photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, September 28, 2012

Wasting water as a national sport

The girl that is hosing down the street stops me from taking a picture of her. Because she does not want to be caught wasting water - or because she is afraid the picture might be misused? I am afraid it is because of the latter, as people in Iraq do not see wasting water as a crime. It's more of a national sport.

Wherever you go, what ever time of the day, you will find people in Iraq pouring water onto the streets. I suppose they see it as cleaning, getting rid of the dust. They stand and watch the water, chase some dirt, look around the street, and at the same time make sure the street is nice and wet. It is a favourite pastime for all; men in uniform or pyjama's, women wearing aprons or in a house dress and even children. During the summer, the winter and even after the rain, to chase away the mud.

I was visiting a friend for a diner on his roof, when below us late at night one after another the neighbours came out with their hoses and started washing the streets. ,,The government knows this area is wasting water'', the friend told me. ,,Because of that, they only turn the water on late at night. Even so, after the water tanks are full again, everybody starts watering the street.''

Apart from the problem that they are emptying their water tanks - do they realize how much water they are wasting, and do they know that this is causing problems? Do they realize Kurdistan is using 770 liter water a day per person, where my country only uses 125 liters? I think most people are ignorant of this. Yet when you tell them they are wasting precious drinking water, they will not stop. If you ask cleaning ladies not to hose down the patio but use a bucket, they refuse.

I am from a country where water falls from the sky far too often, and yet I have been brought up with the knowledge that it takes a lot of work and money to clean water and make it suitable for drinking. Turn off the tap when you brush your teeth! Do not leave the water running! It's been so ingrained into my system, that I cringe inside when I see people walk away from a running tap.

Water is life. We all know, but in Iraq the message that goes with this knowledge has somehow got lost. Life is precious, so take care of it. And yet, in Iraq water is getting scarce. Because of dam projects in Turkey, Iran and Syria in the rivers that feed the Iraqi rivers (not only the main ones, Euphrates and Tigris, but also smaller ones) the water levels are much lower than years ago. Some winters the rains help to fill up the lakes and the rivers, but when this is insufficient the problems are huge.

Yet people are using water as if there are no problems at all. Municipalities plant greenery at the motorways and design parks for the families. All this uses tons of water, as often plants are chosen that do not originate from the region and need a lot of water. The water consumption in the summer is so high, that the deep wells that fill up during the winter dry up almost completely.

A couple years ago a Swedish organisation worked on one area near Erbil to put in water meters and educate the people about water scarcity. The water usage went down immediately. But one project is not enough. To make a real change, a  lot of education is needed for all Iraqi's from all ages - starting at the schools, but also for grown-ups.

In Duhok the authorities some time ago started prohibiting the washing of cars with a hose. That was a start, but the measure was not taken over by other authorities in Kurdistan, probably because it is difficult to implement. You need a very active police to check and persecute. 

So I was happy to see last month on AKnews that ,,a campaign for warning the citizens against the consequences of wasting water and legal punishments for doing so will be launched soon in the Kurdistan Region.Water is a national wealth and it should not be protected, said Sirwan Baban,  the minister of Agriculture and Water Resources.''

,,Baban said for better controlling the waste of water by the citizens, the Ministry will assign water consumption calculators at houses soon.''

,,As for the issue of lack of water in Kurdistan and the threats of drying out the underground water, the minister said from now on the Ministry plans for the construction of more dams and for putting a limit to the artesian wells which deplete the underground water. 13 projects of constructing big and small dams are now under way and plans for constructing 40 more are being laid, according to Baban.''

Interesting news. Now, I do not want to be only negative. The campaign and the water meters are a big step forward, punishment for wasting water too. But the plan to solve the problem by making more dams, is perhaps a bit short sighted. Because what happens to the river behind the dam, in the years that it fills? They will dry up. The water that is used to fill a lake, cannot be used for agriculture or drinking water. Do dams really solve water problems, or do they just create other problems elsewhere? And how about the land that will be flooded - agricultural land, historical land...? Many questions that need to be answered before dam projects can be started.

Let's start with the campaign, to make the people in Iraq realize how precious water is. To make them aware of the consequences of their behaviour, in the long run, for the future of Iraq. And let the government aim for a clear result: for instance to bring down the water consumption to a more acceptable level of, say, half of what it is now. Let's fight this disastrous national sport of wasting water!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Of bags of blood and health care tourism

'My mother was finally operated on in Iran', says my young Kurdish friend. 'And there were a lot of other Kurds in the same hospital for treatment'.

