| ANNA BACHMANN: “THE QUALITY AND THE QUANTITY ALSO THE MANAGEMENT OF WATER RESOURCES , THEY ARE ALL PROBLEMS IN SULEYMANIYAH.”
ORSAM Water Research Programme made an interview with Anna Bachmann, who is a program manager in Nature Iraq, about the studies of Nature Iraq and water issue in Iraq. In this interview, we talked to Anna Bachmann about water management in Iraq, marshland restoration and “The Key Biodiversity Areas Project” which is carried out by Nature Iraq.
ORSAM: First of all, can you please tell us about yourself briefly?
ANNA BACHMANN: My name is Anna Bachmann. I am American. I have been living in Iraq since 2007 and working on Iraqi environmental issues since 2005. My first visit here was actually before the war in 2003. Subsequently, I came back to Iraq and began to work on environment-related issues. At which point, I met Dr. Azzam Alwash who is the current president of the Board of Nature Iraq, a Registered Iraqi Conservation Organization and I have been working for them since 2005. This is my seventh year.
ORSAM: So, you have been in Iraq for seven years?
ANNA BACHMANN: Yes, I am in my seventh year. I did live in Iraq for six months in 2004, so I guess it is even a bit more.
ORSAM: What is your profession?
ANNA BACHMANN: I have a master’s degree in environmental studies from The Evergreen State College in Washington State, in the U.S., which is kind of an interdisciplinary degree that is part environmental science and part environmental policy.
ORSAM: Can you give information about Nature Iraq? When was it founded?
ANNA BACHMANN: Nature Iraq is a registered Iraqi conversation organization. Officially, we were formed at the end of 2004 but the organization existed under a different name as a project of the Iraq Foundation, which is a U.S.-based organization focused on building democracy in Iraq. At that time we were called the “Eden Again Project” of the Iraq Foundation. After the war in 2003 we were able to relocate into Baghdad with Iraq Foundation and subsequent to that we separated from Iraq Foundation and became a registered non-governmental organization in Iraq and also in 2007 we registered with the Kurdistan Regional Government as a regional NGO. We worked primarily, in the beginning, on marshland restoration in Southern Iraq. This is a big passion of Dr. Azzam Alwash, the CEO at that time, whose father was an irrigation engineer. He grew up essentially going out with his father to the marshes and he had very fond memories of that time.
When he heard that Saddam Regime had essentially nearly completely drained the marshes, he got very interested in seeing if something could be done and approached Iraq Foundation to begin the project and that’s how we started. So, when I first joined in 2005 our work was primarily focused around Southern Iraq and we had an office in Baghdad and a small presence in Chibaish in Southern Iraq, in the Central Marshes on Euphrates River. We expanded in 2007 when we opened our office here in Sulaimani that is when I moved to the country from Jordan, where I had been working and opened the northern Nature Iraq office.
It became actually our head office. We temporarily closed the Baghdad office because of very poor security time at that time and we relocated a lot of our staff here to Northern Iraq. We now actually have an office here that is still our head office and we have an office in Chibaish in the south and we have kind of a floating office with staff in Baghdad (we hope to open a physical office there soon). They work on mostly governmental relation issues with the Ministries of Environment, Water Resources etc.
One of our oldest projects started again in the marshes but has expanded country wide. It is called “The Key Biodiversity Areas Project”, in which we survey every winter and every summer as many areas we could to determine if they were regionally and/or globally important for their biological diversity. This is a program that has actually occurred in Turkey already. Turkey has already identified its KBAs but Iraq has completed this work. So, we are in a process right now. Our first survey was in 2005 and now we are in a process of evaluating all of our data and creating a list of the KBAs for Iraq which we hope we will be the foundation of a future protected area network in Iraq.
In addition to that we started a new project this past year called the Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper. It affiliated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which started in the US, but now has over two hundred water keepers, river keepers, barkeepers or sound keepers all over the world, in almost all continents of the planet. We are the first water keeper project affiliated with them in the Middle East and we ultimately want to focus on the entire Euphrates-Tigris Basin in Iraq, but to start we are working within the upper Tigris River Basin in northern Iraq, which includes the Upper-Diyala, the Lesser Zab, the Greater Zab, the Khabour and the upper mainstream of Tigris River.
