Message from Save the Tigris on World Environment Day

World Environment Day, 5 June, represents a global opportunity to tackle global, transboundary, and local environmental issues. It is an occasion for millions around the world to both celebrate the achievements of the global movement to protect the environment and renew efforts to protect against and reverse the degradation of ecosystems.

Freshwater ecosystems provide a habitat for a wide variety and number of wildlife and plants; filtering, clean, and store water; and collect and hold flood waters.

Our natural systems integral to life on Earth have been put under immense and unsustainable pressure. For generations, the marsh and freshwater systems that have been the lifeblood of countless communities have been degraded by damming, diversion, and pollution.

A new approach to water management is vital in protecting water systems that are crucial to life, public health, and culture.


A general view of the Mosul Dam, north of Mosul, Iraq on 15 June 2019. (Image: Reuters)

In the name of combating climate change, there has been an increased focus on hydropower as an alternative ‘green’ source of electricity. However, hydroelectric dams come with significant environmental and social impacts.  

Investments would be better spent in decentralized solar and wind technologies which are energy efficiency, affordable, and quickly deployable. Healthier ecosystems, with richer biodiversity, yield greater benefits in the way of more fertile soils, larger yields of timber and fish, and larger stores of greenhouse gases.

As we look to transition to renewable and sustainable sources of energy production and resource usage, it is pivotal that we do so in a manner that we prioritize community rights and participation.

Competition over natural resources, particularly water, is often framed as a source of social and political tension.

In Turkey, climate change, low rainfall, and poor management have reduced the per capita availability of water despite the construction of over 1,000 dams in the last 18 years.

In Syria, the food and water security of millions of people is threatened by historically low level of the Euphrates River caused by upstream dams in Turkey, a lack of rainfall, and the weaponization of water by the Turkish government against North and East Syria.

In Iraq, which is facing a worsening water crisis, the government is pushing ahead with the construction of the Makhoul Dam despite the geologic instability of the reservoir area, effects of flooding on upstream communities, and the threat to two UNESCO World Heritage sites — the Ahwar in Southern Iraq and the ancient city of Ashur — and at least 184 other archaeological sites according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

Despite several attempts to mediate water access between governments, no agreement has been forthcoming.

The inability of the region’s national governments to approach the management of the water as a transboundary issue is making an already dire humanitarian and environmental situation worse.

We believe a paradigm shift is necessary: instead of being a source of rivalry, water should be force for peace and cooperation between all the countries and peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. We advocate for safe access to water and policies that secure the sustainable and equitable use of water for all those who live in the Mesopotamian region no and in the future.

It is up to civil society organizations and the global community to build alternative solutions to ensure the sustainable and equitable distribution of water resources.


Geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar Governorate about 120 km northwest of Basra, Iraq. (Image: AFP)

On 22 March, World Water Day, our partner Humat Dijlah highlighted four main points concerning the water issues confronting Mesopotamia:

  1. Water is a Transboundary Resource
  • Water has been a common resource in Mesopotamia for millennia and has allowed civilizations to flourish along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The notion of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ countries is a recent conception that has emerged out of the widespread construction of dams which has turned water abundance to water scarcity. The water and food security of millions has been jeopardized by dam construction in the region. To overcome the issue of water scarcity in Mesopotamia, we must return to an understanding of water as a common, transboundary resource.
  1. Pollution is Degrading Scarce Water Resources
  • Sewage, waste from factories and oil installations, medical waste, saline drainage water of agricultural lands saturated with chemicals, and waste from public spaces are degrading the region’s scarce water resources. Improved sanitation and monitoring of water system health is important to improving the quantity and quality of water resources.
  1. Poor Water Management Has Increased Scarcity
  • Water consumption has continued to increase despite the decrease in available water resources. Wasteful consumption practices and outdated irrigation techniques are endemic to the region; our lifestyles have not adapted yet to the reality of water scarcity. Water management must be improved, and patterns of consumption adjusted to meet the reality of available resources.
  1. Cooperative National and Regional Water Management is Needed
  • The need is greater than ever for the countries to reassess their approach to water management. National water management polies must be united across borders. Local, cooperative models to manage transboundary resources must be developed. All efforts should include a constructive dialogue on water rights for all.

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