04 November 2013

FEATURE SERIES I: Field Experience on the Tigris River: An Interview with Johanna Rivera, Chemical Engineer Turned Water and Human Rights Activist in Iraq

I recently had the privilege to interview Johanna Rivera, a woman who works in Iraq on the Tigris River. Johanna reached out to me some months ago through my blog and shared her story with me. She herself keeps a blog of her journey - both inward and outward - please check it out! Johanna navigates the complexities of water in the desert, in a conflict zone, and works on issues surrounding the nuance of shared water between countries on one of the most famous rivers in the world, the Tigris.

The following interview is compelling - it tells about a young courageous woman who took time away from her academic pursuits to dedicate to advocacy work on human and water rights. Johanna shares stories about her work with a local NGO, the situation as she experienced it in Iraq, challenges with working on water issues, and insight about working as a woman in Iraq for the last 3 years. Much respect Johanna!
Johanna with a Sheik in Chibayish

Bio: Johanna Rivera works for Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI) as a water rights activist. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineer and a M.S. in Pharmacy from the University of Puerto Rico. In 2010 she decided to postpone her Pharmacy PhD at the University of Connecticut and traveled to Israel/Palestine where she worked for 5 months on human rights issues. Subsequently, she moved to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where she worked on human rights issues ranging from violence against women, honor killings, internally displaced camps as well as with the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative. Her work has taken her all over Iraq, Tunisia, Turkey, and Jordan in an advocacy campaign to protect the Tigris River from dam development in Turkey and Iran. 

1) You are an engineer and currently work in Iraq. Can you tell me a bit about how you came to work in Iraq and how you came to research water justice issues surrounding the Ilisu dam?

I am trained as a chemical engineer. I worked professionally on technical aspects of water purification and distribution for different pharmaceutical companies. I never thought that I would end up interested in water politics! My interest began on an unrelated trip to Israel/Palestine in the summer of 2010 to work on human rights issues. It was there that I got interested in water politics. I learned about unequal access to water between Palestinians and Israelis and how water had become a tool of political control in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was a totally new thing for me that water, which is the very element that humans are made of, could be used to manipulate people and countries. I moved to Iraq in December 2010 and continued working on women’s rights and advocacy.

The work on water issues came two years later, in 2012, when I heard about the Ilisu dam, its impact in Hasankeyf, an ancient city in eastern part of Turkey (Turkish-Kurdistan) and its inevitable impact on the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq. A coalition of NGO’s had started a petition to UNESCO to demand the protection of the potential World Heritage Sites in Mesopotamia, specifically Hasankeyf in Turkey and the Iraqi Marshes in Iraq (already on the Tentative list of World Heritage Sites). Turkish civil society had been campaigning against the Ilisu dam since 2006 and had managed to stop the financing of the dam in 2009. The issue was well known internationally, because of Hasankeyf, but nobody was talking about the devastating effects of the dam in Iraq. The effects are devastating because Iraq has depended on the water of the Tigris River for thousands of years and now that water will be captured in Turkey. This is without Iraq’s consent and worst of all without an agreement that set the boundaries of how much water Iraq would get after the operation of the dam. The UNESCO petition developed into a regional campaign with organizations from Iraq, Turkey, joined rapidly by international activists from UK and Germany working to stop the dam since 2006. I contacted one of the NGO’s in Iraq and offered to volunteer, since I was based in Iraq already.

For the past year and a half, I have been traveling all over Iraq, talking to Iraqis about the negative effects of the dam on their culture and natural value of the Tigris River as well as the socio-economical and human rights impacts on the communities that live from the river in Turkey and Iraq. When I travel, I meet with local government and people that will be affected by the dam, I also talk to them about other struggles globally and how people around the world are organizing and fighting to preserve their rivers, culture and livelihoods. There is no other study so far that qualitatively and quantitatively analyzes the effects of the dam on Iraq. Ultimately, gathering this data is important for raising awareness for Iraqis that they have to organize and make their needs known to the Iraqi government.