This is a large area and in fact could be covered by several water keepers. Water keepers are usually based in single basin. We hope to expand the project eventually, maybe even separate from Nature Iraq, forming a separate organization that would be focusing on river health and water quality … as well as flows and water quantity obviously making sure the river can survive in this age of climate change, drought and rampant dam building. It is really affecting people and the rivers.
So far it’s a very successful project and we have done a lot of work, including river clean ups, some outreach and education. We are now doing a threat assessment of the Lesser Zab River under a grant from Rufford “Small Grants Fund” in the UK. There will be four seasonal surveys, trying to identify different threats and gauge their severity.
Usually water keeper projects are focused on taking polluters to court and one day it will be something we do but at this point, we are trying to just assess our river basins and do a lot of work on awareness and education about how to protect rivers and water quality.
Also, Nature Iraq is running small projects like the Eco-tourism project in which we have developed a camp and a guesthouse in the marshes and also here in Northern Iraq at Piramagroon Mountain. We have just gotten a Darwin Initiative grant to do a major project with Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh and Birdlife International, which is creating tools for biodiversity conservation to protected areas. This is focusing on Piramagroon Mountain, a 2600 meter tall mountain here in Sulaimani that we have determined is a site of high biological diversity. We also do a lot of work with the Iraq ministries, advocating for conservation, better use of water resources, and sustainable development. We’ve done a lot of work to help support Ministry of Environment meet their obligations under international environmental conventions such as the Convention for Biological Diversity and others.
ORSAM: What is the main problem in the Sulaimani region? We are focusing on major water problems, the quality, and the quantity, also the management of water resources.
ANNA BACHMANN: I would say it is hard to separate them out, they are all problems here. We have definite issues with water quality. There is really no sewage treatment here. We have problems with water quality coming into the country as well as within the country. We have issues of declining water quantity. Most of the rivers in Iraq have declined in their flows. Quantity is definitely a concern and management is a big issue as well because we have the central authority in Baghdad and regional authority and they don’t always see eye to eye.
On the top of this there are regional issues with Turkey, Syria, Iran and even Jordan. Iraq is now working on updating its plans for water resource management. Hopefully that plan will be made public so that people can access it and have a say in its contents. All the riparian countries of the Tigris-Euphrates basin are putting up a lot of dams, without any regard to how these will affect people or the environment. With dams there are always losers - river itself is always a loser as it is quite literally being cut in half and most people living downstream are losers because they see reduced flows and reduced water quality. Upstream there are losers as often whole communities, agricultural lands, cultural and environmental resources are drowned out.
In an organization like Nature Iraq which is interested in conservation, we want the river to be healthy, everything along and in there river, such as the riparian forests and the fish in the river to be healthy. So, we have lots of concerns about dam construction and major water diversion project, taking water from one basin to another basin because it is basically not sustainable, not healthy for the ecosystem and it is not conducive of the good water quality and flows downstream or having adequate water in downstream.
Our organization started by working in southern Iraq and there are huge problems with lack of water, salinity buildup, and generally quite dismal water quality. We have to be telling everyone up-stream there is an issue here that they realistically and morally can’t ignore. So, I cannot separate them out, they are equally important problems.
ORSAM: Do you have a project about water?
ANNA BACHMANN: Well, it will be the Iraq Upper Tigris Water keeper Project that I’ve just described and any work we have done on the restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands of southern Iraq. Our work advocating for these Marshlands is a project essentially about and based on water.
ORSAM: In the project, for example, do you give some education to the children about water protection?
ANNA BACHMANN: Yes, we just actually finished a small film called “The Water keeper”. It was made using two characters wearing masks, Naza and Zaza, two children who discovered the problems on the river, were affected by them, and tried to do something about it. It is a 26-minute film and we completed it only two weeks ago. We showed it to the kids in local schools and community groups and used the film just to start a dialogue with them about the rivers in their area. I think we can get the link with to the film. We are also doing a Green Music & Arts Festival in Sulaimani for 20 April (associated with Earth Day) to combine the arts with an environmental message. We need to continue to raise awareness and out of that we are also looking to raise enough money to develop a campaign of public service announcements, TV radio and print ads that are focused on the environment. They will be primarily focused on raising awareness about water protection. Because we do work on biodiversity, we do a lot of stuff with birds. Right now, some of the staff is doing a wild goat survey. There will be some outreach related to wild goat conservation because we have a lot of hunting that goes on here. In addition, we piloted the first Environmental Education program in the marshes in 2011 and hope to find the funding to continue to support that work. We have plenty of ideas for this work if we can find the support for it.
