’t really speak for themselves in terms of protecting themselves and speaking out against pollution and dams and diversions and all the threats that they face,” Bachmann told Al Jazeera. “A lot of waterkeepers actually have heavy-duty litigation programmes, where they actually take polluters to court.”
Musa, meanwhile, has been raising awareness through videos and demonstrations about the effects of gravel mining. He has visited villages to present short videos, and he recently completed a 40km swim through Lake Dukan, west of Erbil, to raise awareness about protecting and developing it.
Regarding neighbouring countries’ plans for future dams, Bachmann said: “Most of these dams they want to build are completely unnecessary, highly damaging … It’s really more about controlling the water that gets to Baghdad and having something over Baghdad’s head.”
Ahmet Saatci, the director of Turkey’s State Water Works, has said that the dam construction in his country would provide a much-needed energy source. “We currently have to buy our energy from Russia and other countries, so we’re trying to use our renewable energy to its fullest extent,” he told National Geographic in 2014. The dam project is slated for completion next year, while the Tabqa dam in Syria, near Raqqa, is currently being repaired by the Red Cross.
In Iraq’s Kurdish region, every construction project is required by law to complete an environmental impact study – but while such legislation is progressive, putting it into practice is another story, Musa has found. Among the issues he combats regularly are: overuse of ground water in agriculture, breakdowns of irrigation systems, climate change, droughts, lower seasonal rainfalls, and salinisation from riverbed dredging and drilling.
Paul Salem, the senior vice president for policy analysis, research and programmes at the Middle East Institute, noted that water insecurity in Iraq has become “an extremely critical issue”.
“In the past, there have been trilateral agreements about those [regional water] basins and how to manage them,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the agreements have not functioned properly in light of regional turmoil. “The [agricultural] sector is in deep crisis. Rural populations can no longer survive on agriculture and are becoming more urbanised, seeking jobs in populated regions.”
This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting