For the sake of clean air for Kirkuk and to enhance the role of women in confronting climate change, Shikofa launches afforestation campaigns to expand green spaces and succeeded in convincing others to join her, turning into an icon of defiance.
Her journey began in the Sekanyan area, located at the entrance to the city of Kirkuk, famous for its oil wells which has polluted its environment, specifically north on the road to Erbil, the capita of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR, not long after the founding of the area in 2003. After several years passed, it became a model for everyone, especially clerics, civil society organizations, and volunteer groups.
Shikofa Muhammad Obaid, 64-years-old, says, “The area was a desert devoid of greenery. I could not bear this view, and changing the situation was necessary, which prompted me to start afforestation campaigns in the area.”
“I distributed trees in schools, to the families, to the Christian neighborhood in particular, and to the outskirts of the area in general," she added.
Shikofa, a graduate of psychology specialized in educational guidance, launched the first tree planting campaign in the Sekanyan neighborhood.
“When the neighborhood was established, I thought about our first campaign about 7 years ago or more, in 2010-2011, especially after the construction of schools to educate the next generation about the importance of taking care of the environment, green trees, and rationalizing the consumption of resources.”
The fact that the Sekanyan region is located more or less a kilometer away from the state-owned North Oil Company, which oversees Kirkuk oil wells, and the asphalt plants and other factories, has led to an increase in the rate of toxic gas emissions and air pollution in the region throughout these years, which has caused a lot of suffering to the people of the region, especially women, children and the elderly, the most affected and vulnerable groups.
The area was a desert devoid of green
According to a study prepared by the Swiss company IQAIR concerned with air purification issues for the year 2022, Iraq ranked second in the list of countries with the highest air pollution. This study also shows that air pollution rates in Iraq has doubled in one year.
In 2021, the percentage was 49.7%, and in 2020, Iraq was ranked tenth by 39.6%, which draws attention to a previous statement by the Minister of Environment, Jassim Al-Falahi, “that pollution related to oil production is a major reason behind the high rates of cancer.”
The percentage of greenery in Kirkuk Governorate does not exceed 2%, according to statistics from Kirkuk government departments published earlier by the KirkukNow, while the international standards indicate that this percentage should not be less than 15%.
There are about 200 public parks in the city of Kirkuk, a few of which are more than several dunams in area, while the rest are smaller. In addition to 81 medians - one to five kilometers long – where trees are planted.
Kirkuk Governorate consists of four districts, its area is 9,600 square kilometers, and its population is estimated at more than 1.7 million people. Kirkuk is a disputed area between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government KRG, and its fate will be within the framework of Article 140 of the Constitution.
Restoring pulse to heart of environment
In the beginning, things were difficult because during that period, that is, 6-7 years ago, no one was interested in the environmental field and there was no support for activists in this field. As one of the women who have been active and working in the environmental field since 2005 on a voluntary basis, Shikofa says, “This made me research more. Is it only me who believes the environmental reality in Kirkuk is not good, or are there others concerned about the environmental situation other than me?”
Video: Scenes of the Sekanyan neighborhood of Kirkuk province. Enas Al-Hassan
"I discovered that there are some people interested in this field, so their focus was initially on the colleges at Kirkuk University, where I and the work team had a footprint in the Technical Institute in Kirkuk,” she recalls.
There was an area of approximately 3 dunums located between the scientific departments and the professors’ residential neighborhood. It was a waste dump, so “we cleaned this space in cooperation with the official authorities, and after that we purchased approximately 500-600 seedlings and they were planted in this space,” Shikofa proudly says.
As the official of the Green Kurdistan Association in Kirkuk, Shikofa left her fingerprints in many places within Kirkuk, including the Sekanyan neighborhood.
As an activist in the environmental field and an official in the Green Kurdistan Environmental Protection Association, “I work constantly with the relevant authorities and coordinate with them, because this provides us with support and capabilities that we do not have as activists, despite their scarcity, in order to sustain work in this field.”
When the extremist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ISIS imposed its control over Nineveh and other areas in Kirkuk in 2014, it has proposed three options to the Christians: convert to Islam, pay a tax, or leave their areas without any belongings, so most of them chose to flee, and part of them headed to Kirkuk.
“Following the events of 2014, we launched another campaign and planted hundreds of trees in schools, including Sikanyan School as well.”