ORSAM: Can you inform us about the latest information about the marshlands in Southern Iraq?
ANNA BACHMANN: The best person to ask this is Dr. Azzam Alwash, president of Nature Iraq’s board. He’s made this issue a major focus of his life’s work. We usually use the 1970’s as a baseline for the marshlands in their hey-day, a lot of dam construction began to affect them around this point but they were still largely untouched. Because of the seasonality of when water would arrive to the marshes, they are pulsed and grew larger in the spring and their estimated size at this time was from 15.000 and 20.000 square kilometers.
Of course in the mid-1990s all that changed dramatically not just due to dams but because the Saddam Regime began an active campaign to drain the marshlands and persecute its inhabitants. Today, since the reflooding that took place after the war in 2003, we use the 1970s as the baseline to judge the now reflooded marshlands and, I think, for a short period after the war, they achieved about seventy-five percent of that former footprint. I would not say this area was restored but simply reflooded, as the system is radically changed and there are issues of lack of flow-through and salinity build up that need to be examined.
But currently I think we are done below fifty percent of the original 1970’s footprint because of all the challenges we face upstream. We know that if Iraq actively manages the water it has better, we could potentially get to close to seventy percent of the former marshland footprint reflooded. But to get to hundred percent we have to have agreements with our neighbors upstream. Iran has build a major embankment through the trans-boundary Hawizeh marshes effectively stopping water that formerly entered these important wetlands from Iran. These marshlands were recently listed as Iraq’s first Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance as they were the only marshlands in the south that were never completely drained by the Saddam Regime in the 1990s (largely because Saddam couldn’t stop the water coming from Iran). But Iran has dealt them a heavy blow today. We also need equitable water sharing and water quality from Turkey and Syria.
And it is just not the issue of amount of the water but also the timing of the water. Because historically, before the dams, winter storms would fill the mountains of Turkey, Iran, and northern Iraq with snow and this would melt into the spring floods that until many of dams put an end to this would pulse into the Mesopotamian Marshlands (our last major spring flood was in the 1960s). Those spring floods push out of the salty water that had accumulated over the dry hot summers and nature had perfect time this for the coming of the birds the breed and the fish to spawn in the marshlands.
Life had evolved this way over a millennia and it was an incredibly biologically diverse and bountiful ecosystem. So you have a situation now where not only do we have less water, but the water comes at the wrong time, it does not come in the spring, but is spread out through the year based on human management decisions that don’t take ecological needs into account. So to truly restore the marshlands even with the water we have, we need to re-establish not just adequate flows, clean water but the timing of when this all happens as well.
Given the heavily modified upstream environment this will require a complex and highly managed system. So as you can see we have a lot of issues about water and it is not just a simple issue of quantity; it is also an issue of quality and an issue of proper management. There really has to be an integration of these three issues for us all to get what we need as well as have marshland restoration in Southern Iraq.
A couple of years back, from 2008 to 2009; we had almost no water in the marshlands. The communities there really suffered when the drought came, it was really awful year for them. We are seeing less rain in northern Iraq, even in 2012 we still see less than the 10 year average. Overall the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates may have had an average year but with dams and water diversions, the water wasn’t getting to the marshlands. We can have a debate about is it dams or is it climate change, but in fact it is likely both. These factors came together and that was a real brutal year for the people in the South, people who live in the marshes are the poor in Iraq. They are so natural resource dependent and these issues have immediate consequences for their livelihood.
I should also mention in 2006 we developed the “Master Plan for Integrated Water Resource Management in the Marshland Areas” and presented several scenarios for how Iraq could manage the water better. I think that the management plan was largely adopted by the Ministry of Water Resources and some of the water control structures we advised they build to manage water better have been completed. We also gathered a great deal of socio-economic information. The master plan is a series of eight books and the book on water resources is quite good.
ORSAM: Do you have any project related to how US Invasion in Iraq and the war affected the water and the ecosystem?
