Last week, I had the privilege to attend the Mesopotamia Water Forum at the University of Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Organized by the Save the Tigris campaign, the forum was the first of its kind, bringing together researchers and campaigners from throughout Mesopotamia, from all stretches of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates river basins. The 150 participants represented different countries, languages, and cultures, but were united in calling for Mesopotamian waters to be shared equitably, and to be used as a tool for sustainable peace rather than conflict.
As a first-time visitor to the region, it was fascinating to immerse myself in a part of the world whose rivers birthed some of the earliest civilizations. It was also clear that these rivers remain critical for the people and ecosystems that exist here, as exemplified by the Iraqi marshes that sustain important freshwater fisheries and a vibrant local culture. However, these rivers are under threat. The experts gathered at the Forum interrogated some of the key challenges facing the region’s rivers, as well as the people and ecosystems dependent on them. They examined: industrial and household waste into the rivers, over-extraction of groundwater and diversion of rivers for agribusiness, as well as ambitions to build dams along the length of the basin in a misguided attempt to capture this precious resource. The Ilisu Dam was singled out in particular. It’s nearing completion on a key tributary of the Tigris in Turkey and will soon submerge the Hasankeyf UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for being continuously inhabited for the past 12,000 years. The Ilisu Dam would also grant the Turkish state control over an alarming portion of flows into Iraq, amounting to a huge bargaining chip in the region’s turbulent geopolitics.
While challenges abound, I was profoundly inspired by the efforts and dedication of the attendees to protect their natural environments in the face of considerable difficulties, from efforts to reforest degraded lands in Rojava, Syria, and savvy campaigns to reduce water consumption in southern Iraq, to the decade-long campaign to protect our common heritage from rampant dam construction. Beyond that, I was impressed by the willingness of disparate groups to come together to agree upon a joint declaration for the preservation of the Mesopotamian basin as a common resource, which outlines a series of concrete steps to help bring that vision to fruition. Their commitment to work collectively to shape a better water future in the region was a real source of optimism. Congratulations to the organizers of this great event – may it be the first of many!