I am based in Suleimaniya, in the north of Iraq, known as Iraqi-Kurdistan. Iraq has a form of federalism that began in 1991 when the Kurds fought Saddam Hussein and got their autonomy, so Kurdistan is still part of Iraq, but it functions like a de-facto Kurdish State. It contains 3 provinces (18 in total in Iraq), Erbil, Suleimaniya, and Duhok, and it borders with Iran, Turkey and Syria. The security situation is stable when you compare it to the rest of Iraq, and Kurdistan has its own military.

2) As a researcher, it is always interesting to consider the logistics of data collection. How is the climate in Iraq for working? Do you have cooperation from the government? 
My advocacy work is based on a lot of discussions with university professors, legal experts and other environmental experts that have done a lot of research.  What I do is to give Iraqis that information in an easy to understand format and listen to them regarding the effects that the dam will have on their lives. The work that we are doing will eventually need to be systematically researched using quantitative and qualitative methods. I am not an academic researcher, although my work requires me to read a lot of published research. I am not documenting my work as research that will be published, at least not yet. 

As you know, the security situation in Iraq is very fragile. I am based in Suleimaniya, which is safe, but I have to travel to the provinces of the south to talk to people, which are some of the most affected areas in terms of the impacts of the Ilisu dam. These areas include Basra, Nasiriya, and Amara. As a foreigner, it is very difficult to obtain a visa to enter these provinces of Iraq, even though I live in the same country. I need to obtain a visa because the Kurdistan Region’s residency permit is not considered valid by the Iraqi Central Government authorities. The security situation and the visa requirements make the traveling in Iraq challenging.

Cooperation with the Iraqi government, until now it is very limited. We have reached some government ministries to talk about our efforts to stop the dam and some of these officials have been more open than others. We are a coalition of organizations that work at the advocacy level, which in many cases involves demanding the government take action in specific issues. Sometimes this requires that we speak up about the government’s inaction. In the case of Ilisu dam, we are concerned with the inaction of the Iraqi government to prioritize water issues and reach a transboundary water agreement between Turkey and Iraq.

There are several issues regarding work with the government. First, the Ilisu dam is a very delicate issue in Iraq, a political issue, and the relations between Iraq and Turkey are not the best. Second, the Iraqi government is not used to working with civil society or to hear demands from civil society, but we are trying to engage them. We are looking for cooperation in terms of providing information and statistics for the impacts that the dam will have on agriculture and water resource management in Iraq. Also, we are asking that they provide tools and expertise so that they feel we are working to protect Iraq’s best interests together. In the future we expect them to move into taking the issue as their own priority.
Water buffalo playing in the marshes

3) What have you found as key themes in your research?
The construction of the dam is a geopolitical issue; Turkey wants to manage the river without taking into consideration international law and bilateral agreements between Iraq and Turkey. There is no consensus over how to manage the river in an integrated way; all the stakeholders are thinking how to exploit the river to their country benefit not taking into consideration transboundary impacts. For example, Turkey is looking into developing agriculture and this involves irrigating more land. Iraq is claiming that Turkey wants to appropriate Iraq’s water and to use it to put political pressure on Iraq.

The construction of the dam, both in Iraq and Turkey is also a human rights issue. The Ilisu dam will reduce the water quantity and cause a decrease in water quality in Iraq. It will cause the displacement of thousands if not millions that will have to move because they will lose their agricultural lands. We have seen the devastating results that the Ataturk dam has caused on the Euphrates River. In this case, water quality has decreased below levels acceptable for human consumption. With the reduction of the Tigris River flow, the southern most provinces of Iraq will experience a further deterioration and salinization of water resources. Salt water is already intruding into the freshwater resources from the Gulf because of decreased flow upstream.

There is also the environmental and cultural destruction of the Mesopotamian marshes in Iraq. The marshes were once the biggest wetland in West Asia. Today, they are undergoing a process of restoration, because of the draining during Saddam Hussein regime. We don’t know how this dam will counter the restoration work already begun.

4) How is working in Iraq as a woman?
That is a very important question. The answer is that is difficult, but not impossible. There are some restrictions and precautions that you have to take as a woman in the Middle East in general. I can tell you more, as I have also been working on women issues in Iraq. Iraq is a patriarchal society that features oppression of women through early and force marriages and honor killings. Women in general are removed from public life and have little or no legal rights as we know them in the west. Yet, women can be very influential in their families and communities.

