Sophia's Peace Work

Monday, July 27, 2015

The New Job

Having secured employment here in the U.S. I think I will say farewell to my blog for now. Its been 15 months since I returned from Iraq.  Part of that time I was spent with my father while he went through chemotherapy (he's now cancer free, alhumdulillah!). Finding work in my home community has been a challenge. Everyone would say that I have amazing experience (and I do), but it wasn't local experience.  So I spent most of the year getting reacquainted with the local and regional issues.  After working in Iraq, I was open to a lot of different types of work but I wanted my work to focus on water resources and rights and I was interested in experiencing a government perspective in my work (I've worked for non-profits most of my life). 

Well, I got my wish and started working for  the local Public Health Department and its water quality program specifically ....  I do mourning the loss of my free time (15 months making my own schedule was ... lovely!) but I'm learning a lot in my new position. Government work is much more rigid than the non-profit world.  But it has been a bit of a challenge for me in other ways.

I'm still 'processing' after the 9+ years I spent in the Middle East.  It certainly doesn't help that Iraq is such a gaud-awful mess these days.  Back at home it feels a little like I'm starting over and there is so much to learn working in this new job (I'm having to re-orient myself to the legal aspects of the job that are so different than Iraq's legal environment).

I'm using to being the person with all the institutional knowledge and now I'm the newbie ..... plus the enforcement aspect of the job are pretty significant.  I kind of ignored that aspect of the job when I was applying but now I actually have to tell people things they don't want to hear .... like, sorry your septic system is blown and even though you are unemployed and on disability you have to replace it ... oh and here is information on a completely inadequate grant program that will help you replace the system!

I keep reminding himself ... its all in the efforts to keep our water clean!.... but what on earth possessed us to put our poop in potable water in the first place!  Who ever thought throwing pollution down our drain was a smart idea?  Crazy, silly humans!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Conspiracy Theories

A friend in Baghdad wrote me that the recent videos coming out from ISIS about beheaded westerners are fake.  There is analysis demonstrating this.  And also that the collapse of the Iraqi army is some sort of a game and that ISIS was created by ... who? Someone who wants to keep the whole Arab world in chaos.

I hadn't heard that there were people talking about the tables being fake.  I don't think that this is likely true as I would bet it would get a little more play in the media.  Most folks think they are legitimate.  I'd certainly love them to be fake ... to know that these people are still alive somewhere.  Regardless of whether this is true, a lot of people have been killed in pretty horrific ways during this conflict and there is plenty of blame to go around and ISIS certain deserves a fair share if it.

I find that Iraq's like to go in for conspiracy theories ... I've met many people in Iraq who believe there is some secret master plan to destroy society.  The reality if often far simpler. A couple of years after I was teaching in the English Department of the College of Education at the University of Baghdad, I met the head of the department and one of the English professors at a restaurant in Amman, Jordan.

They told me that it must have been a secret plan of the U.S. right from the start to destroy Iraq.  No, it was not, I told them ... it was just stupidity, hubris and short-sightedness. I know my country and we go about the world thinking we are hot shit and blundering about without any kind of realistic, long-term plan.  Conspiracies require a bit more intelligence that we often bring to the world stage.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My God vs. Your God

Somebody posted a recording to Facebook recently of a radio interview that the head of Islamic State's military wing did with an Australian interviewer.  What I was struck by was the fact that there is really no way to argue with these people. The very premise upon which they stands is impossible to have a rational discussion.  Everything he espouses is based on what "God said ... " or  "the Koran it says ... " or "Mohammed (PBUH) tells us ..."  

