As the founder of Iraq’s first environmental non-governmental organization Nature Iraq, can you briefly explain your activities and environmental goals?

The mission statement of Nature Iraq is to protect the environment of Iraq and the culture that the environment brings about. When I came back to Iraq in 2003, I started working on the restoration and re-flooding of the marshes. Along the edges of the marshes the civilization started, writing was invented, the wheel was invented and agriculture was started. The restoration of the marshes is the protection of not only Iraq’s heritage, but the world’s heritage. Nature Iraq was started for the purpose of working on the restoration of the marshes and the protection of the environment and the culture. Soon after the restoration started, we figured out that it is not just the issue of restoration, but the issue of water. And in fact the biodiversity of Iraq is not just the biodiversity of the marshes. The Iraq’s mountains have 80% of the flora of Iraq, while the marshes have only 20%. So our work started to follow not just the marshes, but all over Iraq. We had teams visiting almost 520 different sites on periodic basis collecting data. And then after 10 years of collecting data, we set down and began analysing. Out of the 520 sites, we selected 82 different sites that are unique in their own ways with respect to biodiversity. We are just about to publish all of this data in a book called “The Key Biodiversity Areas of Iraq”, which is of 500 pages with maps and pictures showing the variety of life in Iraq. Out of the 82 different sites, we have selected 10 sites that are potentially endangered by development and changes in water condition. Our next step after this is to start working with the Iraqi government to create protected areas, to preserve those portions of Iraq, not only for the Iraqis of the day, but for the future generations of Iraq.

What are the main challenges that you face from a technical perspective? Given the economic and political situation in Iraq, what are the obstacles against the good management of the marshlands?

The main problem is trying to work on the environment while everybody is fighting. Environment and war just don’t go together. Yes, it has been challenging. There were some areas in Iraq that we visited once or twice and we couldn’t continue the visits because of ISIL and Al-Qaida. There are areas that are affected by sectarian violence. For example, our headquarters in Baghdad was raided in 2007, so we had to relocate our headquarters from Baghdad to Sulaimani. In 2003, when we came back, we found out that the academic background of many of the young people were lacking. Education was one of the first casualties of the sanctions of the ten years before. So we spent a lot of time and effort trying to educate the new graduates that we hired in modern ways. That was a challenge basically, bringing up people who were using computers as a typewriter. But we did it.

In your article on Mosul Dam published by the Wilson Centre website, you suggest an alternative for further cooperation among the riparian states in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. Can you please explain this idea?

We have ISIL today. We have Sunni-Shia strife. We have Iran, we have Turkey, we have Iraq, we have Saudi Arabia. Everybody’s competing for influence. This all will be settled. Our future challenge as people that live in this region is water. Water is life and Tigris and Euphrates are the sources of life for southern Iraq – not only they are the source of life for agriculture, but they are the source of life for everything – the marshes, life, history, it’s all about water. As the numbers increase, our future challenge is how to share the Tigris and Euphrates? How do we live together in peace? How do we prevent the Tigris and Euphrates from being a source of tension and be a vehicle for cooperation? There are many ideas. But one of the main ideas is the issue of Mosul Dam. Mosul Dam has been termed as the most dangerous dam in the world. If it breaches, up to 1 million people will lose their homes, and think of the logistical nightmare of trying to provide water, food, shelter to people in a time when there’s no electricity, no gas, no transportation. I don’t want to even think about what is going to happen. So I’m looking at Mosul Dam and I’m thinking it’s a huge problem – how do you solve it? Well it can’t be solved by grouting, which is what our government is doing. It has already been done for thirty years and hasn’t fixed the problem. What I say to the Iraqi government and also the Turkish government – the Mosul dam is at elevation 320 m, Ilisu Dam is at elevation 1200 m. If in fact we manage to take the water of Mosul and store it in Turkey, we can decommission Mosul Dam, we can actually drain the lake of Mosul and prevent the dam from becoming a weapon of mass destruction. Storing water in Turkey will save Iraq at least a billion cubic meter (that is lost) just to evaporation. Because at elevation 320 m, you have 2 meters of evaporation per year – you multiply it with the surface of the lake and you calculate how much water is being lost to evaporation. Evaporation in Ilisu is only 70 centimetres, so you have 1/3 of the evaporation there, let alone the fact that the area of the lake is smaller in Ilisu. But it’s not about the evaporation of water. It’s about coming up with a way of creating the nucleus of cooperation between Turkey and Iraq on the management of the Tigris. If we at least sit across the table from the Turks, and we start discussing how we can get this done, and we start talking about how much it costs to lease Ilisu dam, the game is won. Once we sit down to talk about common management, the game is won. Because then, that would be the centre on which we can build a whole new way of working together, of managing the Tigris and Euphrates together for the benefit of the people.

What is your idea about the role of Track II activities in improving the dialogue among the riparian countries?

The politicians will take their time. Right now, there is no political will to reach an agreement. What do we do? The academics’ job is to create the tools and the ideas that the politicians will use once they are ready to discuss and come to an agreement. So between now and the time when we reach an agreement, your job and my job is to talk together to create models, come up with ideas from your side so that the Turkish interests are protected and from my side so that the Iraqi interests are protected, and possibly even published in international papers so that everybody knows this it is not advocacy science, it is real science. So that everybody has the assurance that what we are doing is legitimate, that in fact whatever agreement we reach based on these tools will be enforceable – that is what we should do. You and I can talk science without politics. Science is the language of logic, politics is the language of emotion, and we need to separate those two. You can agree or disagree with me, but the numbers don’t lie.