Ruya Foundation commissioned two art projects along the Tigris River and in the marshes of southern Iraq, to address the country’s water crisis. Iraqi artists Sherko Abbas and Akeel Khreef explored the impact of rising temperatures on the delicate ecosystems of the historic river and marshes.

The project was part of the World Weather Network, which saw a collective of 28 arts organisations build a global constellation of ‘weather stations’ in response to climate change.

Digital sketch for Sherko Abbas’ Tigris Sound Lab on Dukan Lake.

Artist Akeel Khreef buries a fish at the Najaf cemetery.

Water holds an important cultural significance in Iraq, which was known in ancient times as the land between two rivers. The ancient cities of the Sumerian marshes gave birth to the Mesopotamian Civilization where agriculture first developed and writing was invented around 3500 BC.

But today, dams built by neighbouring countries at the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have reduced the levels of fresh water flowing into Iraq. In addition, the delicate ecosystem of the marshes of southern Iraq has been severely threatened through rising temperatures, neglect and conflict. An indigenous population living along the banks of the marshes was forced out due to Saddam Hussein’s regime redirecting the river and drying out the marshes. In 2016, the marshes were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet they continue to be threatened by rising temperatures.

Responding to this, Sherko Abbas created a mobile weather station raft, entitled the Tigris River Sound Lab, on which he installed objects and instruments to record sounds made by the weather such as water, wind and rainfall. Alongside the collecting of sounds, Abbas gathered stories, songs and poetry from people who inhabit both ends of the river: from Dukan Lake near the Iraqi-Kurdish border in the north to the marshes and the Persian Gulf in the south of Iraq. His focus was on fictional stories and myths about the water that are orally transmitted from one generation to another, but are not documented.
Akeel Khreef’s Marshes Weather Station took the form of a series of films featuring the artist, his own body as a barometer for climate change, in the marshes in Southern Iraq, where his family originates. Khreef’s weather reports looked at three key elements in the ecosystem; cane reeds, fish and agriculture. The drying out of the Marshes highlights the emotional co-dependency of humans, flora and fauna in this fragile ecosystem.

Follow their journeys in the stories below.