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The timid awakening of youth to the protection of the environment in Iraq

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Rassel, who does not wish to give his last name, is one of the 200 Cleanliness Ambassadors, an association which has set itself the goal of ridding Baghdad of its waste – or at least contributing to it – and raising awareness of environmental issues.

I want to make my city more beautiful […] It breaks my heart to see the banks of the Tigris in such a state. We want to change this reality. »

A quote from Rassel, 19, volunteer

The task is Herculean. In Baghdad, it is relatively common to leave empty bottles and cans in the same place where they were consumed.

The days after public holidays, the banks of the Tigris, popular with families and groups of friends for its green spaces, are littered with beer cans, plastic bags or plastic hookah mouthpieces. Often the waste ends up directly in the river.

Young volunteers during a cleaning campaign in Baghdad.

Volunteers clean up the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad.

Photo: Getty Images/SABAH ARAR

On this day, the Cleanliness Ambassadors focus their efforts on the bank below the Imams Bridge in northern Baghdad.

This is the first time this area has been cleaned since 2003! and the US-led invasion of Iraq, exclaims a passerby.

There is a lot of plastic, nylon and corkexplains Ali, 19, one of the organizers of the Cleanliness Ambassadors, who are in their eighth cleaning campaign.

Harmful to wildlife

Objects that end up in the river are extremely harmful to wildlife. The Tigris is already facing a drastic drop in its level due to repeated droughts and dams built upstream in Turkey.

Downstream, this waste ends up in the Gulf, with dramatic consequences. According to’United Nationsplastic bags block the airways and stomachs of hundreds of species and are often ingested by turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food.

In Iraq, a country that has experienced four decades of conflict, sorting garbage is not on the agenda.

The country lacks structures allowing waste collection and disposal. There is no environmentally friendly landfill and plastic recycling is not economically viableexplains Azzam Alwash, founder of the non-governmental organization Nature Iraq and adviser to the Iraqi President on environmental issues.

Worldwide, only 10% of plastic waste is recycled, according to theOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Iraq, when picked up, they sometimes end up in open dumps where they are burned.

Bags of rubbish collected during a clean-up operation near the Tigris River in Baghdad.

Plastic waste clutters the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, but an army of young volunteers are cleaning it up as part of a campaign called Cleanup Ambassadors.

Photo: Getty Images/SABAH ARAR

Air pollution

Near the southern swamps, for example. Near this inland delta, listed as a World Heritage Site, an eternal fire consumes thousands of tons of rubbish in the open air, sending its smoke for miles around.

Open burning of waste is a source of air pollution. Its real cost is the shortening of the lives of Iraqisprotests Mr. Alwash. But the state has no money to build recycling structures.

Added to this is the pollution caused by flaring, the practice of burning the gas escaping during the extraction of oil.

This toxic cocktail contributes to the increase in respiratory diseases and greenhouse gas emissions, a phenomenon alarming the climate experts of theUnited Nations (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Iraqi Environment Minister Jassem al-Falahi recently admitted to the official INA news agency that the incineration of waste poses a public health problem, because toxic gases affect people’s life and health.

However, few public initiatives have been implemented. And waste collection by volunteers is one of the only glimmers of hope at the moment, says Ali, a member of the Cleanliness Ambassadors.

According to him, the improvement of the situation passes by the sensitizing of the Iraqis to the environmental problems, neglected subject with the profit of other questions, like the deterioration of the purchasing power.

Some people are starting to stop littering the streets and have even joined ushe rejoices.

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