I always want to go running when I hear this talk.  If I say, God, Jesus and the Bible told me just the opposite, than we have the basis for a holy war (or rather a wholly stupid war). I suspect that God, if he or she, exists, is pretty darn tired of people calling upon him/her to back up their bankrupt and self-defeating reasons for acting like complete turds!  If God tells us to kill Yezidi men and enslave their women, then there is something wrong with this God.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Mosul Dam under threat

3 Aug situation update from the Institute for the Study of War: An anonymous local source says that Islamic Militants have given the Peshmerga an ultimatum to withdraw from the Mosul Dam within two hours of seizing the nearby village of Wana, north of Mosul. An unnamed Peshmerga confirmed that there had been clashes and bombardment in the area of the dam.

What is ISIS likely to do if it gains control of the Mosul Dam?  It can wreck unimaginable devastation upon the country if there is a catastrophic release from the dam.  All they might need to do is stop the maintenance ... this dam was so poorly designed and built that it needs to be constantly grouted (i.e. have all the leaks plugged).  It's been called the most dangerous dam in the world and in fact should never have been built in the first place.  Its literally build on rocks that dissolve in the presence of water.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Report "outlined a worst-case scenario, in which a sudden collapse of the dam would flood Mosul under 65 feet (20 m) of water and Baghdad, a city of 7 million, to 15 feet (5 m), with an estimated death toll of 500,000. A report on 30 October 2007 by the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) said that the dam's foundations could give way at any moment."  See

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Environmental Effects of the 2003 Iraq War

I'm often asked for information on how the 2003 war in Iraq affected the environment in the country.  War is never good for the environment for many, often obvious, reasons but the sub-text to this question is how has the United States been responsible for polluting Iraq.  I'm never sure how to really answer such a question.  For the past 8 years I've been working in Iraq on environmental issues in the country but we did not really get involved in environmental issues related to the last war ... at least not directly.  Not because such issues are not important but as summed up by our CEO's at the time ... 
Iraq has so many environmental problems that have been ignored for decades that it would be difficult to decipher the causal link between these problems and any one smoking gun ... be it the American-led invasion or the overall background toxic soup that Iraq is swimming in.

This toxic soup has been caused by municipal pollution (garbage and sewage), toxic dumping to land, air and water from the oil sector, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of environmental awareness, and of course many previous regional wars and conflicts (some involving extensive toxic chemical attacks). 

As an American, I was initially interested in the depleted uranium issue because my own country makes this type of munitions from waste produced from the uranium refinement process.  In the U.S., I lived not far from a naval magazine where such munitions were stored and they were regularly tested off the coast of the United States by the U.S. Navy. These types of 'low-level radioactive' munitions are well suited to warfare not because of their radioactive properties but because they are dense heavy metals that have the ability to pierce armor plating.  Yet there are many claims that this munitions, once used, have a long toxic legacy in the environment and for human health. 

And I simply think there is a difference in a country polluting itself vs. one country (the U.S.) spreading its toxic wastes over another country (Iraq).  It still warrants further investigation and there have been some interesting and controversial writings on the subject. For example see the Lancet Journal from 2013 "Questions raised over Iraq congenital birth defects study".

The United Nations Environmental Programme did some initial reports on the environment in Iraq back in 2003. This UNEP Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq covers some of the main impacts of previous wars that have affected the country and the risks and impacts to the war in 2003, as well as looking at the more systemic environmental problems in the country.

There is certainly a need to look more closely into the environmental consequences of the 2003 war as well as any conflict really.  I'm in favor of anything that makes people think twice before jumping on the bandwagon that takes us to war.

Fancy an outdoor adventure ... in Iraq?

There is a new mountain ski resort (and spa!) at Korek Mountain near Soran & Rawanduz in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.

Also Secret Compass has a trip coming up on Halgurd Mountain this spring ...

and then of course there is our friend Andreas Bleiker and his eco-tourism company operating out of Erbil: Majestic Heights Outdoor Adventures.  He has plenty of adventures!

... and if you want to also contribute to a good cause and get a hiking/birding/rafting and/or kayaking trip out of the deal, check out the Rawanduz River Expedition Campaign.

