Swimming 24 Miles for Clean Water in Iraqi Kurdistan

In September, in the midst of major political campaigning in Iraqi Kurdistan for an independence referendum, Waterkeepers Iraq was quietly conducting a swimming expedition to promote clean water. With seven water advocates and a small staff from a local television station on board, three swimmers completed the first ever attempt to swim the entire distance of Dukan Lake.

The expedition started at Darbandy Ranya in the extreme northeast of the Dukan Reservoir in the northern province of Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq.  On the evening of September 19, the team traveled by boat across the waters of the vast lake formed by the Dukan hydroelectric dam. It took three hours to trace the path they would begin swimming the next day—a swim that would ultimately take more than 35 hours to complete.  

The television staff accompanying the expedition was from KurdSat TV. They covered the story as part of a 45-minute documentary about the efforts of Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper Nabil Musa to promote swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters in Iraqi Kurdistan. No one, not even Nabil who has been doing long distance swims on the lake since 2012, had ever attempted the entire distance of 39 kilometers—24.2 miles—north to south.

Once TV interviews and expedition preparations were completed, the swimmers started their expedition from Darbandy Ranya at 8:30 AM with support staff following close behind.


The expedition had four initial swimmers:

  • Nabil Ibrahim Musa, the Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper and executive director of Waterkeepers Iraq
  • Karzan Omer Abdulrahman of the Organization for Culture and Sustainable Development (OCSD) and a member of the Waterkeepers Iraq Board of Directors
  • Officer Raid Wahab Ahmad Hamma, a member of the Forester Police and an avid swimmer
  • Soran Mustafa, a volunteer with Waterkeepers Iraq

After passing the three-kilometer mark, Soran had to stop due to heatstroke. The sun was relentless throughout the first day with heat in the mid to upper 90’s and not a cloud to provide protection. Sunscreen melted off the team as they swam, but the support boat of volunteers traveled with them to provide food and water when needed.

On the first day, they covered more than 10 kilometers over nine hours before making camp on the Bitwen Plain. Dukan’s reservoir is made up of two lakes, the larger to the north and the smaller near the dam to the south. The landscape around the larger of the two lakes, called Bitwen Plain, is mostly flat with a few low, rolling hills covered almost exclusively by grasslands. Connecting the two lakes is a dramatic, narrow gorge that bisects a ridge of mountains (Mount Kosrat and Mount Daban).  Dukan Lake has become an important recreational area in the region and attracts hundreds of people who enjoy the area for boating, fishing and swimming.

Waterkeepers Iraq 3On Wednesday, September 21 the three remaining swimmers started their 2nd day of swimming at 7 AM. The weather completely changed; it was raining and the lake was full of waves, making it difficult to swim. Knowing they had to make the bulk of the distance on this day and despite the tiring swim, the group pushed on until 11:30 PM.  Over 16 ½ hours of swimming, with only two breaks, they traveled a distance of nearly 19 kilometers.

On September 22, the 3rd and final day of the swimming expedition, the group had under 10 kilometers to go. Feeling tired but ready for the final push, they started swimming at 7 AM and completed the first half by noon. After a short rest, they started on the last five-kilometer leg.

Two kilometers out, at least 15 swimmers joined them including Raid’s daughter, Nabil’s niece, staff from the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani and a number of Forestry Police staff. By 5 PM, the swimmers reached their goal and left the water near the Ashur Hotel along the banks of the lake not far from the Dukan Dam.

A welcoming crowd of more than 100 people greeted them, including members of KurdSat TV, KNN TV Channel and Payam TV Channel as well as the mayor of Dukan, the Head of the Dukan Municipality, the Forestry Police, members of the Working Group for Water Rights, and local tourists. While the crowd had been waiting for the swimmers to arrive, a number of NGOs and volunteers participated in a clean-up along the lake, picking up garbage left behind from picnickers.

“I’ve been doing long-distance swims and clean-up campaigns in Dukan Lake for a number of years,” said Nabil Musa, “this was the first time I’ve seen such a large community response and involvement. And the first time we made it 39 kilometers! I want to thank Karzan Omer of OCSD and Officer Raid Wahab of the Forestry Police who challenged me to repeat the event this year to promote swimmable, drinkable and fishable waters. This was not a race. We are swimming to protect our waters and we’ll be swimming next year and hope more will join us.”

This project is part of the project Mesopotamian youth for democratic governance, social cohesion and reconciliation and funded with assistance from the European Union. You can find photos of the expedition on Waterkeepers Iraq’s Facebook Page and learn more about Waterkeepers Iraq at www.waterkeepersiraq.org or by writing to [email protected].

About Waterkeeper

United as one powerful force, Waterkeeper Alliance fights for every community's right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. For more information please visit waterkeeper.org