That period was very sensitive, and many Christians were afraid of ISIS storming their region, so some of them emigrated during that time.
"I thought if they saw us working in the area and taking care of them, they would not migrate and leave everything behind."
Positive impression generates partners
Following Shikofa’s campaign in Sekanyan and its environmental activism, Iyad Thomas Liwa, pastor of the Chaldean Marpolis Church, showed great interest in planting thousands of trees in the area.
"We belong to this land and this land is ours. Therefore, we must protect it and take care of it because our region has suffered greatly from pollution since its founding," he told KirkukNow.
We are for this land and this land is ours, so we must protect it and take care of it
The process continues annually in October or March, seasons of planting, depending on the temperatures and weather in general, according to what Pastor Iyad said.
He added that they are now cooperating and taking advice and guidance from some specialists and those interested in the field during the process of selecting the type of trees that suit the climate of the region to reduce the rate of tree loss due to drought or other factors.
Shakoufa says, “I, the work team, and the Women’s Advisory Council have a plan for planting this year as well, in the middle of the tenth month of 2023, and part of the plan is to provide the Chaldean Church of St. Paul with a number of trees to sustain the process of increasing green spaces.”
The pastor of the Marpolis Chaldean Church also spoke about an initiative by the church to reduce the volume of emissions in the region and air pollution by installing solar energy systems to generate electricity instead of generators that generate a lot of toxic gases.
Health risks raise the alarm
Last year, Kirkuk recorded about 2,000 cases of cancer out of a total of 35,000 cases throughout Iraq, 57% of whom were female and 20% of whom had breast cancer, according to the Green Kurdistan Association.
Director of the Kirkuk Center for Oncology and Hematology, Dr. Niaz Ahmed, says that the afforestation process is very necessary and is considered an essential factor in reducing the volume of gas emissions in any area where afforestation operations are carried out, since areas devoid of green spaces increase the volume of emissions and have a greater impact on the residents of these areas and cause increases.
There are five main oil production fields in Kirkuk, supervised by the North Oil Company of the Iraqi government, which produce approximately 350,000 barrels per day, most of which are pumped to refineries in Iraq, according to Farhad Hamza, chief engineer of the North Oil Company, to KirkukNow.
These fields include 730 oil wells, and approximately 60 of them are located near the Sekanyan neighborhood, where 20-25 wells operate on a daily basis. During gas isolation operations, a high percentage of it is released into the air, which increases the level of pollution in the area.
Iraq annually burns 17 billion cubic meters of associated natural gas when drilling oil, according to energy expert Govand Sherwani.
Gas emissions from factories, cars, and oil wells pose a threat to human health, as they cause an increase in the percentage of polluted air in these areas, especially if the area suffers from a decrease in afforestation operations and green spaces. All of these factors together have a direct impact on human health and respiratory system and increase the incidence of blood diseases and cancers.
“As specialists in this field, we always notice a high incidence of respiratory diseases and cancers among workers in oil companies and factories,” says the director of the Kirkuk Center for Oncology and Hematology.
He adds that the process of air pollution and the bad habits that people tend to have are all factors that help increase the percentage of people suffering from respiratory diseases and cancer in general. These statements contradict the statements of Ihsan Abdul Jabbar, Minister of Oil in 2022, in which he denied any link between high cancer rates and air pollution by oil exploration and drilling.
According to the opinion of Dr. Muhammad Khader, head of the climate change department that was recently created in Kirkuk Environment department, “Kirkuk Environment warns against non-compliance with environmental specifications for companies and factories, given that Iraq is part of global agreements concerned with improving the environment and that Kirkuk Environment is one of the provinces most affected by environmental pollution due to the failure to adhere to environmental requirements.”
According to United Nations statistics and warnings, Iraq is ranked fifth among the countries most affected by the repercussions of climate change, which include the risks of water scarcity, drought, high temperatures, pollution, and other natural disasters.
Expanding campaigns to plant more trees
“I am no longer alone in the field of environmental awareness, and there are now many institutions and volunteer teams concerned with the environment,” Shikofa says. The many afforestation campaigns targeting the Sekanyan region in particular and Kirkuk in general, and seedlings are distributed there on a seasonal basis, and “planting them made me very happy. I don’t feel like I am fighting alone anymore."
