Khaled Sulaiman published a book early this year on the environmental challenges related to water scarcity and biodiversity degradation in Iraq. Sulaiman is an independent journalist form the Kurdistan region of Iraq who dedicated his journalist career to researching topics related to the environment and their impact on vulnerable communities. In his new book 'Water Guards: Drought and Climate Change in Iraq' Khaled highlights the importance of involving the expertise of local communities in developing sustainable solutions on water-related stresses. PSI interviewed Sulaiman to know more about his book, his views on Iraq's upcoming challenge and the role of journalists.
Your book carries an interesting title. Why did you choose this title and how is this linked to the core message of the book?
The title of the book 'Water Guards' comes from an article I wrote back in 2018. I wanted people to pay attention to how protecting water is in our innate nature, and how we should do so all the time. Older generations have been preserving their water resources. I remember how my parents and the villagers in Kurdistan were recycling water for irrigation purposes and how they regulated household water use. They did so without any academic knowledge of modern recycling techniques. Today, we call these techniques 'nature-based solutions'. People in the south of Iraq are following the same nature-based solutions. Therefore, the core message of the book is to use the innate knowledge of local communities to develop modern sustainable techniques for water preservation and recycling.
You explained how water security is vital in Iraq. Can you tell us why are you interested in investigating water-related issues in Iraq?
My interest in water-related issues started in the 1990s when the marshes, in the south of Iraq, were drained by the previous regime. This resulted in massive disruptions to the ecosystems in the region. In 2010 I wanted to write more about water and environmental stresses in Kurdistan, but I faced several issues. One of these issues is that journalism in Iraq is politicized and owned by some dominant political parties and individuals. Environmental problems are only covered when there is a large-scale crisis, like the water crisis happened in Basra in 2018. Given its importance, I aim to ensure environmental issues are covered daily in the local media.
I believe the current policies and modern technology will not be sufficient if decision-makers neglect the role of local communities. It would be the role of journalists to increase awareness regarding inefficient management of water resources, the use of water as a weapon, the effects of climate change and population growth.
What is the biggest challenge Iraq is facing now related to water? And what is the best solution the government needs to consider?
Iraq has several water challenges; the most pressing ones are the effects of the water policies of Turkey and Iran. Both countries are building large water reservoirs on international rivers which threaten lives and livelihoods of millions of Iraqis. Iraq receives a small and polluted amount of water. There is no binding regional or bilateral agreement to protect Iraq's right to water. Neither Turkey nor Iran acknowledges international agreements on transboundary rivers. Only diplomatic efforts can provide a long-term solution.
Therefore, a political solution is required. Otherwise, new waves of instability can erupt in the already fragile security context. For example, tribal conflicts in Basra over water resources are on the rise and are expected to increase in the coming years.
In your book, you stressed the role of communities to overcome water scarcity, why do you think decision-makers should consider community-based solutions?
Most of the publications on water-related issues in Iraq adopt an academic approach. Although very relevant, these approaches rarely cover the human side. There are not enough stories on the daily challenges villagers face to secure water, for example. In my book, I mix stories with scientific data. I focus on presenting individuals, schools, villages, bridges, historical monuments and literature. My purpose is to restore people's historical relation with water as a vital element for their existence.
"Local communities should be part of the solution"
Communities should be part of the solution and not just victims we write stories about. Throughout history, local communities expanded their expertise in dealing with the environment. People learned how to manage natural sources surrounding them, including preserving water. This could be used as input for the scientific community.
The impact of climate change is significant on Iraq, as you have mentioned in your book. Can you briefly explain why and how could this impact drives instability?
The impact of climate change on Iraq is multifaceted. The most pressing ones are water scarcity, high temperatures and dust storms. Each one of them has further influences on food security, economy and biodiversity. Some studies show that the southern region of Iraq will be severely affected by rising sea levels. This will drive migration and urbanization, while poverty and unemployment rates are already high in the cities. This is already happening in the southern governorates of Iraq but it is expected to become a bigger problem in the coming years.
You mention women and children are more vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Can you elaborate on how water scarcity is affecting them?
I saw how floods in Iraq between 2018- 2019 prevented children from going to schools for days. But the impact of droughts, dust storms, water scarcity and prolonged heat waves is even more significant. Students do not want to go to schools that are not equipped to sustain such harsh conditions. The impact on women is also noticeable. They have to fetch water from wells or canals located far away. They cross tens of kilometres to do so, while younger girls have to stay at home to take care of the family.
Planetary Security Initiative and Free Press Unlimited are cooperating to support environmental journalism in Iraq. How can journalism contribute to reducing security risks related to climate change and environmental degradation in Iraq?
The cooperation aims to involve journalists and academics in using a new environmental journalism approach known as 'storytelling-based solutions'. The aim is to spread awareness on the security impact of climate change on the country, to educate local communities and to explore how nature-based solutions can reduce the impact of climate change. The 'storytelling-based solutions' approach focuses on building relations between communities and authorities from one side, and between communities and the research institutions, from the other. Journalists can bring all these actors together to ultimately develop long-term solutions.
Watch Khaled Sulaimn talking about his book and Iraq's upcoming challenges in our webinar: 'Iraq: climate, water & conflict in 2020'