Those of you State-side, I'll be giving two talks this coming week: on to the students of the Environmental Problem Solving class at McDaniel College (my father used to be the librarian there back in the day).  The other talk will be for an Estuaries course at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Rawanduz River Expedition

In the popular imagination, Iraq is a desert wasteland, devoid of natural beauty and lacking breathtaking scenery.

In Iraqi's understanding, their country's environment is hopelessly neglected, abused by forces beyond their control.

We want to tell a new story to change these attitudes, and show Iraq's last wild rivers in their true beauty and splendor.

See the Rawanduz River Expedition Campaign ... like it, tweet it, email it, support it!

Friday, November 29, 2013

German Funding Lessons ...

"Our funding mode is deficit financing" 

This statement from T, our contact with the German Foreign Federal Office, was the source of some confusion in the RiverWatch Program I administered to collect water samples and do community education in both  Kurdistan, northern Iraq and along the Tigris River during the Flotilla. has the following definition:

deficit financing

(especially of a government) expenditures in excess of public revenues, made possible typically by borrowing.

The U.S. Government survives on deficit financing and this is my understanding of the term.  I.e. it means spending money you don't have today by borrowing (but in fact you're gonna have to pay that money back one day and with interest).

But my contact with the German FFO explains it this way: "Deficit-financing mode means that the FFO finances the gap between the funds that you have and the funds needed for implementing the project. If other funds come up, the gap becomes smaller and thus the deficit to be financed by FFO decreases."

In other words, if our organization doesn't have all the money needed to do the work, the German FFO will provide the difference ... but if our organization suddenly comes up with more dough, the German FFO pays less.

Yesterday I was able to sit down and finally have a face to face meeting with T, who has been a tireless supporter of our work and has held my hand through all the detailed discussions on the grant.  We submitted our financial report on the project back in the spring, and T told us that the financial folks at the German FFO are still scratching their heads over it but things will wrap up in the next week or so.  I'm hopeful that things will resolve themselves without much difficulty.  The project was a great success and generated a lot of interesting data that we're still working up.  The financial part is what made it all possible but has certainly been a big headache.

German Foreign Federal Office in Berlin

Monday, November 18, 2013

Final RiverWatch Sampling ... atleast for me anyway

With the help of CJ, a professor from the nearby university, and a few other helpers along the way, I've been able to finish sampling the bulk of the RiverWatch sites for the Lesser Zab and Tanjero River Basins (CJ has agreed to continue sampling the remaining sites).  Previously I had only spring data for these sites but now with the added data from the fall, we'll be able to develop a much more robust Scorecard to grade these rivers on the quality of their waters.  I just need to find the time to sit down and crunch the numbers!!!

Anyway, here are some images of our final sampling days ... all beautiful fall days.

CJ and N at Ahmed Awa

Beautiful Ahmed Awa water (but a lot of trash if you look closely)

 C sampling with the multimeter at Khewata

A showing S how to collect samples for the colorimeter

At Khewata preparing to sample

CJ checking water clarity with the Secchi Disk on the Lesser Zab River

Float on the Lesser Zab River through Dukan

Deflating the boat can be relaxing.

Lesser Zab near Bogd Village: Saying goodbye to the River ... again!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Doing strange things ...

A friend originally of German origin who has become an honorary Kurd recently wrote about the end of summer and swimming in the waters of Dukan Lake (a reservoir on the Lesser Zab River).  He was dismayed to find the shores of the lake covered in garbage.  Though he loves the beauty of his adopted country he is disheartened by the way the land and its waters are being treated by its own people.

He wrote, "How many more songs are we going to sing about the love we have for our land and country – before we start to love with our actions ? is this our interpretation of love?  (as in we use the ones we love – and then we dump them – and do not care what happens to them … ?)"