Everyone feels these gases and they inhale them on a daily basis since they started living in this area, so it was necessary to unite efforts among community members, volunteer teams, and organizations working in the environmental field to confront the risks.
Women and children are the groups most affected by air pollution in the region
Pastor Iyad Thomas says that because of these campaigns, represented by volunteer teams, institutions concerned with the environment, activists, and the church’s endless support, over the course of 6 years, the number of trees they planted in the region is approximately 3,000-4,000 seedlings.
The priest confirmed their cooperation with the people and that the afforestation operations continue on a seasonal basis because these campaigns have inspired the people of the region, the volunteer teams, and some concerned parties in the environment, including the Kokar Foundation.
In recent years, the Kokar Foundation for Sustainable Development and Volunteering, which is a diverse social initiative founded on June 16, 2016 by some individuals, has been active in the field of the environment, especially afforestation campaigns.
“We at the Kokar Foundation have, until this year, since the start of the afforestation operations, produced and distributed approximately 70,000 seedlings, all of which are distributed to the center in the city of Kirkuk and all the districts, districts and villages, including the village of Sikanyan,” says Mustafa Mahmoud, one of the volunteers of the Kokar Foundation.
In the spring of 2024, the Kokar Foundation will launch its sixth special campaign to distribute 35,000 seedlings, which will also be distributed to the center and all districts and sub-districts in Kirkuk, including the village of Sikanyan.
On the other hand, the Kirkuk Youth and Women Peace Team as part of Salam Camp, with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), provided the Chaldean Church of St. Paul in the Sekanyan area with 60 Melia trees to distribute to places that need planting according to the vision of the church in the region.
Sazan Majeed, 27 years old, one of the members participating in the initiative and a member of the Kirkuk Al-Salam Youth Team, says about the reason for their choice of the Sekanyan area, “The area is modern and needs support, as it is a kilometer or more away from the North Oil Company, the Asphalt plant, and other oil wells, so we, as a team, saw that we must contribute a little to help women and children, as they are the groups most affected by air pollution in the region.”
Additionally, with increased awareness and the contribution of volunteer teams and stakeholders in the environment, the number of trees in the area has increased after it was completely devoid of them. The church, in cooperation with these entities, plants approximately 200-300 seedlings on a seasonal basis. In one initiative, it also planted approximately 2000 seedlings.
The repercussions of climate change forced many residents to migrate from their hometowns. More than 20,000 people in Iraq have abandoned their areas due to drought, according to United Nations UN statistics.
Limited afforestation campaign to face desertification
“The size of the afforestation campaign cannot be measured compared the size of the pollution by theoil company and the accompanying pollutants. There must be very large campaigns carried out by the state to fully preserve Kirkuk’s environment,” says Rudy Anwar, 38 years old, a resident of the region regarding the issue of afforestation.
“Today, the concerned authorities must carry out the same campaign, which is afforestation of the area, especially the exposed areas, because the population is increasing in addition to the increase in demand for oil, and needs to dig new wells continuously."
The absence of financial allocations for afforestation and increasing green spots is a major challenge for volunteers. During the past years, several organizations sought to plant trees and increase the percentage of greenery in Kirkuk, but these projects were not sustainable due to the lack of care for the trees.
“Despite all the efforts we are making to purify the air of Kirkuk, the support is insufficient by the government and it does not pay real attention to this issue,” confirms Shikofa.
She also added that there are many production facilities extending from the outskirts of Sikanyan village to the Dharaman area, most of which operate without the approval of the Kirkuk Environment Directorate.
"Some trees were cut down and agricultural lands were converted into investment projects."
Pastor Iyad also noted that “there is a lack of community awareness among some people, especially in the field of the environment, as some people sometimes burn bushes or waste that collects under trees, which leads to burning the trees along with them.”
Another challenge facing the afforestation efforts, according to volunteers from the Kokar Foundation, is that the seedlings did not grow enough to make them suitable for cultivation this year due to the lack of rain in the winter and the high temperatures in the summer.
“The seedlings have not yet matured well enough to qualify for planting due to high temperatures, climate change, and the pollution of the governorate’s skies.”
In the end, Shikoufa says women have a role in confronting climate change. “A step of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so do not be afraid, and be strong, for you are for it and you can reach the goal. Do not depend only on others helping you, but rather be the one who extends a helping hand to others.”
This report was produced within the framework of the Our Voices project implemented by the Internews organization.