Once wooded and fertile, the agricultural and grazing lands of Goptapa along the Lesser Zab River have been profoundly damaged by intensive in-stream gravel mining within a generation.
The village of Goptapa is sadly known for the chemical attacks that its people suffered in late ’80s during the so-called Anfal repressions launched by the Ba’athist regime. After the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein and the international enforcement of a no-fly zone to protect Kurds from retaliations in 1991, farmers from the village began selling their land because of economic hardship. Since then gravel mines mushroomed, leading soon to the unsustainable exploitation of the river ecosystem. Nowadays the riverside area appears barren and unproductive, with no traces of the forests and the wildlife that once sustained local communities.
During 2016, the NGO Waterkeepers Iraq (WI) conducted field research in Goptapa to investigate and raise awareness on the harmful impact of gravel mining activities. The present entry is based on that assessment. As a farmer summarises well in the documentary realised by WI, the business of gravel mines “ate everything” for the benefit of few mine owners and left rural communities with nothing but wastelands: it not only jeopardised the health of the ecosystem by causing a biodiversity loss, but also made most land unavailable for different uses. Moreover, the operations of heavy machinery in the river bed and adjacent floodplains led to acute soil and water depletion, to the extent that full restoration of the environment seems hard to imagine even in the long-term. Fisheries disappeared altogether and groundwater quality degraded. The river conformation itself was altered: “there are so many big gravel hills and deep trenches in the river that it is now dangerous to swim there and frequently throughout the years people have been killed in the river because of this”. In short, that section of the Lesser Zab is no longer drinkable, swimmable, or fishable. The accumulation of sediments downstream raises additional concerns over a longer stretch of the river. Villagers also complained about noise and air pollution.
Over the years poor oversight of monitoring agencies and lack of law enforcement was conducive to the careless expansion of gravel mines beyond contractual permissions. In addition, owners never carried out restoration activities upon completion of operations in a portion of the river bed. As elsewhere in the region, agriculture further declined, with the local economy increasingly revolving around gravel mining. Given an impoverished farmland and In absence of other job opportunities, locals from Goptapa, the town of Koya and villages nearby are employed as miners. Each mine employs 15-20 people on average. This is one reason for the limited mobilisation against the business: despite its negative incidence on traditional livelihoods, it is the only income for many families of the area.