When spring hits its full stride in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, hillsides turn from brown to green almost overnight. Seasonal streams course with water, creating a network of tributaries that flow into the historic Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
On a Friday in March, Nabil Musa led a group of young people out into nature for a hike. It was, for him, an ideal way to teach them about their important role in protecting the area’s increasingly fragile ecosystem—just one of the many small actions he has undertaken to help his community reckon with the effects of climate change, pollution, and drought.
Formally, Musa is the waterkeeper for Iraqi Kurdistan as part of a group known as the Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide grassroots network of environmental activists that has its origins in a group created in 1966 by fishers in New York to clean up the Hudson River. He also runs a local initiative called Experience Wilderness, which helps people connect with the natural world, and is active in the local art scene.
His group that day consisted of 15 refugees from Qamishli, a predominantly Kurdish town in northeastern Syria. They currently live in the Arbat camp in Sulaimaniyah governorate, where approximately 9,000 internally displaced Iraqis and Syrian Kurdish refugees who fled the Islamic State and Turkish military interventions have settled. Many have been there for years with little prospect of returning home.
Musa led the teenagers on a day hike through Kani Shok, a dramatic gorge that cuts through a mountain ridge an hour’s drive north of the camp. “It’s going to be tough,” Musa warned them. He wore gray hiking pants and a blue tie-dye quick-dry shirt for the outing, while the teens followed him in clunky tennis shoes and jeans.
Musa grew up in Sulaimaniyah in the 1980s, when Iraq fought Iran in a devastating eight-year war that involved trench battles, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons. Combat was heavy along the northern front, with the border just 30 miles from Sulaimaniyah. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters occupied the mountains to the north and launched hit-and-run raids on the Iraqi Army down in the valleys. Musa’s father worked at the sugar processing factory in the city, and Musa said he remembers hearing air raid sirens warning of Iranian jets overhead.
His family lived in a house near the Sarchinar River, on what was then the western edge of the city. The riverbanks were lined with willow trees and blackberry bushes where foxes hunted. Musa’s job was to tend flocks of sheep in meadows along the river, which was deep enough to swim in year-round.
By 1996, Musa was working as an actor and artist. The main political parties in the Kurdistan Region were fighting a bloody civil war. Musa decided to leave, making his way across Europe, eventually reaching the United Kingdom and settling in Nottingham, where he worked in restaurants, warehouses, and theaters.
“It was heartbreaking to see it in this shape,” he said. “It was not the river I left, and all my dreams were gone.”
After 10 years, he returned to Sulaimaniyah to be closer to his family, but he found it a changed place. The birds and willows were gone, and the Sarchinar River no longer flowed in the summer. This sense of profound loss pushed him to become an activist. “It was heartbreaking to see it in this shape,” he said. “It was not the river I left, and all my dreams were gone.”
As we made our way to the gorge, we crossed a bridge over the Sarchinar River. Musa remarked that the water level was very low for March, just a slim current meandering through the deepest parts of the gravel bed. It had not rained much over the previous three years, creating a persistent drought, and a rainier winter this year had only begun to chip away at the deficit.
“This water is vulnerable,” he said. “When we neglect and abuse it, the water cannot shout, and the water cannot say, ‘Don’t do this to me.’”
The rivers that feed the Mesopotamian Basin are heavily dammed by Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, with downstream communities suffering from significantly reduced water flow. Blocking the watercourses also changes their ecology, altering temperature and chemical composition and destroying the habitats of the fish and other wildlife that need the rivers in order to live. Activists from across the region are sounding the alarm about the accumulating damage of climate change, drought, and pollution to the environment and local populations. A change to one part of the watershed inevitably affects all the others. What upstream communities choose—or fail—to do can mean that those who live downstream end up bearing the cost.
In a phone interview, Salman Khairalla, an Iraqi environmental and human rights activist who frequently collaborates with Musa, said, “We talk about the environment from political, economic, and social perspectives.” Khairalla is co-founder and CEO of the water advocacy group Humat Dijlah—“Protectors of the Tigris” in Arabic—which is largely funded by foreign foundations. “When we talk about water and the environment, we link those topics with job opportunities, counterterrorism, and infrastructure,” he said. “We link it with what the people want.”
The United Nations ranks Iraq as the fifth-most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change. The country has been in a prolonged drought since 2020 and experienced its second-driest season in the past four decades in 2021. Water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates are down between 30 and 40 percent.
Khairalla became an activist after sectarian fighting displaced him and his family from the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora in 2006. They moved to Basra, where he began volunteering for Nature Iraq, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on the environment. During visits to Iraq’s southern marshes, he witnessed how drought and pollution were killing farmers’ livestock and driving them off their land, and he empathized with their experience of displacement.
