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Saturday, 27 August 2011

How Singapore can 'save' Iraqi Kurdistan litter crisis

Litter, mostly empty beer cans and water bottles, 
cover the virgin nature around Shaqlawa, a tourist town north of Erbil,
 Kurdistan region of Iraq. Photo: Mariwan Salihi/ekurd.net

ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Take a road-trip to the beautiful town of Shaqlawa (30 minutes north of Erbil), and instead of enjoying the nice weather, green spots and the magical mountain sceneries, your eyes will be more attracted to the empty, green, beer cans – in their thousands – on both sides of the road.

A hiking trip to the remote Halgurd Mountain, Iraq's highest at more than 3,700 meters, is another unpleasant surprise: litter, from plastic bags to forgotten sandals, dot the entire pristine snow-covered area. And that in perhaps the most remote region in the entire nation! Visit the beautiful, turquoise Dokan Lake (in Sulaimaniyah Province), and the situation is much worse.

Even the ancient Erbil Citadel is not "deprived" from the peoples' litter. Walk around the 8,000 years-old site in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, and you'll probably start picking up empty plastic bags or water bottles, instead of enjoying the sights around the ancient homes, the old mosque, or the Kurdish Textile Museum located inside the walled fortification.

While visiting all those places, in preparation for my up-coming travel guide to Iraqi Kurdistan, I have to personally clean some spots before taking that "perfect picture."

It's not a surprise for the locals in Iraqi Kurdistan to see all that litter that have carpeted the green fields and the blue streams: it has become a familiar sight, and perhaps, better left that way. Some, according to a friend, purposely litter the area because of their "hate" for certain political parties, and by doing so, they show their "disassociation" with them. Now, I don't fully understand the psychological reasons behind the crime of destroying the environment of your own country, but for a foreign visitor, the environmental disaster that the Kurds have created, and accepted for many years, is a complete shock and drawback to the area.

When the locals go for picnicking, or visit the thousands of tourist sites across Iraqi Kurdistan, they leave their rubbish behind; thousands of plastic bags, water bottles, beer cans, and even shoes and clothes, dot the entire pristine landscape. Their bad behavior pollutes the streams, the waterfalls, the lakes and the rivers. But it also damages the forests, the ancient archaeological sites, and the habitat of many endangered animals, not to forget, the rural communities' lifestyle in the areas they visit.

On a recent visit to the Gully Ali Beg Canyon, a must-see natural wonder north of Erbil, my foreign friends and I witnessed how a Kurdish father was teaching his son how to throw an empty plastic bottle to the stream bellow. I captured the image, by coincidence, as we were driving past the area. I wondered, is this how Kurdish parents educate their children at home? I was hoping my thoughts were totally wrong.

In a country where there are no strict, if any, environmental policies, and where the local population has no education on issues regarding the environment (and the protection of it), the only solution is a quick governmental interference – one with a real effect. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has placed trash bins allover the cities,
www.ekurd.nettowns and tourist areas, but without any drastic improvement of the issue: people still litter, even more than the previous years. In fact, one might be surprised that most bins are empty, as few people seem to throw their dirt in these purposely-built bins. And where there are no bins located, sadly, no one seems to care to collect their own trash and bring it home.

"Singaporean model"

This is my second writing regarding the "litter crisis," and the consequent environmental damage, in Kurdistan Region. Of course, many other writers (both local and foreign) have discussed the issue already, but, as of yet, unfortunately, without any improvement in the case. Signs, placed by local authorities everywhere in Kurdistan Region requesting visitors to keep the area clean, have also been mostly ignored, along with other media campaigns initiated by the KRG in the past.

Keeping Kurdistan Clean in the future, the KRG needs to implement the 'Singapore model.' This small Southeast Asian city-state of more than five million inhabitants (coincidentally, the same number of population as in Iraqi Kurdistan) is often known for being the cleanest urban area in the world.

For Singapore to maintain the clean and green city, there are strict laws against littering of any kind. 

To start with, first-time offenders face a fine of up to S$1,000 (around US$730). For repeat offenders - it's increased to a fine of up to S$2,000 and a Corrective Work Order (CWO). The CWO requires litterbugs to spend a few hours cleaning a public place, for example, picking up litter in a park. The litterbugs are made to wear bright jackets, and sometimes, the local media are invited to cover the public spectacle. Naturally, the authorities hope that public shame will make diehard litterbugs think twice about tossing their scrap paper or cigarette butt on the roadside. Another extreme law is the ban of chewing gums, but that's, of course, unaccepted in the rest of the world.

Today, Singapore is not the only place in the world with anti-littering laws: in the US, offenders are given a $500 fine, while in Sweden $130 has to be paid. Even in other Middle Eastern countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), there are strict rules in regard to littering, and even spitting in public! The UAE authorities, who started with the Keep UAE Clean campaign in 2008, fine those guilty of spitting and littering an amount of 500 dirham's (around $150) or more.

Recently, the KRG awarded a UK consortium a multi-million contract to clean Salahaddin resort and parts of Erbil. Although it's considered a good move, nothing will really change until the authorities in Kurdistan Region enact serious laws banning littering of any kind, thus, becoming a real example to the rest of Iraq – where the problem also exists. As all other measures have failed so far, this could be the only solution to the problem. And knowing that many locals can't afford these hefty fines, Kurdistan can, again, become a cleaner and healthier area. That said, in order for this to happen, the local authorities have to apply a strict implementation of the new law.

If Iraqi Kurds ever want their region to become a global investment and tourism hub, then they should first start by changing their attitudes towards the environment. If Kurdistan is your home, then start to behave like its loyal resident, and not its enemy. 

by Mariwan Salihi for ekurd.net

Source: ekurd.net

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