Clean Water Act Inspires Water Advocates Worldwide
By Virginia Tice
When I tell people that I work for an Iraqi environmental non-profit organization, the first question I am invariably asked is, “Doesn’t Iraq have more important things to worry about than environmental protection?” To which I respond, “What could be more important to a country and people than water?” I say this not to minimize the myriad concerns in Iraq but only to put things in perspective: the awful threat of violence is sporadic and localized whereas the threat of cholera or typhoid from a drinking source, drought and saline groundwater are devastatingly widespread. For the average Iraqi, a lack of access to clean water is a much more common problem than unexploded ordinances.
As readers of EcoWatch are no doubt aware, environmental protection safeguards not only the natural world but also human health. Even more than that, in Iraq environmental protection is a pivotal component of peace and stability in the region. In a place where there’s more oil than water, the need for water resource management is important. When that water is shared between countries that have long histories of mistrust and war, the need for water resource management becomes a paramount national interest.
The influence of the U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA) has been significant in this protection process. Like other major American environmental laws, the CWA serves as model legislation for countries looking to regulate the discharge of pollutants into their surface waters. No matter how much further American environmental advocates feel they still need to go in the fight for clean water, clean air, biodiversity and habitat preservation, America nevertheless serves as an inspiring example for countless advocates the world over. The message of “Swimmable, Drinkable, Fishable Water” cuts through the layers of granular policy arguments to reach the heart of the issue for all people: do we want to be able to enjoy our waterways, or not?
Overwhelmingly, the answer to that question in Iraq has been, “yes, we want to protect our water.” The problem for most is that they don’t know how to turn that desire into action. Decades of dictatorship have left a disenfranchised population that is ill equipped to orchestrate meaningful advocacy campaigns. The Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper has worked to change this, helping educate and empower communities to participate in local water resource decision-making. Something as simple as a river cleanup goes a long way in helping a community understand the threats to and solutions for their water.
It feels banal to say water is necessary for life. This simple truism is often lost when you get safe water from a kitchen sink without much thought to the snow-capped mountains and river that brought it there. But there is no such cognitive separation in Iraq. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have sustained life here since the beginning of humankind, and will be indispensable to Iraq’s future success. With the continued guidance of the CWA and efforts of the Iraq Waterkeeper, that future success is off to an excellent start.
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