The United Nations ranks Iraq as the fifth-most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change. The country has been in a prolonged drought since 2020 and experienced its second-driest season in the past four decades in 2021. Water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates are down between 30 and 40 percent. Half of the country’s farmland is at risk of desertification.
Summers in the region are extremely hot and dry, making winter rain and snow critical to water supplies for millions of people. In the first three months of 2022, 98 percent of Iraqi households lived in areas with precipitation deficits. According to the World Bank, the gap between water supply and demand in Iraq is expected to increase from around 5 billion to 11 billion cubic meters by 2035 if urgent action is not taken to conserve water and increase flows from Iran and Turkey.
Dry winters have long-term consequences, offering few chances to make up deficits and replenish water tables. Several years of drought can be disastrous. Groundwater resources that were once easily accessible from the surface are being drained for drinking water, irrigation, and oil extraction, necessitating progressively deeper wells. In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, wells are being dug a staggering 2,300 feet underground to find water.
Located at the southern end of the Tigris-Euphrates watershed, Basra is Iraq’s second-largest city, and temperatures there sometimes exceed 122 degrees Fahrenheit for days at a time in the summer. In 2018, contaminated drinking water in the city sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital, sparking massive protests. As less fresh water comes down the river system, salt water from the Persian Gulf penetrates farther inland up the Shatt al-Arab waterway, poisoning farmland across southern Iraq. The southern marshes, already damaged when large sections were drained under the orders of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, grow smaller each year.
On the upper reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates system, Turkey is in the process of constructing a series of 22 dams as part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project. In 2018, it opened the massive Ilisu Dam, flooding the archaeologically important town of Hasankeyf and significantly restricting downstream flow into Iraq. Iran also has extensive damming and water reallocation projects, such as Daryan Dam on the upper Sirwan River and the Badinabad tunnel, which shifts water from the Tigris watershed toward Iran’s interior provinces to irrigate its industrial farms.
Desperate to conserve water resources in the face of reduced flows from upstream neighbors, the Kurdistan Regional Government has launched its own dam-building program.
Iraq is in desperate need of environmental protections, but activism in the country comes with risks.
Pollution is also a major problem. The Tanjaro River, which flows south of Sulaimaniyah city, is contaminated with raw sewage discharge and detergents, oils, and heavy metals from factories, landfills, and refineries. The tainted water then flows downstream into the Darbandikhan Dam reservoir, which provides drinking water for 850,000 people. From there, the pollutants run farther downstream into the lower Sirwan River and eventually the Tigris and the Persian Gulf, passing through thousands of communities along the way.
Iraq is in desperate need of environmental protections, but activism in the country comes with risks. Just weeks before Musa’s hike, the prominent Iraqi environmentalist Jassim al-Asadi, who has made saving the country’s southern marshes his life’s work, was kidnapped by a militia on a highway outside Baghdad. He was released 15 days later, but during his captivity Asadi was subjected to the “most severe forms of torture” using “electricity and sticks,” he said in a TV interview after his release. His family declined to identify the perpetrators publicly for fear of retribution.
Khairalla, who worked closely with Asadi at Nature Iraq, said the activist was targeted for his advocacy work, which upset powerful interests in southern Iraq that are generally intolerant of criticism. Campaigners, journalists, and human rights defenders are increasingly being targeted for their work across the country. This shrinking civic space makes the work of environmental activists such as Musa all the more challenging, if not outright dangerous.
“It’s always dangerous to be right when the government’s wrong or the system is wrong,” Musa said. “[People] get disappeared, they get tortured, they get traumatized, and when they come out, love for nature … will balance that chaos, will balance that trauma.”
Back on his hike, Musa led the group into the Kani Shok gorge. Snow melted off the summit of the Piramagrun Mountain and seeped into underground springs, later emerging from limestone caverns in the form of frigid, pristine, and crystal clear water.
He eventually called the group to a halt by a large pool of water, and everyone plopped down for a rest, the heat of the day now in full force.
A wide view of the valley opened up below. The stream snaked off into the distance, where its waters would join with the Little Zab River and then flow into the Tigris north of Tikrit and onward to the Persian Gulf thousands of miles downstream. A wave of blowing dust that would envelop the Kurdistan Region a day later was starting to become apparent, but it was only a little hazy just yet.
Musa spoke quickly in Kurdish, using his hands to emphasize each point. The rain and snow this winter, he told the group, had not been enough to erase the drought. The snow on Piramagrun would soon completely melt, and the cold, clear water in the stream where they hiked would dry up. As he spoke, a mosque in the nearby village broadcast the afternoon call to prayer, and young men on motorcycles rode up to the picnic area to catch the last hours of the day.