Life flows back into Tigris waters with launch of river taxi

During a trial period this year, river taxis operated between five stations mostly benefiting students of Baghdad University and Nahrain University.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Cheap and practical. A river taxi during a trial period in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)
Cheap and practical. A river taxi during a trial period in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - Baghdad residents are looking forward to the launch of a new public transportation means they hope will alleviate time-consuming commuting on the city’s dilapidated and long-neglected roadways, which are encumbered with checkpoints.

A river taxi service is to operate in its initial phase in September, facilitating crossing between the banks of the Tigris, which cuts Baghdad in half.

“A river taxi service is badly and urgently needed, especially in Baghdad where the population is increasing while public transportation means are practically nonexistent,” said Mohamed al-Rubaie, head of strategy and planning in Baghdad’s provincial council in charge of the project.

“For the past 20 years, not a single project has been executed in the transport sector. In the meantime, many roads and bridges have been closed, population is growing fast and the number of private cars increased tremendously causing chronic traffic jams.”

Residents of Baghdad, a city of more than 7 million people, rely on cars, taxis or privately owned mini-buses to get around. Congestion is particularly heavy on the city’s 13 bridges across the Tigris. Many fishermen on the Tigris use their boats to transit people between the river’s banks for extra money.

During a trial period this year, river taxis operated between five stations mostly benefiting students of Baghdad University and Nahrain University, both on the banks of the Tigris.

The project previews the construction of 11 stations to connect the city’s northern suburb of Tha’ aliba to al-Mada’in in the south by next February. Rubaie said 40% of the project has been completed.

“The service will be operating partially until it is hopefully completed by early next year. Unfortunately, bureaucratic procedures and the lack of coordination between concerned ministries are slowing down the project. The easy and inexpensive part was purchasing the boats. The hard part is establishing the infrastructure for them to work properly that requires government approvals,” he said.

With efforts among the country’s political leaders to form a new government in Iraq stumbling, decisions on budgets for projects such as the river taxi must wait.

When complete, 22 boats of various sizes — taking between six to 44 customers at a time — will transport people between the banks of the Tigris, as well as up and down the river.

River boat captain Kassem Nasri said the service was being used by thousands of students at the cost of 500 dinars ($0.42) for a single journey.

“It is cheap and practical,” Nasri said. “It takes half an hour to cross from one station to another, while the same ride by car from al-Azamiya to al-Jadhiriya, for instance, would take no less than one and a half hour and would cost up to 17,000 dinars ($14) for a round trip.”

Nasri said he cannot wait for the project to be fully operational but he fears declining water levels of the Tigris might cause further delay.

“I am now serving five stops but I hope to cover all the remaining stations that are awaiting construction soon. There are still a few obstacles in the way, particularly from the security authorities who opposed the project in the beginning, fearing that the boats could be exploited by ‘misled spirits’ (terrorists),” Nasri said.

Hajj Othman Ghanem, a 70-year-old Baghdadi, strolls regularly along the Tigris promenade in Azamiya, a habit, he said, he has maintained since moving to Baghdad from Mosul when he was a child.

“In the past, the balm (wooden rowing boat) was the only available means to cross the river. It was such a great trip by boat with seagulls flying over. The river was larger, clean and full of life back then,” Ghanem said with nostalgic eyes.

He says he welcomes the idea of the river taxi, which he hopes will alleviate road congestion and “maintain the interaction between the people and the river, which has been neglected and misused.”

Ghanem said he hopes the river taxi project will soon bring life back to the Tigris.

“The Tigris was the throbbing heart of Baghdad. We want this heart to beat again,” he said.