France state

Iraqis clean up river as first green projects take root

Published on: Amended:

Baghdad (AFP) – Garbage clogs the banks of the Iraqi Tigris in Baghdad, but an army of young volunteers cleans it up, a rare environmental project in this war-torn country.

Wearing boots and gloves, they pick up soggy trash, water bottles, aluminum cans and muddy polystyrene boxes, as part of a green activist campaign called Cleanup Ambassadors.

“This is the first time this area has been cleared since 2003,” shouts a passerby of the years of conflict since a US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The war is over, but Iraq faces another huge threat: a host of interrelated environmental problems ranging from climate change and rampant pollution to dust storms and water scarcity.

The 200 volunteers at work in Baghdad want to be part of the solution, clearing trash from a stretch of one of the mighty rivers that gave birth to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia.

“It breaks my heart to see the banks of the Tigris in this condition,” said a 19-year-old volunteer, who only gave her first name, Rassel, working under Baghdad’s Imams Bridge.

“We want to change this reality. I want to make my city more beautiful.”

The 200 volunteers want to make a difference, but face a herculean task in a country where rubbish is routinely thrown on the ground Sabah ARARAFP

The task is herculean in a country where it is still common for people to throw their trash on the ground.

The verdant banks of the Tigris, popular for picnics for families and groups of friends, are usually littered with trash, from single-use plastic bags to disposable hookah mouthpieces, especially after public holidays.

Waste suffocates wildlife

“There’s a lot of plastic, nylon bags and corks,” said Ali, also 19 and organizer of the cleanup event.

The group then handed over its collected waste to the Baghdad city council, which took it away, destined for a landfill.

More often than not, the garbage ends up directly in the Tiger. It is one of Iraq’s two main waterways, along with the Euphrates, which faces a host of environmental pressures.

Rivers or their tributaries are dammed upstream in Turkey and Iran, overexploited along the way and polluted with domestic, industrial and agricultural waste.

The verdant banks of the Tigris are popular for picnics, but are usually littered with trash, from plastic bags to disposable hookah mouthpieces
The verdant banks of the Tigris are popular for picnics, but are usually littered with trash, from plastic bags to disposable hookah mouthpieces Sabah ARARAFP

Waste flowing downstream clogs banks and wetlands and poses a threat to wildlife, both land and water.

When the water empties into the Gulf, the plastic bags are often ingested by turtles and dolphins and block the airways and stomachs of many other species, a United Nations document says.

In Iraq, which has suffered from four decades of conflict and years of political and economic turmoil, sorting and recycling waste has yet to become a priority for most people.

The country also lacks proper infrastructure for waste collection and disposal, said Azzam Alwash, head of the non-governmental group Nature Iraq.

“There are no environmentally friendly landfills and plastic recycling is not economically viable,” he said.

plumes of smoke

Most waste ends up in open landfills where it is burned, sending plumes of acrid smoke into the air.

This is happening in the Mesopotamian swamps of southern Iraq, one of the largest inland deltas in the world, which Saddam once largely drained. They were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, both for their biodiversity and ancient history.

Today, a 24-hour fire outside the town of Souq al-Shuyukh, which is the gateway to the swamps, is burning thousands of tons of waste in the open, sending white smoke drifting to several kilometers.

Garbage flows downstream, clogging riverbanks, wetlands and threatening wildlife - here, men row a canoe on the Tigris River in the town of Nasiriyah, southern Iraq
Garbage flows downstream, clogging riverbanks, wetlands and threatening wildlife – here, men row a canoe on the Tigris River in the town of Nasiriyah, southern Iraq Asaad NIAZI AFP/Archive

“The open burning of waste is a source of air pollution, and the real cost is the shortening of Iraqi lives,” Alwash said. “But the state doesn’t have the money to build recycling facilities.”

Worse still, air pollution caused by flaring, that is, the combustion of the gas that escapes during the extraction of oil.

This toxic cocktail has contributed to an increase in respiratory illnesses and greenhouse gas emissions, a phenomenon that UN climate experts have been alarmed about.

Environment Minister Jassem al-Falahi admitted in comments to the official INA news agency that “toxic gases from waste incineration affect people’s lives and health”.

But so far, there have been few government initiatives to tackle Iraq’s environmental problems, and so projects like the Tigris cleanup are leading the way for now.

Ali, the volunteer, hopes their efforts will have a longer-term effect by helping to change mindsets.

“Some stopped throwing their trash in the street,” he said, “and some even joined us.”