I need to return in this entry to the bad healthcare in Iraqi Kurdistan, as I have some new stories to share and some new insights. The mother of the friend I just mentioned had planned to have the operation done in Erbil. But when she arrived for the occasion, she was sent away because she did not bring the blood needed for the transfusion. Yet when she made the arrangements a short time before, the surgeon had said no blood was needed.

The family lost trust in the clinic and took the patient to Iran, where health care is better and she was operated on successfully. I am even told that the care is cheaper there. So it is not so strange that, even though Iran is suffering under a strict embargo, many Iraqi Kurds go there for medical treatment.

The issue of the blood is also an interesting one. The mother of another friend needed an urgent heart operation last week. Before she could be admitted, the family had to provide the clinic with five bags of blood of the right blood group. It took some organizing, but the family members donated the blood that was then used in the operation.

For westerners, this is a strange practice. We have blood banks, where blood is donated by volunteers and carefully screened for diseases. The blood is almost a hundred percent safe. What happens to this blood family members of the patients donate - is it screened as carefully? Is there enough time for that, if the operation, as in this case, is an urgent one?

There is another side to this story. The woman went to the local hospital with complaints a few weeks earlier. As she arrived there before the morning shift started, she was put on medication. Even though her arteries needed to be catheterized, she was refused the treatment because of the time of arrival. That time ruled out anything but a treatment with oral medication, after which she spent over a week at home with daily recurring small heart attacks until the family decided to take her to a clinic out of town to get the operation done.

Another recent story. A pregnant doctor from the West went for a check up on the baby and had an echo-cardiogram. In a waiting room full of patients, the secretary asked her when was the last day of her period, and had she ever miscarried. The whole room was listening, and so it also heard the girl before her answer that she had a miscarriage the day before. Private information, that is involuntarily shared with a group of people who can do with it what ever they like - which will be mainly gossiping.

When the pregnant doctor was led into the room for the echo, she found there were two other women already there. The doctor was unkind and impolite, and told her to keep her head still when she tried to steal a look at the monitor. Only when she told him she was a medical doctor herself, his behaviour changed. And while the others were sent away with the gel for the echo still on their stomachs, she was handed a Kleenex.

Now, after all these stories, I want to share with you a reaction that reached me about an earlier entry where I looked for the reasons behind the bad health care in Iraq, and put the blame partly with the doctors and partly with the system.

I  used to be a doctor in Iraq, I worked as an intern for almost 2 years but then had to flee the country and I live in the Netherlands now as an asylum seeker with a 5-years permit.
I completely agree with you about how bad the health system is, but I felt really offended when you blamed the doctors only and pictured the Iraqi doctor as a butcher who slays the patients for money with no mercy at all... 

Iraq is full of corruptions and doctors are humans and there is always a bad human and a good human, but like everything else in Iraq the bad one is in the power position. I met doctors (specialists) forced to work in a hospital (or that is what it should be) in a village 7 days a week living in a (sorry) dumpster called the doctor resident and getting humiliated every day if not by the patients, by the Department of Health.

Well you can't expect a human feeling betrayed, feeling he worked so hard his whole life just to be humiliated every day to give all he can and to keep updating himself. I would love if you would investigate - as a journalist - the life of a doctor in Iraq; a junior doctor and write an article about it. Only then you'll know what is going wrong in the health system of Iraq...

I understand what the doctor is saying, but still I do not agree with him. It can be very good for young doctors to get their first working experience in a local clinic. This is where they will have to learn, because at the Iraqi universities they hardly learned anything about diagnostics or treatment in a real situation. It might be hard not to be respected, but I am afraid when the young doctors are older, they do the same to the younger ones again. It is the system that needs to be changed. And that starts with not only allowing those with top grades to become doctors, but also those that show the necessary passion for the job.

Passionate doctors will want the best for their patients. And for that reason, they are polite, gentle and caring - not only when they find they are treating a colleague. They want to find more information about illnesses and new treatment, because they want their patients to recuperate. They want to improve themselves for the improvement of their patients.

I hope Iraq still has doctors like this, tucked away somewhere. But I doubt it, because of the many stories that I hear. It is high time for the medical practice and the authorities to sit down together, discuss and find ways to improve the situation. We do not want to continue the medical tourism to Iran, Turkey and even India. People who are ill, are entitled to be cared for as good as possible. With their family members at their bedside, and not in a strange country of which they hardly speak the language.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tourists and the Other Iraq

The camera's click. Dutch tourists line up to preserve the image of the Kurdish landscape for when they are back home. The bus is waiting to take them to the next stop, elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan.

