Circle of Death: Water, land, food

Mohammed Hussein

By Mohammed Hussein:

BARLOOT—Sitting on a plastic crate in his small wooden shop behind his vegetable stand of watermelons and tomatoes, Mohammed Osman Mamali lets out a deep sigh. Though he comes from five generations of farmers, none of the vegetables in his shop are his. They all come from Iran. Mamali was the last one in his family to abandon farming.

“In more than four years I hadn’t gotten any profits from my farms. Regardless of my efforts, my vegetables didn’t grow and were contaminated by pests,” he said from his shop on the main road between Kalar and Sulaimani. Eventually, production was too low to support his wife and five children and, in 2011, he did what his father and brothers did five years ago: stop farming.

Barloot, his village in Kalar district alongside Diyala River, now has less than 20 farming families in what used to be one of the most fertile regions of Iraqi Kurdistan until the 1990s. Many people abandoned their farms to become small grocers selling Iranian fresh produce.

The reason farms in the area are slowly being abandoned is because of polluted water from Diyala River. The river, called Sirwan in Kurdish, covers about 445 kilometers and feeds into the Tigris River below Baghdad. While the amount of pollution is more intense near Darbandikhan Lake, the entire river faces the same problems, according to Nwenar Fatih, an environmental activist working on the Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper project in Nature Iraq, a non-profit NGO. The project’s aim is to research on water quality in the rivers and lakes, and increase awareness on water-related issues.

The bleak perspective of the environmental activist is similar to that of a government employee in the Garmyan Directorate of Agriculture that oversees the area where Barloot is located. Abdulmutalib Raafat Zardawy, an environmental engineering and water resources management specialist in at the directorate, said the polluted water is the main reason for a slow, long-term destruction of the once fertile soil.

“The use of polluted water for irrigation will lead to a degradation of soil because of rising salinity, accumulation of toxic nutrients and heavy metals which finally leads to decreasing productivity,” he said.

The ex-farmer, Mamali, first resisted giving up his farm by growing beans because they were more resistant to pests than other vegetables. He thought that pests were the main cause for his weak harvest. He had no idea that the problem was much deeper.

Crops are less resistant to pests in part because of the poor quality soil from the polluted water. Farmers north of Kalar district have been facing dying crops since 2006 as the Darbandikhan dam, which was built between 1956-1961, became more polluted, said Zardawy. (The two main dams in Iraqi Kurdistan are Darbandikhan and Dookan, which are hydroelectric dams that provide electricity to the area.)

Rahman Khanee, the manager of the Darbandikhan dam, blames the unfiltered wastewater from Sulaimani city and the Shrazur area south of Sulaimani for polluting the water. He described how Tanjaro, a small river that connects Sulaimani to Darbandikhan Lake, is polluted from the dumping of huge amounts of waste from mechanical shops, small factories, and the city’s sewage. Furthermore, the river tends to flood during winter and absorbs even more waste, he added.

The environmental activist, Fatih, said neither the government nor the farmers care about the river’s environment.

Farms that are close to the rivers produce run-off that gets mixed with some agricultural chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) that go back into the river and kill a lot of aquatic animals like fish, according to research by his organization, he said.

“In the lake’s coast surface, there was a huge amount of dead fish in August (2012)” because of pollution in Darbandikhan. (The researchers counted only the dead fish that had floated to the shores of the lake—about 1,000—not counting the ones that were at the center of the lake. According to him, there had never been such a large loss of fish in a concentrated amount of time.)

Zardawy, the environmental engineering and water resources management specialist, said that wastewater is a combination of blackwater and greywater, which are types of wastewater from commercial establishments and agricultural lands that include pesticides and fertilizers. These are entering into the waterway directly, without treatment, and negatively impact the water quality and ecosystem. Pollution is worse in dams where the water is stagnant whereas the river water flows and pollutants are not as concentrated.

The wastewater from the city carries pathogenic organisms similar to those in the original human excreta and some of these are responsible for diseases such as cholera and dysentery, he said. The polluted water is rich in sodium, calcium, magnesium, sulfate, and chloride, which damages crops, except for beans.

Beans are the most capable of surviving in those conditions because they are able to break down organic and inorganic toxins, and resist toxic heavy metals, Zardawy said. Unlike other crops, they are also capable of producing hormones -Gibberellins and Auxins – which both regulate plant growth and have a system of improving soil composition. Most other crops are weakened because of the pollutants and have no resistance to pests.

Mamali doesn’t know why all his fertile lands became useless. He feels he did not have a choice and was forced to abandon the farming and instead buy and sell Iranian produce on the side of the road.

“Neither my farm, nor my new job [grocer] can satisfy us” financially, he said. Until last decade, Mamali’s village mostly produced sesame, watermelon, melon, pistachio, rice, tomato, okra and cucumber. Now it only produces beans. In 1988, before Saddam Hussein regime destroyed the land during the Anfal campaigns, there were more than 80 families. The village was destroyed completely and survivors started to come back in the 1990s to rebuild. Now, it is indirect man-made efforts that are forcing them to leave once again.

“From Darbandikhan to Hamrin, another lake on the same river in Diyala province south to Sulaimani, the river’s environment is polluted wherever towns are located alongside the river,” said Khalid Salih Darwesh, the head of the biology department at the College of Education in Garmyan University and a former environmental activist who has worked on biodiversity in the area.

Like what happened in Barloot, in the village of Shekhbawa, from the Jalula district in Diyala province, watermelon didn’t grow and was contaminated by unknown pests in 2011 although watermelon was the main local product.

Darwesh says no research has been done to specifically find out why the watermelon crops were failing but he believes the effect of wastewater and heavy metals in Diyala River are the only possible reasons for the problem.

About what the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has done for this problem, Akram Ahmad, the general manager of lakes in the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said, “Tanjaro River is the main cause of polluting Darbandikhan Lake.”

He said the responsibility to build a filtering station of the Tanjaro River before the water flows into the lake lies with the Sulaimani governorate and the KRG’s Ministry of Municipality.

The governmental employee in the agricultural directorate of Garmyan, Zardawy, said that although pollution is a serious threat to the whole region, both the KRG and Baghdad “have no a proper plan to deal with it, and nothing has been done yet.”

This article was produced for one of the new journalism courses offered by the English department at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimanya. 

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