SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region – “There is a saying: Drink from the river, catch fish from the river and swim in the river,” says Nabil Musa, recalling the river of his childhood, “But we have lost that river now.”
The rush to develop has put rivers in Iraq,and the Kurdistan Region in particular, at grave risk. To raise awareness of the threats and to encourage the sustainable use and protection of the region’s rivers, local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are coming together this May for the Rawanduz River Kayak Expedition.
The expedition team will launch their kayaks in the waters of the Rawanduz River near Choman, in the northeast corner of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Fifteen days later, after navigating the complete length of the river, their journey will come to an end near Rawanduz.
Along the way, the team of professional kayakers, river advocates and videographer will conduct outreach to local communities, to raise awareness about the threats that rivers face.
Musa is the head of Waterkeepers Iraq, a program working to protect Iraq’s rivers, streams and waterways through effective water resource planning, water quality protection and advocacy, as well as through education and outreach on the sustainable use of natural resources.
There are about 200 Waterkeepers worldwide, but Musa is the first in Kurdistan, Iraq and the greater Middle East.
“As a Waterkeeper, I am a voice for the rivers,” Musa says.
The Rawanduz River flows into the Greater Zab — the last wild river in all of Iraq — and a major tributary of the Tigris River. At least seven major dams are planned on the Rawanduz, and over 15 dams are currently being considered for the Greater Zab River Basin.
Anna Bachman of Nature Iraq, a local environmental NGO, says a dam’s impact depends on its size, and that there are always winners and losers.
“Sometimes, the losers are downstream, as a result of reduced flows, chaotic and sometimes catastrophic releases, increased erosion and sometimes — particularly for irrigation dams — more polluted water coming out of the dam. Sometimes the losers are upstream — people displaced and quality farmland submerged by a dam-created reservoir.”
Sedimentation can also be a significant issue. When the reservoir behind the dam becomes choked with sediment, the dam loses its ability to store water.
Bachman notes that all dams have a limited lifespan and that any sizable dam will result in a loss of biological diversity in the river.
“Since we are still discovering new species unknown to science in the rivers of Kurdistan, building dams will mean losing fish and other species that might only be found in Kurdistan. This has ripple effects all the way up and down the river,” Bachman explains. “Once a dam is built, it is not easy to go back and restore the river afterwards.”
Current laws in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) require that all major construction projects have an environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out before being started, to understand the possible impacts that a project may have on the environment.
But none of the dams currently under construction or being planned in the Kurdistan Region has ever had an EIA carried out.
For Musa, dams are not the way forward. “Let the waters keep flowing,” he stresses.
One of the main goals of the expedition is to highlight the eco-tourism potential of Kurdistan’s wilderness areas and demonstrate that there is great value in keeping rivers wild, free and clean.
To enrich Iraqi river advocacy efforts and education campaigns, the expedition will be documented in a short film that will showcase the eco-tourism potential of Kurdistan’s wild and scenic environs to local and international audiences.
The expedition has been made possible by the joint efforts of Nature Iraq, the US-based Nature Iraq Foundation charity that provides support to Nature Iraq, the American Canoe Association and Majestic Heights Outdoor Adventures, an eco-tourism company based in the Kurdistan Region.
The awareness campaign comes on the heels of last year’s successful Tigris River Flotilla.
Last September, a voyage of traditional Mesopotamian boats set off from Hasankeyf, Turkey, and spent a month floating down the Tigris River until reaching the Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq.
The flotilla celebrated the cultural heritage of Mesopotamia, educated riverside communities on the importance of the Tigris River and environmental awareness, and studied the river’s current hydrological state.
The Rawanduz River Expedition is using the crowd-funding website Indiegogo to raise the $10,000 needed to support the costs of filmmaking.
Nature Iraq notes that the total cost of the expedition will be around $70,000. Much of the funding is coming from within Iraq, as well as from expedition participants themselves.