Rebuilding Iraq starting from water. The story of Salman Khairalla

Salman Khairalla is an Iraqi activist who’s been fighting to protect his country’s marshes, a key water resource, since 2007.

curated by Christian Elia

“For the Iraqi people, the two great rivers are like the body’s circulatory system: they’re our life source and everything depends on them. Standing beside the Tigris and Euphrates, breathing in the air, connects you with all our people, from south to north. It connects you with our history. Even with all our differences, we become one people before our two rivers. To rebuild Iraq and the entire region we have to start from water. Human civilisation was born along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates: it’s time to start building a new civilisation, starting from rivers”.

water defender in iraq
Human civilisation originated from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. For Salman and the other activists, it’s time to begin building a new civilisation starting from rivers © Salman Khairalla

Salman Khairalla’s journey

Salman Khairalla, 29, has an infectious smile and seemingly boundless energy. He never stops moving. The Iraqi activist and father of a young daughter, who has a degree in Environmental Science from Kufa University, belongs to a generation that was forced to grow up too soon. The war that began in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq by a US-led international coalition forever marked their lives. And it continues to do so. But Salman wants to move past the sectarian and religious divisions that have devastated his country, fully committed to this cause.

Salman Khairalla water defender
From a young age, Salman has been committed to rebuilding his country after the devastation that began with the US-led invasion in 2003 © Salman Khairalla

“In Iraq, every city is built along or crossed by a river. In 2009, I started fighting for the conservation of the Tigris and Euphrates”, Salman recounts. “It’s as if they were two members of my family. They tell me who I am through their history and the life they bring. Sometimes I speak to the Tigris and I’m convinced that it listens”.

A generation of young activists

Tired of war and divisions, Salman, together with many other young men and women of his generation, has been trying to change things from a very young age. “In 2007 when I was still in high school, I started volunteering for an international NGO. My family, like many others, had to flee our home due to sectarian clashes. In order for me to continue my studies we moved into an uncle’s house. He worked for this NGO and I wanted to start being of use. In 2009, I visited the marshes with the organisation, meeting the families that lived there and learning about their problems. Thanks to this experience I knew what I wanted to do and how I would contribute to rebuilding my country”.

salman khairalla
Salman Khairalla, 29, wearing his customary colourful sunglasses. The Iraqi activist and father belongs to a generation that had to grow up too fast © Salman Khairalla

The Iraqi Marshes’s biodiversity needs protecting

The people Salman is referring to are known as the Marsh Arabs or Maʻdān. They’ve forever lived in the marshland around the Tigris-Euphrates delta in south-western Iraq, close to the border with Iran. The Maʻdān travel through the waters that stretch across the horizon in wooden canoes with outboard motors. Their lifestyle and distance from Iraqi cities have kept them at the margins, relying mainly on buffalo farming and fishing for their livelihoods. For centuries, their marshes have been a paradise of biodiversity.

iraq marshes
Marsh Arabs have forever lived among the marshland waterways. Their lifestyle and distance from Iraqi cities have kept them at the margins, relying mainly on buffalo farming and fishing for their livelihoods © AFP

“I met a young couple with two children. They were crying. At the time, the marshes were in dire conditions due to water scarcity caused by agricultural over-exploitation. The family’s only buffalo was sick because of water contamination – Salman recalls –. Their entire livelihood depended on this. I saw all of our history in that family: my own, having been forced to abandon my home because of the war, and the history of our country, torn by useless political and religious divisions, which was no longer able to feed its people. Protecting its citizens, helping them not to have to leave the land they’ve inhabited for generations became a priority for me”.

iraqi marshes
Water scarcity in the marshes is caused in part by excessive use of water resources in agriculture, as well as climate change © Agatha Skowronek

The marshes had previously been devastated by the military conflict between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, and were subsequently subjected to Saddam Hussein‘s vengeance against the Maʻdān, who the dictator accused of colluding with the enemy. The Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003 further damaged the region, which is also threatened by climate change. The marshes are now at a historic low: their average 1.30 metre depth is three times lower than before 1980, even following some reclamation attempts made after 2003.

