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Iraqi environmentalists learn from Arundel counterpart

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Thousands of miles away in northern Iraq, the Upper Tigris River is fouled by a litany of problems: trash dumped in the river, raw sewage flowing into the water, streams diverted by gravel mining, dams that block fish passage.

If the Upper Tigris Riverkeeper, Nwenar Fatih, has any chance at improving the health of the river, he needs solid scientific data. So after attending a Waterkeeper Alliance conference in Georgia over the weekend, Fatih and two colleagues spent Monday on the South River in Anne Arundel County, learning to use a $12,000 water quality meter.

Fatih joined Diana Muller, riverkeeper for the South River Federation, in dipping a long, cylindrical device called a YSI hydrolab into the water and watching readings for salinity, oxygen, temperature, algae and more pop up on a Pasasonic Toughbook laptop computer.

Muller explained how she uses water quality data from 22 locations to create an annual river health report card to share with local residents and elected officials the scope of the problems in the South River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis.

"It ends up being a communications tool," she said.

For the fledgling Upper Tigris Riverkeeper program — part of a larger nonprofit group called Nature Iraq — the hands-on training was valuable, Fatih said.

When he heads back to Iraq on Wednesday, he'll bring new ideas gleaned from Muller and the other riverkeepers he met during his trip to the United States. He learned that although waterkeepers work in vastly different areas, many of the problems are the same.

"We all have problems with garbage. We all have problems with wastewater," Fatih said.

But Fatih has challenges that Western waterkeepers don't face. There's little understanding about actions that are bad for the river. Suing polluters is out of the question because courts are unreliable. Fatih and his colleagues, including Bwar Khalid and Jantine van Herwijnen, who were part of the South River trip, rely on cooperation and education to get people to voluntarily take actions to help the river, such as not throwing trash in the water.

"We do a lot of outreach," Fatih said.

Waterkeepers — also called riverkeepers, coastkeepers, baykeepers and harborkeepers — are full-time advocates for waterways, usually employed by local nonprofit organizations. The Waterkeeper Alliance has its roots in 1983, when the job of Hudson Riverkeeper was created in New York. Today, there are more than 200 waterkeepers around the world, although Fatih is the sole riverkeeper not only in Iraq, but in the entire Middle East.

A 23-year-old former journalist, Fatih said that one day, he'd like to expand the riverkeeper organization to include four tributaries that flow into the Upper Tigris River. He'd also like to see a riverkeeper for Iraq's other major river, the Euphrates.

"The dream is to expand it in Iraq," he said.

Muller said she was glad to offer some tips to her colleagues from Iraq. In addition to taking readings at stations in the river, she showed them where one of the devices was attached to a homeowner's dock on a creek, where it takes readings every 30 minutes.

Upstream from the dock, the South River Federation is planning a major stream restoration project. The goal is to reduce sediment and other pollutants that flush into the water from the eroded, degraded stream, and Muller hopes the device's "before" and "after" data will show how well the project works.

The Tigris River is more than 1,000 miles long — it flows from Turkey through Iraq and meets the Euphrates before emptying into the Persian Gulf — so setting up remote stations would be a good idea for the Iraqi riverkeeper, she said.

"Then you have great data, which would be perfect for your group," Muller said.

Muller got involved with Nature Iraq after meeting program manager Anna Bachmann at a conference. She helped Bachmann set up technical standards for testing water in Iraq.

Muller also has worked with riverkeepers in Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, England and China. A few have visited the South River, but most of the collaboration has been done online.

"Through email and texting — a lot of them text me — and through Google Earth, it makes the world very small," she said.

pwood@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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