As working in any different culture, you must follow the traditions and respect the culture. For example, in the north of Iraq, is okay to go without headscarf, while in the more conservative south women wear the headscarf and the traditional black abayah, The abayah covers all the body. Going out late at night or taking taxis alone is not expected of a woman, so when doing my work, I try to follow the local traditions. I haven’t had any big issues, but it is difficult for men to accept an independent, young woman, such as I am.
Johanna working an advocacy table Suleimaniya Green Music and Art Festival, April 2013

5) What have you learned about the water situation in Iraq so far?
The water situation in Iraq is very challenging. There are several issues at the local, national and international level. At the local level, there is destroyed water infrastructure; the sewage system was destroyed during the war. Most of the untreated sewage goes into the river. Then there is pollution from industrial agricultural activity. At the national level, lack of integrated water management and cooperation between ministries that manage water carries the potential of conflict between provinces over the water distribution. This means that there is the possibility of sectarian violence because of water within Iraq. The agriculture sector in general uses outdated irrigation methods that waste a lot of water and cause increased soil salinity. Then lastly, there is the issue of high water salinity due to intrusion of seawater from the gulf into the Shat Al Arab, the confluence of Tigris-Euphrates, caused by decreased flow from the river. This is due to dam construction upstream, both in Turkey and Iran. This salt-water intrusion causes health issues, loss of biodiversity, and has affected the agricultural production in the south. At the international level, there is a lack of transboundary water agreements between the riparian countries, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. This leads to a lack of consensus on how to manage the shared water resources in the region. With the challenges that climate change poses, and a lack of agreement on how to maximize water usage in the region, the picture does not look very promising. 

6) What is the best thing that happened while working in Iraq?
One of the best things that happened was last June in the south of Iraq. We had arranged 3 seminars three different days in 3 different Iraqi provinces. We tried to get to a 4th province to talk to people, the province of Diwaniya. We contacted local activists to get a space in the university. First, it was not possible to get a place, and then with the traveling, logistics and the schedule was looking difficult. It was challenging, but worked out in the end and when I arrived to the university, the activists and the university students had arranged everything, the speakers, translation, the media…everything. They had managed to convince the Dean of the College of Law that the water issue was of utmost importance and that it needed the backing of the university. The dean was hesitant because Diwaniya lies in the Euphrates basin, not in the Tigris River. Activists managed to convince the dean that caring about the Tigris would have positive impacts on the Euphrates basin. They were successful and we had representatives from the government, the Ministry of Agriculture, civil society and a lot of media to spread the message. Another great thing is to work with an expert team spanning from the US to the UK, Germany and Iraq with advocacy experience that are supporting and sharing their experiences and network.
Boat stuck in the marshes.
7) What is the funniest thing that happened?
One of the trips we made was to see the Iraqi Marshlands in the province of Nasriyah. The marshes in the south of Iraq are a unique and fragile wetland ecosystem in the process of being restored and threatened by the Ilisu Dam. It was the middle of July, when temperatures in the south get to the 50 degree Celsius. So we got into one of the traditional boats used in the marshes, and into the water at 4:00 am. We watched the water buffaloes going out, the beautiful sunrise; we also heard stories of how the marshes were in their majesty. Then we got into an area where our host wanted to show us the decrease in the water, and how the water buffaloes are effected by it. We got off the boat, and got to see the big, but cute animals closely. When it was time to go back we got into the boat just to realize that we were stuck. Something in the engine was broken. Our boat driver was calling on his mobile to get help, with no success, and eventually a buffalo herder rescued us by taking us back in his boat. It was a bit scary, as the boat was smaller, and we were afraid it would sink or hit something, as the water level was low. Finally we made it back in time for a nice traditional Iraqi breakfast. 

Wow, what great stories! Thank you Johanna for taking the time to share and taking part as the first contributor to the Feature Series - Field Experiences. Your work takes courage and persistence. I applaud your efforts and hope for positive solutions to the Iraqi water issues.

To learn more about the ICSSI initiative, please check out their water rights campaign:

If you are interested to know more about Johanna and/or donate to her cause, please visit her blog site:
A Journey Deep into the Struggle


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