2012: Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign

With a group of friends and activists that has been growing day by day Salman founded the Save the Tigris and Iraqi Marshes campaign in 2012. Part of the Iraqi Social Forum of which Salman is a member and representative, these projects were created also thanks to the work and support of Italian NGO UnPontePer. In 2016, thanks to a large awareness-raising effort, Salman and his companions won an enormous victory: the marshes were recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site. And the activists didn’t want to stop there.

water defenders activists
The massive campaign to raise awareness and denounce the state of Iraq’s rivers led to a great result: the marshes were recognised as a Unesco heritage site in 2016 © Iraqi Civil Society

In 2019, the Mesopotamian Water Forum was founded. Its first convention took place last year in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This year we were supposed to meet in Diyarbakir, Turkey, but the coronavirus pandemic stopped the event from going ahead. The convention was held online instead. As a forum our agenda is based on three levels: fighting against large dams, which devastate local communities and drive political tensions between neighbouring countries; fighting against pollution, caused by unsustainable agricultural practices and resource exploitation; and, finally, empowering citizens and sharing activists’ practices between countries. We’re divided by borders but united in our battles, so we’re stronger together”.

It’s easy to imagine how difficult it is for Salman and other activists to carry out their work in complex countries like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, while also connecting with activists in Jordan and Lebanon as well as international movements and organisations.

The right to safe, clean water

water rights, iraq
Raising awareness about water issues in Iraq starts by informing citizens about their right to safe, sufficient and clean water. That’s what the Save the Tigris campaign is fighting for © Save the Tigris Campaign

“We’ve worked hard and built a good network in Iraq (especially) and abroad. There are local groups that work in every city along our rivers, from north to south. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds united by the idea of saving our rivers from dams and pollution,” Salman explains. “First of all, we work with local communities to raise awareness about the responsible use of water resources. We also conduct research to monitor the status of waterways and problems faced by communities whose livelihoods depend on rivers, with a special focus on pollution. Finally, there’s education: we train technicians, also thanks to friends who sometimes come from abroad to share their skills with us and our citizens. We educate people about recycling and environmental protection. We fight to inform citizens of their right to have access to safe, sufficient and clean water, and so that traditions that have existed for thousands of years aren’t lost. Starting from shared resources, we can build an Iraqi citizenship that’s no longer bound by religious or sectarian beliefs”.

It’s easy to imagine how difficult this process has been. “In the beginning my father was the only one who listened to me,” Salman says, laughing heartily. “Today people look me up, contact me, interview me. And, gradually, more and more people have started listening. The pandemic has been a disaster for those who, like us, work by going door to door. But we haven’t stopped, and we’ll keep working to change the culture on the issues of the environment and rights. The health crisis and the collapse of oil prices have emptied state coffers, and we’re fighting for subsidies for farmers and fishermen. Many families are facing a very difficult situation”.

The government as a hurdle

Together with other members of his group Salman took to the streets in 2019 as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens protested, asking for meaningful change. In Baghdad and other cities demonstrators demanded an end to corruption and fratricidal conflict, asking for jobs, dignity and social security for a generation tired of war. The government’s reaction was fierce. Deaths, injuries, arbitrary detention. Even Salman was taken from his home during the night. For days, no one had any news of him. Fortunately he was released, also thanks to an international campaign that kicked off as soon as he was detained. Salman doesn’t say much about this experience, speaking instead about the dreams of a generation, because he believes he’s fortunate to have made it out unscathed, unlike many others.

Salman Khairalla
Activists don’t stop when they’re faced with difficulties. They keep going, wanting to change the culture around the environment and rights in their countries © Arianna Pagani

A future for young people

“The movement that started in October 2019 is unprecedented in Iraq’s recent history. Young people, coordinating on social media, are demanding services, jobs, human rights, sustainable development. And they’re doing this as citizens, not as members of their respective sectarian communities. We’re a water-rich country that pays too dearly for water. It’s impossible to live like this, with militias, the military, and economic and political powers that share no interests with the population,” Salman concludes. “We’re tired of waiting for a better future, we want to take matters into our own hands. As soon as we can, Covid permitting, we’ll take to the streets once more. We won’t stop until politics will go back to caring for citizens and the resources that give us life”.


Water Defenders is a Water Grabbing Observatory project celebrating the tenth anniversary of the recognition of the human right to water through a series of interviews that tell the stories of grassroots battles being fought for water all over the world. A multi-faceted struggle against resource exploitation and large as well as small projects that impact communities and natural environments. Ordinary yet extraordinary men and women across the world are defending this fundamental human right. Starting from World Water Day, 22 March, LifeGate regularly publishes features by the Water Grabbing Observatory, each centred on a person fighting to protect the most precious resource we have. And claim their right to water.

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