After having organised two trips for small tourist groups from the Netherlands, I decided to guide the third tour myself, to see what the guests like and what is needed. It was an interesting adventure. Not only because I got to know a group of nine people quite well in seven days, and because I found the job of a tour leader is not an easy one, but also because it showed me my new country through the eyes of strangers.

When you read the guides the Kurdistan Ministry of Tourism prints, there must be lot of locations in Kurdistan that are interesting for tourists.But when you visit them, this is not really true. Tourists are in different categories. People getting away from the heat in the south have different interests then Westerners who come to discover a new, relatively unspoiled country.

So which subjects were discussed a lot in the group I showed around? The weather - because this September start is still a hot one. The sights - the many different mountains and their colours, the waterfalls and the nature. The bad shape of monuments. The lack of restaurants and hotels on the right spots. The impressive past that is still to be seen. One of my guests told me she had a nightmare after visiting the Red Prison in Sulaymaniya, as the former jail of Saddam's security service has been kept as it was, to give people a good idea of the suffering that went on there.

The bad shape of monuments is a problem the Kurdish authorities have to address. I was shocked on my preparation trip, to find the old gate at Amedi neglected and full of junk. How can you walk down over the broken stones, how can you expect tourists to see through the junk? Only historians who are interested in the Assyrian motives of the gate might do that. But the tourist group I had decided that Amedi was not really as interesting as I had promised. Mister Mayor, can you please do something about this...?

For the same reason I skipped part of the program. Why go to Qaskapan if the walk to the Kings Grave ends at the bottom of a rock that is hard to conquer for most people? Only because the authorities removed the wooden steps to prevent unmarried couples from having a good time in the cave?

And then the lack of restaurants and hotels at the right places. Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Duhok are so crowded with hotels that the owners can hardly survive the competition. Yet were are they in the countryside of Sulav and Amedi? And where is the little restaurant at the lake of Dukan or at Darbandigan? Tourists want to sit and watch with a coffee, tea, juice or even a meal. And the hotel at the Dukan Lake is so difficult to find it feels like a treasure hunt to go there.

Kurdistan wants more tourists. In both Sulaymaniya, Erbil and Duhok big family parks with Ferris wheels and other games are being built. Fun for the family. But that is not what tourists from the West expect to find. Of course, when the cable cars in Sulaymaniya go up to Azmar, that will be an attraction for them too. But they mainly want to discover the history of the country, and the feel of it. They want to enjoy the sights in a comfortable way. This is not about selling alcohol or opening nightclubs. This about realising that different tourists need different attractions.

The bowling halls, the skating rings, the cinema's - they may attract the visitors from inside Iraq, and perhaps also in the future from the region. But to attract visitors that also spend money, different attractions are needed. Historical sites needs to be kept and to be easily accessible. Places of beauty should also provide some possibility to stay and enjoy the sight. That could be a chaixana - tea house - but even a couple of benches are a good option.

The rocks that Kurdish artist Ismail Khayat repainted recently on the road between Koya and Erbil - his peace monument from the brother war - does deserve some benches. And it deserves some respect as well. It is unbearable that in election time the monument is filled with graffiti. The waterfall of Ahmadawa badly needs to be cleaned from plastic bottles and cans - and the be kept clean. Historical sights need sign posts. And another issue: guards at the checkpoints should stop checking the passports of the visitors, as if they are criminals or terrorists. They are your guests, they do not want to be hassled, they are on holiday, want to relax and only be treated as honoured guests.

And do you realise that Kurdistan has hardly any souvenirs, apart from the little painted pebbles Ismail Khayat is offering, or souvenir shops, apart from the shop of the Carpet Museum at the Erbil Citadel?

Of course, when the tourists come, they enjoy the famous Kurdish hospitality. They admire the sights, they love the mountains. But one or two of these groups are not enough to get the message across that Kurdistan is 'the other Iraq'. If just a few changes are made, and if a few people in the right places are aware of the economical and political impact of happy tourists going home with the right stories, then Kurdistan well really profit.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Make Kurdistan a better place for women

'If a woman cheats on her husband, she deserves to be killed', the young Kurd from a rich and influential family says. 'My wife can get a divorce, if she asks me. But if she cheats on me - I cannot accept that.'

