One of the problems that the oft-troubled northern city of Mosul does not have is a water supply. The Tigris River passes through the city, the capital of the state of Ninawa, dividing it into two coasts. And as it passes through, the river’s waters are used by a wide variety of businesses and private households on its banks.
The local sewage department estimates that there are 172 sources of sewage pouring about half a million cubic meters of waste water into the river daily, including waste water from private households and factories, some of which are state-owned.
On the banks of the Tigris, there are a number of construction sites, industrial areas and one large medical complex. Various types of liquids and solids find their way into the river, some of them dangerous, many of them untreated and polluting. In the past, reports have suggested that medical waste was being thrown directly into the river – even though the local health department denies this.
“One of the biggest cities in Iraq after Baghdad, and Mosul doesn’t even have a real sewage system,” the head of the local sewage department, engineer Anwar Ammar, complained. “The current system was designed to collect rainwater but now it’s used to dispose of industrial, commercial and residential wastewater. There is only one real sewage system in two small residential compounds,” he added.
Some of the first to draw attention to the problems the local populace is facing as the Tigris gets more polluted, were local fishermen. There’s been a decrease in numbers making a living this way and the federal Ministry of Agriculture published a report indicating that fish stock numbers were falling right around Iraq, and that the main cause was water pollution.
“The quality of the river waters has been worsening for some time – because there’s less water in the river, the changes in river temperature and the increased amount of floating oil slicks and other waste,” local fisherman Abu Ali, 50, said. “Fish are not coming into the river anymore. Ten years ago fish from the Tigris, especially the carp, were sold all over Iraq,” he noted.
Aware of the seriousness of this issue, the local government formed a committee in August 2011 to assess the levels of pollution in the Tigris River. The committee confirmed that around 100,000 tons of salt and chemicals were finding their way into the river every year. Crude oil, and crude oil derivatives, from the Kasak area in western Mosul, were also finding their way into the river.
Dried animal dung was entering the river around the Badush area, through which the Tigris flowed, and there was also an impact from heavy metals coming from a former military installation upriver. Cadmium, which can cause a variety of health problems, was a particular issue.
Reports from the province’s water department, sighted by NIQASH, mention other reasons for concern. Untreated wastes from cities north of Mosul – Zakho and Dohuk – end up in the Khabur River, which then flows into the Tigris.
Unfortunately the main water purification plant serving Mosul’s population for drinking water is located on the Tigris River. “The river is at risk and those concerned with water purification must rely mainly on chlorine for purification processes,” Mohammed al-Ghannam, the chairman of Mosul\'s environment and health committee, explained. As al-Ghannam, who is an ophthalmologist by profession, pointed out: “this has an impact on people’s health”.
Additionally, he said, diseases like cholera were spreading and kidney disease and allergies were on the rise too. “If river pollution is not controlled there will be serious consequences,” he said.
Local power stations were also having an impact. “Thermal power stations cause pollution too because they use water for cooling their motors, and this too affects the water ecology,” Fakhri Yassin, a professor of engineering at Mosul University, explained. “The sand and gravel quarries on the upper side of the river have also contributed to pollution because they’ve increased the amount of plankton in the river. This in turn leads to an enormous consumption of oxygen in the water. And that is why medium sized and larger fish have become rare in the river.”
The local committee tasked with researching the issue concluded by saying that waste shouldn’t be dumped into the Tigris, if it hadn’t been treated according to generally accepted international standards. The committee also suggested that special regulations be introduced to ban the dumping of untreated solids and liquids. It also suggested more sophisticated water purification methods, banning quarrying activities around the river and, most importantly, initiating the construction of a real sewage network for Mosul.
Unfortunately over two months have passed since the committee made these suggestions and up until now, no further action has been taken.
And despite all of the evidence that the Tigris River and its tributaries were becoming more and more polluted, local government departments still seem to prefer to play things down.
According to official statements from local departments of water and the environment, more than 3 million people rely on the river for drinking water. The undeclared intention of that statement, according to critics: they’re drinking it and they’re not dead yet.
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq. The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Saleh Elias.