ANNA BACHMANN: This is interesting because when I came to Iraq, I was interested in the depleted uranium issues caused by the U.S. Military (Depleted uranium is a low-level radioactive waste product of the uranium refining that is extremely hard and has been used by western Militaries in projectile points, which were used extensively in wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003). You should also ask Dr. Alwash about this we had two differing opinions about it. In my opinion, it is one thing, if a country pollutes itself and another thing if it spreads its own pollution on another country. That is really reprehensible. I would say for that reason alone, the issue of the depleted uranium deserves some discussion and some investigation. There is certainly a lot of anecdotal information that says that depleted uranium is a real problem for Iraq. For example in Fallujah, now there is evidence that they have both high levels of cancer but also high rates of birth deformities that may have a radiogenic source. But Dr. Alwash would say there is so much pollution in Iraq that has been going on for decades how can you really separate that out as a cause from what the Coalition forces have done? Nearly all major towns and cities in Iraq, as well as those in many upstream countries dump their wastes into the waters of the Tigris & Euphrates basin without treatment. I see his point of view as well.
When I was in Baghdad in 2004, the area of the city that the Coalition forces controlled was called the “Green Zone”. It contained Saddam's former central palace and all of these government offices were placed there. There is a part of the Tigris River bordering this area that no one is allowed to pass through during Saddam’s reign. You couldn’t take a boat from northern Baghdad to southern Baghdad on this river. To me, it was rather symbolic. When the Americans came in, they kept the same policy for the Green Zone and the river. Baghdadians are not allowed to use the river in this area. A couple of fisherman can go but nobody really can go from north to south on the river.
Also along that river, but just outside of the security walls of the Green Zone were a dumping area for the Zone. Image a garbage dump in the center of a major city right along a river? You would not see this kind of thing anywhere except in Baghdad. But on the other hand, as a result of the Americans’ influence, the Iraq Ministry of Environment, which didn’t exist under Saddam, was also created.
ORSAM: Also was the Ministry of Water Resources was created by the government after the war?
ANNA BACHMANN: I believe before the war this was just known as the Ministry of Irrigation. But Nature Iraq does not focus on what the Americans did or did not to. Dr. Alwash has an attitude that we have a lot of problems regardless of what Americans did or did not do. We have a much longer standing issues in this country. If you want to talk about environmental catastrophes, drainage of the marshes is number one. Saddam was gassing villages and nearly every single village in northern Iraq was either bombed or gassed or both. I think, you heard about Halabja, which is the most public case that got a lot of media attention but there were a lot of towns and villages that face the same treatment.
But for me, where I lived in USA, I am very close to a naval magazine installation, where they store depleted uranium munitions. They actually destroyed it there. When I came to Iraq originally, I came with a peace organization and I participated in a protest at that military base and focused on the issue of depleted uranium. Photo albums are full of children that born with terrible defects. I was very much interested in that issue.
ORSAM: Is there any effect in USA near the town where depleted uranium was stored?
ANNA BACHMANN: It is certainly a topic of discussions, yes.
ORSAM: Is there any birth with deformities?
ANNA BACHMANN: I’m not aware of this. Mostly when the issue of depleted uranium is brought up in regard of health effects, it is about soldiers and their exposure. Military bases have a lot of rules and regulations and they have a lot of control over health. I think fisherman might have concern about it. I am not really following the issue anymore because of my local work in here in Iraq now. But I know for example that there is an epidemiologist in New York, he had a very interesting project in which he collected babies’ teeth from all over Iraq and also Jordan and all around. Apparently radioactive material can be deposited by the body in teeth. He wanted to do this project to examine how much and what types of radioactive material could be detected in these teeth but as far as I know he has not found the funding to complete the project. It is very hard to find support for such research.
We humans are always experimenting on ourselves. I would say the bigger problem even than depleted uranium is pharmaceutical chemicals. We all take drugs, antibiotic, use detergents, shampoos, cosmetics … and these all go down the drain and into the water and we have no idea what the effects of this chemical soup is. My father says that the local drinking water in my hometown has more antibiotic in it than a pharmacy and I should come back and work on this issue. All these pharmaceutical chemicals, but also agricultural chemicals like pesticides or industrial wastes end up in our water. They can affect embryo development, sexual development. There is a lake in Florida with alligators and because of the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals that we have placed in these waters, male alligators showed some features of female alligators. We do these experiments on ourselves.
ORSAM: Thank you for your time.
* This interview was carried out by ORSAM Water Research Programme researchers Dr. Tuğba Evrim Maden and Dr.Seyfi Kılıç on February 7th 2012, in Suleymaniyah.