We sit in a nice garden outside town, drinking a beer, eating salad and kebab. Like often in mixed company, the problem of honor killings has settled the mood between us, between men and women, and between Kurds and non-Kurds. Recently, a girl in the Kurdish town of Kalar has been killed by her brother, after she became pregnant by her other brother. Who's honor was in danger, you wonder. The case was bad enough for Kurdish women to get together and demonstrate against honor killings and violence against women. A novelty, because women in Kurdistan are hardly heard, and are hardly seen to protest in the streets.

The issue is not only discussed in the West, where Kurdish brothers hit the news as they kill their sisters, or fathers their daughters. Kurds are too often the subject in these news items. The problem finally has become an issue in Iraqi Kurdistan too, where modernity creeps in with the money earned and spent in this booming part of Iraq. In June of last year, the Kurdistan parliament agreed on an important law concerning women: one that punishes violence against women, and includes a prohibition on female genital mutilation FGM (in some regions of Iraq as many as 90 percent of the women get circumcised).

The problem that we all foresaw then, was that this law would need to be implemented, to be made to work. The police and the courts need to know what to do. How do you find the old women that circumcise young girls, how do you prevent them from doing what they consider as their job, how do you prove your case? What can you do when the mother agrees on the practice, as always is the case? Who will act when a woman is beaten up? Is the police making special teams to work on this issue?

No, I am not mixing up two subjects. I am covering here violence against women, and I consider the circumcision of young girls and women an act of violence against them.

The case of the girl in Kalar shows that a law alone is not enough. The parents of the girl, who are of course also the parents of the two young men involved, will not file a complaint. That makes persecuting the killer difficult. The fact that the young men will go unpunished does not at all set the right example.

Human Rights Watch reports that the law has not been enforced. 'The regional government has begun to run awareness campaigns, train judges, and issue orders to police on the articles of the law dealing with domestic violence. But it apparently has not taken similar steps to implement the FGM ban', says the human rights organization.

Let's see what else HRW says:
Several police officers told Human Rights Watch that their superiors had not given them any instructions or explanation of the ban on FGM. The head of an Interior Ministry directorate tasked with tracking violence against women confirmed to Human Rights Watch that no such instructions or explanation had yet been given.

The highest Muslim authority in Iraqi Kurdistan issued a fatwa in July 2010 saying that Islam does not require female genital mutilation. But after parliament passed the Family Violence Law, Mullah Ismael Sosaae, a religious leader, gave a Friday sermon in Erbil demanding that the KRG president, Massoud Barzani, refuse to sign it into law. Barzani did not sign it, but allowed the law to go into effect when it was published in the government’s Official Gazette (#132) on August 11, 2011. Critics in the Kurdish region say that this was an effort by Barzani to avoid confrontation with religious leaders like Sosaae while allowing the bill to become a law, but that this approach sent the message that those against the law could continue to undermine it. 

So here also, the wrong message was sent, it seems.

Members of parliament and civil society activists have criticized the government’s lack of action, and say the practice remains prevalent, particularly in areas such as Rania, Haji Awa, and Qalat Diza.

The areas that HRW mentions, are infamous for violence against women. Here the most honor killings take place, here the most girls are forced to set fire to themselves if the family feels the honor is violated. Is there a relation between this and FGM? I have not seen any reports on this subject, but I guess that when you feel that you can mutilate a girl of five, you will not treat a young woman in a much better way. What it all comes down to is respect, what it comes down to is agreeing that women have a right to their own (sex) life, that they are not the property of their fathers or husbands.

At the table in the dark garden, we implore the young and well-educated guy to think twice. We try to make him understand that change is needed, and that change will have to come from the men too. Is it true that men can only think of honor? Is it true that all men think honor is more important than life? 'No', he says, under pressure of a group of well spoken women at his table, 'there are modern men who do not agree to those practices.'

Well in that case, it is high time that those men speak out. That they make their voice heard, their opinion read, that honor killings are not of this time and no longer acceptable in Iraqi Kurdistan. That a life is too important, that a woman is not the property of a man, that honor is something out of the history books.

Modern men in Iraqi Kurdistan: stand up for your women. And at the same time, stand up for your country. After having fought so long and fiercely for a free Kurdistan, now it is time to consider how the outside world looks at you. And when it comes to honor killings and the way women are treated, the outside world thinks Kurdistan has got stuck in history and never moved out of the Middle Ages.

Prove them wrong, out there. Make Kurdistan a better place for women.