Eden in the Line of Fire
By María Amparo Lasso *
percent of the wetlands have disappeared in Mesopotamia, the great
oasis of the Middle East. Now, war threatens to destroy what little
MEXICO CITY - A recurring nightmare is troubling
environmentalists worldwide: the firepower being used in the second
Gulf War devastates what little is left of the wetlands of Mesopotamia,
a place that many believe was the setting of the Bible's Garden
Home to millions of birds, the marshes of what
is modern-day Iraq are among the most important in the Middle East.
As a regional oasis, these marshlands for centuries provided fertile
land and clean water for millions of people.
"I hope the images of the environmental
catastrophe of the first Gulf War are not repeated in 2003,"
ornithologist Mike Evans told Tierramérica, recalling how
he saw thousands of aquatic birds die after Iraqi troops set fire
to more than 600 oil wells as they withdrew from Kuwait in 1991.
A photo of a little grebe bird blackened by
petroleum was seen by people around the world at the time, and became
a symbol of the worst oil spill in history.
Such oil disasters might not happen this time
around, but it is still relatively early in the war.
The marshlands of Mesopotamia (Al Ahwar, in
Arabic), where civilizations of the Babylonians and Sumerians flourished,
are today extremely fragile -- and they are in the line of fire
The ecosystem forms part of the Tigris and
Euphrates river basin, which gives sustenance to Iraq, Turkey, Syria
But the heart of the wetlands lies in southern
Iraq, along the border with Iran and near big cities like Basra,
which is currently suffering a profound humanitarian crisis, following
the overwhelming attack launched by the United States and Great
Britain Mar 20.
There, too, the first oil well fires of this
war burned. Around a dozen total, but now apparently they have been
brought under control.
The more than 1,600 oil wells in Iraq represent
a time bomb for the marshes, as well as the potential contamination
of the ecosystem by the use of conventional weapons as well as weapons
of mass destruction, the passage of hundreds of war vehicles through
the surrounding desert and the mass mobilization of refugees.
But the bulk of the damage has already been
done. Thrashed by the impact of human activities over the years,
just seven percent of the original extension of the marshlands remain,
around 20,000 square km.
When Hassan Partow visited the area in 2002,
along the Iran-Iraq border, he was heartbroken. Where recently one
of the most impressive natural spectacles had been recorded -- millions
of exotic migratory birds filling the skies -- he found a desert
landscape, one that had been depopulated and was now highly militarized.
Partow is a member of a team of specialists
from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) which in the
days after the beginning of the U.S.-led attacks issued a new alert
about the tragic disappearance of 93 percent of Mesopotamia's wetlands
"It is incredible to think that an ecosystem
that took millennia to be formed could be destroyed in so few years,"
Partow told Tierramérica.
This fast pace of destruction has one main
cause: the ambitious ongoing water and drainage projects of Iraq
and its neighbors that share the river basin, particularly Turkey,
which has built 30 dams.
But the series of armed conflicts in the area
(the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and the 1991 Gulf War) also
played a part. Explosive mines were placed throughout the watershed,
which sustains a half-million Ma'dan, the original inhabitants of
the marshlands, and the habitat of numerous plant and animal species,
particularly birds, some of which have already become extinct.
UNEP says that if urgent action is not taken,
the wetlands of Mesopotamia could disappear completely within five
"Water is more important than oil."
Wetlands destruction "is the most serious
environmental problem in the area today, both in terms of biology
and in the population's access to safe water. In the Middle East,
water is more important than oil," Jonathan Lash, president
of the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), said in
a conversation with Tierramérica.
Until recently, the marshes sustained the region's
multi-million-dollar freshwater shellfish industry and supplied
60 percent of the Iraqi freshwater fish market.
The thousands of ducks and geese that filled
local markets -- a crucial source of protein for Iraqis since the
post-Gulf War embargo began -- also came from those marshlands.
The wetlands also purified the waters of the
Tigris and Euphrates, which flow into the Persian Gulf, a body of
water that is renewed by currents from the Indian Ocean only every
three to five years.
The destruction of the marshes, say experts,
may also affect the region's climate, with grave consequences for
the habitat of nearly 400 bird species.
Although no species has been declared globally
extinct, at least three of incomparable beauty, have disappeared
from Iraq: the sacred ibis, the African anhinga and the goliath
Ornithologist Evans, of the Britain-based non-governmental
BirdLife International, says experts are worried about several species,
particularly the aquatic birds, "because they are more vulnerable
to chemical and oil spills than land birds."
At least eight percent of Iraq should be declared
a protected area for birds, says BirdLife International.
Wetlands devastation has also hurt the arable
lands of southern Iraq. The idyllic oasis inhabited by the Ma'dan
during the past 5,000 years has collapsed. Left landless and caught
in the crossfire, the descendants of the Sumerians have had to move
elsewhere. Of the 95,000 refugees displaced from their homes from
1991 to 1993, 40,000 were Ma'dan.
Today, many live in misery in encampments in
Iran or in Iraq's cities.
With or without the direct effects of the current
war, a flow of water from reservoirs in Iran and Iraq would be needed
in the short term to restore the wetlands, says UNEP's Partow.
However, only an integrated management plan
that involves Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria could prevent the extinction
of the area's marshes, he adds.
Efforts of the past decades were in vain. Iraq
has failed to sign important international agreements like the 1971
Convention on Wetlands (signed in Ramsar, Iran) and the 1992 Convention
on Biological Diversity. Baghdad has also refused field studies
of the area, meaning that the existing research is based largely
on satellite images.
"In 1994, when we drew up f the first
report on wetlands, we tried to involve Iraqi scientists, but it
was not possible. We must re-establish dialogue to achieve the equitable
use of the river basin," Jean-Yves Pirot, head of the wetlands
and water resources division of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, told
UNEP will head up environmental assessments
in post-war Iraq. But nobody dares hope that the environmental question
will be at the center of the post-war debate.
"I know people at USAID (U.S. Agency for
International Development) and the State Department who are concerned
about these issues, but whether they will be given top priority,
that is something I can't predict," said WRI president Lash.
* María Amparo Lasso is editorial
director of Tierramérica.
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