The River Too Tells the Story in Iraq

Dahr Jamail

by Dahr Jamail
February 12th, 2009 | Inter Press Service

BAGHDAD, Feb 12 (IPS) – There is less water now in the Tigris, and it is less clean. The river has fewer fish, and rising fuel and other costs mean they are more costly to catch. It’s not, as Hamza Majit finds, a good time to be a fisher.

“It’s getting worse everyday,” Majit told IPS on board his fishing boat.

“You see the low water level,” Majit said, touching the bottom of the river, just two metres down, with a wooden pole. “We need higher water to hold our nets up. And this is the deepest point in the Tigris in this area. With the water this low, it makes it difficult to catch any fish.”

Plastic bottles, grocery bags and other garbage are now more commonly seen floating down the once clear river. “Fish are a treasure from God, but now so much is preventing us from reaping our treasure,” said Majit.

Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Majit says, it was common to catch several dozen fish daily. Now, “we are lucky to catch ten.”

Now the government too is alarmed.

“The Tigris remains extremely polluted, and this situation continues to worsen,” Minister for the Environment Narmin Othman told IPS. “So many Iraqis are suffering from this. We realise it is a crisis, and we are looking for more ways the government can actively begin to solve the problem.”

The matter is being considered urgently, she said. “We have to do this, because if we don’t, nobody else will, and the suffering will continue. The Tigris is one of Iraq’s treasures, and we must safeguard our treasures.”

The government has been before. “The situation is critical,” Prof. Ratib Mufid, environment expert at Baghdad University, said back in 2007. “The river is gradually being destroyed, and there are no projects to prevent its destruction.”

Since then it has only become worse. The new difficulties begin at the source, and multiply along the way.

“The problem of decreasing water flow starts in Turkey’s Taurus mountains,” Seif Barakah, media officer at the Ministry of Environment had warned, about the same time in 2007. “Between there and Kurdistan, many dams have been built which reduce the water flow. The idea was to prevent floods which over the years affected northern communities, but the consequence can now be seen with nearly half the previous water flow.”

The Tigris flows from the mountains of south-eastern Turkey through Iraq, where it ends up in the Persian Gulf.

Majit has been a fisher since he was 10, and like most fishers on the Tigris, inherited the family business of generations. Two of his children work with him.

Fishing is not just difficult now, but also unpleasant and hazardous. The smell of burning plastic, or at places of raw sewage, is overpowering. And, Majit says, he has been shot at by U.S. soldiers from the Green Zone, whose concrete walls line the banks along one stretch.

Iraqi environmentalists report that the river is contaminated with war waste, oil derivatives, industrial waste, and toxins. “Sometimes I find crude oil on my nets when I pull them up,” Majit said. “The fish also sometimes taste like crude oil.”

Big rubbish heaps have come up on the banks. Dumping garbage in the river was punishable during the days of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Today there is nothing to stop people.

The ripple effect of fish scarcity has inevitably hit the markets. The average cost of a fish has risen from two dollars to eight dollars (8,000 Iraqi Dinars).

“That is too expensive, so fewer people are buying,” says Amar Hamsa, a 25- year-old fish seller. “Business is bad, it’s not a good situation for us nowadays.”

Roast fish was considered a treat once, says Ali Sabri, still in the business though with many empty fire pits around him of vendors who had to abandon business. “Few people in Baghdad can afford this now as they used to.”

Photographs from Iraq

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