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High Tide
In Diwaniyah, As Temperatures Rise, So Do Drowning Deaths

Manar al-Zubaidi
In the southern Iraqi city, a refreshing dip in the local river can be deadly. But even a special river police force can’t seem to stop young locals from swimming.
19.09.2019  |  Diwaniya
Cooling off in Diwaniya.
Cooling off in Diwaniya.

The local man, a 17-year-old who worked at the market in Diwaniyah, simply wanted to go for a swim after a day in the summer heat. So he just stripped and jumped into the Diwaniyah River. After just a few minutes though, he was gone – drowned. His body was found a few days later and an autopsy found that he had fainted while swimming because he had high blood pressure.

The river swallowed the teenager the same way it has swallowed many others here.

Penalties and punishments are the only way to control this, the councilor says. 

The river, often called the Shatt al-Diwaniyah, is a branch of Iraq’s Euphrates river. It passes through the centre of the Diwaniya, going through several districts on the way.  There are a number of possible swimming spots throughout the city.

Mohammed al-Waeli, a 33-year-old local, has survived the river several times. After feeling faint in the water he was helped out by other locals swimming nearby. And, he adds, it’s often the younger people here who are in danger of drowning.  They don’t want to go to public swimming pools because these are too distant or because they cannot afford the cost of entry.

According to local authorities, 153 locals drowned in the river between 2017 and 2019, the majority of them males.


To try and prevent such accidents, the local police established a river policing department in 2014. Officers are deployed around the city to monitor parts of the river daily, explains the head of this department, Ismail Lafta Mahdi. Despite a lack of resources, they work long hours. His officers sometimes try and prevent people from swimming if they feel the situation is dangerous. But this can be difficult, he explains, because there is no law that allows them to stop anyone; so sometimes they use the excuse of infringements against public morality to stop locals from jumping in. 

A member of the local council, Nawras al-Adly, thinks that the council should create a new bylaw that would allow fines to be imposed on swimmers. The same thing is done in neighbouring provinces, she says, adding that, in her opinion, “penalties and punishments are the only way to control this.”

“The council had followed up on this issue of adolescents going swimming in the river and the dangers of that – especially when it comes to those working in the markets or the herders who swim at noon with their animals,” al-Adly continued. Letters have been sent and questions asked but unfortunately nothing has really happened, she noted.

Another member of Diwaniyah’s provincial council, Jaffar al-Moussawi, believes that there should be signs erected around the river warning would-be bathers of the dangers. But as al-Adly points out, a lot of the local teenagers going swimming during the day are from lower-income families and often cannot read.  

And there is yet another reason not to swim in the Diwaniyah River. There’s a lot of pollution in there, says Haider Amaj, an environmental activist in the city. “Businesses are pumping pollutants into the river and hospitals and factories put their waste in there too,” he said. “Ordinary people also dump rubbish in there and that includes the corpses of dead animals.”