How dangerously dirty water is threatening one of the world’s ancient religions

February 23, 2018
United Nations Environment Programme

On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in Baghdad, Sheikh Anmar Ayid hitches up his robe and crouches by the Tigris river. Rocking back and forth on his haunches, he flicks the water from side to side – all the while chanting rhythmically in Aramaic. After finishing his ablutions, a two-minute procedure, the young sheikh turns to a small mud-brick temple and begins to pray.

In past years, Ayid might then have quenched his thirst directly from the river. As a Mandaean priest, an adherent of a pre-Abrahamic faith that’s native to the Fertile Crescent, he and his co-religionists believe the Tigris  – and the Euphrates – are sacred and flow from heaven. Clerics are consequently only supposed to drink from and eat food washed in their waters.

That, however, is scarcely even possible these days. Dirtied and drained almost from the moment they rise, Iraq’s great waterways are in bleak states by the time they reach the country’s heavily urbanized centre. To drink straight from them is to invite near instant sickness. And so as the rivers plumb desperate new lows, seemingly worsening by the year, the Mandaeans are struggling to practice their several thousand-year-old rituals.

“We depend on the water for everything, for worship, for daily life, for food,” Ayid said. “But because the water is going from bad to very bad, we are negatively affected.”

Across the world, water pollution is leaving a devastating trail in its wake. Eighty per cent of all wastewater goes untreated, and much of finds its way back into rivers and lakes – where it contributes to ecosystem and public health crises. Up to a third of all rivers are blighted with pathogenic waste, according to UN Environment data, and a seventh suffer from organic waste problems, mostly from agricultural fertilizer run off. In largely desert countries, like Iraq, worsening sandstorms and diminishing grass cover have caked the rivers with dust and saddled water treatment facilities with a new range of woes.

Never before, though, it seems, has poor water quality imperiled an entire religion. Already threatened by jihadists and criminal gangs, who damn them as heretics and target them for their historic role in the gold trade, the Mandaeans’ numbers have fallen from 100,000 to less than 10,000 in Iraq since 2003. For those who remain, pollution’s assault on one of the central tenets of their faith has added final insult to injury.

In Amarah, 350 km south of Baghdad on the Tigris, the pollution is so debilitating that not even boiling water is enough to prevent local priests from falling ill. At their heavily-guarded riverside temple in the Iraqi capital, Ayid and his colleagues have taken to leaving buckets of water to sit for a day, before skimming off the layer of fetid scum that’s usually accumulated on the top. From Baghdad to the Mandaeans’ traditional heartlands in the country’s far south, there’s so much glass and trash in the shallows that few worshippers dare set foot in the rivers without wearing sandals.“Our religion believes human nature requires hygiene, and so for us many things are built around water,” Ayid said. “But where is the hygiene here?”

What makes this all the more frustrating for many Mandaeans is that the culprits are hiding in plain sight. With insufficient wastewater treatment facilities and lax environmental regulations, ever-growing volumes of industrial and domestic refuse are seeping into the rivers. In Baghdad alone, dozens of places, including the Dora oil refinery and the massive Medical City hospital complex, discharge waste directly into the Tigris, according to local conservationists. All this at the same time as upstream dam construction and reduced rainfall cut the rivers’ flow has brought the lifeblood of the Mandaeans faith to the brink of disaster.

“When water levels drop, the health of that lake or river is likely to be affected, both in terms of quantity and quality,” says Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a Programme Officer in UN Environment’s Freshwater Unit. “And the lower the flow, the less likely that water body is to be able to deal naturally with water pollution and contamination.”

Globally, there is an increasing awareness that something drastic has to be done. UN Environment operates a monitoring system, GEMS/Water, which keeps tabs on river and lake water quality, and also helps states establish their own water quality surveillance networks. “For me, it’s like going to the doctor,” Bernhardt says. “You need that monitoring, those stats and numbers, to understand what’s happening and know a bit more about what you can do about it.” By encouraging the planting of water grasses and the preservation of wetlands, for example, UN Environment is pushing for green solutions to water quality problems.

But for the Mandaeans, the fear is that no manner of solutions might arrive fast enough to save their rituals – and perhaps their very existence. Scattered now across Europe, North America and Australia, they question whether a community as small as theirs can endure in diaspora. That a people whose faith teaches care for the environment might die in part because of it is a tragic irony not lost on Sheikh Ayid.

“Above all, we respect the water, of course. But we respect the Earth and the animals too. It is forbidden, for example, to play with a living tree, to slaughter an animal unless it is needed, or to throw things into the river,” he said. “Our daily life depends on nature, but nature is not being kind to us.”

Learn more about UN Environment's work on freshwater ecosystems