Iraqis clean up river as first green projects take root
An army of Iraqi volunteers heads toward Baghdad's Tigris River in a rare environmental initiative to clean its banks.
Garbage covers the banks of Baghdad's Tigris River, but an army of young volunteers is cleaning it up, a rare environmental endeavor in the war-torn country.
They pick up soggy rubbish, water bottles, aluminum cans, and muddy styrofoam boxes while wearing boots and gloves as part of the Cleanup Ambassadors, a green activism program.
"This is the first time this area has been cleaned since 2003," i.e. since the US invasion.
Iraq is facing the threat of a slew of interconnected environmental issues ranging from climate change and chronic pollution to dust storms and water scarcity.
The 200 volunteers working in Baghdad want to be a part of the solution, clearing garbage from a stretch of one of the great rivers that gave rise to Mesopotamia's old civilizations.
"It breaks my heart to see the banks of the Tigris in this state," said one 19-year-old volunteer working under Baghdad's Imams Bridge.
"We want to change this reality. I want to make my city more beautiful."
The grassy banks of the Tigris, which are popular for picnics by families and groups of friends, are generally cluttered with rubbish, ranging from single-use plastic bags to hookah pipe disposable tips, especially during public holidays.
Rubbish chokes wildlife
"There is a lot of plastic, nylon bags, and corks," said Ali, also 19 and an organizer of the cleanup event.
The group then gave over their rubbish to the Baghdad City Council, who transported it away to be disposed of at a landfill.
More frequently than not, rubbish is dumped directly into the Tigris. Along with the Euphrates, it is one of Iraq's two major waterways that suffer a slew of environmental challenges.
Rivers and their tributaries are dammed upstream in Turkey and Iran, over-utilized along the way, and polluted with residential, industrial, and agricultural waste.
Trash that flows downriver clogs riverbanks and wetlands and endangers both terrestrial and aquatic species.
According to a United Nations document, as the water empties into the Gulf, plastic bags are frequently consumed by turtles and dolphins and obstruct the airways and stomachs of many other animals.
Separating and recycling rubbish has yet to become a priority for most people in Iraq, despite four decades of war and years of political and economic turmoil.
According to Azzam Alwash, the head of the non-governmental organization Nature Iraq, the country also lacks sufficient infrastructure for waste collection and disposal.
"There are no environmentally friendly landfills and plastic recycling is not economically viable," he said.