I care about rivers and waters and have worked on these issues for most of my time in Iraq and have seen the local rivers and streams here treated as if they are no better than a drain pipe that gets rid of anything we don't want.  What clean water is available is pumped out of the river where it supports fish and birds to be put through pipes and into fountains that no one can access because they have been built in the narrow medians of busy highways.  They exist only to provide a pretty view to the drivers whizzing by.  Or this precious resource is abused in the endless cleaning of streets and sidewalks because people are too lazy to pick up a broom.

Here are some of our sample results for nitrates (the yellow vial below) and phosphates (the blue vial below) on the Tanjero River downstream of the town of Sulaimani.  Nitrogen and phosphorous are two important nutrients that in clean water should be quite low.

Nutrient levels at the Qaraqoll site on the Tanjero River

Phosphate (PO4) levels were 2.33 mg/L (the Iraqi limit for surface waters should be less than 0.4 mg/L).  The level for nitrates (NO3) were very high (11.7 mg/L) and at the next site we tested 7 km downstream, the Nitrate levels were over 16 mg/L (the Iraqi limit for surface waters should be less than 14 mg/L). These are some of the highest levels I've seen in the entire time I've been surveying.  At one site upstream the Phosphate levels were over the 5.5 mg/L detection limit of the instrument I was using.

The Tanjero River in Qaraqoll.

The river also looked physically bad with a turbid, brownish-grey color and a sewage odor. Essentially all the sewage and factory waste water from the town of Sulaimani (a city with over 1.5 million people) goes into the river with zero treatment.  All of it heading south to villages and towns downstream and eventually into the Darbandikhan Reservoir, and on down to the town of Darbanidikhan, Kalar, etc .... the river changes its name several times and eventually becomes the Diyala River that feeds into the Tigris River just south of Baghdad.

Rivers have tremendous power to clean themselves but not with each and every town using the river as their own personal, open sewer ... The prevailing attitude is that its not our problem, let the next town deal with it.  On one occasion, in the town of Soran (in the Greater Zab Basin) someone told me, "Oh, we don't need to worry, this river is going to Baghdad.  Its their problem."  And what do you tell the people living upstream?

My friend, the German immigrant, inspires me and I agree with him.  He wrote, "i personally have had enough. I love this country – and i love it’s mountains and rivers and it’s lakes and I promised them that i will fight for them like a protective lover would for a beautiful woman … so do not be surprised if you see or hear me do strange things in these coming months – no matter what anybody may say or do -  

because people who are in love can do strange and desperate and crazy things …   and if anybody wants to join me -  you know where to find me - because i passionately wish that 2014 may be a year of doing love – and showing respect -  and not just saying it – or singing about it … 

it is time …"

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Continuing in the sampling effort ....

A friend of mine in Sulaimani who is teaching science courses at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS) has been joining me in the effort to sample all the old RiverWatch sample points on the Lesser Zab and Tanjero/Diyala Rivers.  I'm trying to develop a Scorecard for the rivers that gives different sections a grade based on their water quality and more data will strengthen this effort.

Good thing my friend wants to be involved because my organization's is rather poor these days and wants to charge us $175 for a car and driver for one day of sampling. Fortunately my friend has some transportation funds of her own that she can tap into  ... the sticker shock on what my organization is charging means we'll use a combination of AUIS vehicles, local taxis and borrowing cars from friends.

Here are some photos from our time out together ....

Small stream near a fish hatchery in Dukan that feeds into the Lesser Zab River

CJ at Surqawshan, near the mouth of the Tabbin/Chami Rezan stream that feeds into the Lesser Zab River

Taking readings with the multi-meter at the Tabbin/Chami Rezan stream further upstream

Light trapping insects along the Tabbin/Chami Rezan Stream

Checking nutrient levels on the bank of the Zalm Stream (a tributary to the Tanjero River)

CJ and I with the sampling gear (Along the Zalm Stream)

 CJ's AUIS students at a stream in Mergapan valley (below Peramagroon Mountain, in the Lesser Zab River Basin)

Students collecting a sample

Public Art in Sulaimani, Kurdistan, Iraq

A water tank in town ...