In Iraq’s iconic marshlands, a quest for endangered otters

In Iraq’s iconic marshlands, a quest for endangered otters

In amongst all countries within the MENA region, Iraq’s iconic marshlands, a quest for endangered otters, was by Samya Kullab dwells on what is most significant in that sub-region.

During ancient times, Iraqi lands were known as Mesopotamia, which meant “Land Between the Rivers”. It is a region whose extensive alluvial plains gave rise to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, such as Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria. It, therefore, houses diverse ethnic groups and has a very long and rich heritage. Fast forward to its contemporary presence; it was due mainly to the very ‘interested’ British intervention after the collapse of the Ottomans.
The Mesopotamian land marshes were once the largest wetland in the Middle East and home to an ancient civilization known as the Madan.
By 2000, a politically motivated environmental genocide resulted in the near extinction of numerous endemic species of birds and mammals.
Today efforts are underway to restore the hydrology of the marshes but salvage some of its inhabitants, be they be fauna or flora. Still, upstream water retention by Turkey, Iran and Syria through a series of dams and internal water reallocations of the transboundary water resources for agriculture and urban use seriously reduce the water available for restoration.
Fortunately, Iraq, working with international agencies, has created marsh restoration plans, protected Ramsar Sites, a National Park, and recently a World Heritage Site in the marshes, conservation efforts that promise a better future for the Madan
wetlands.

In Iraq’s iconic marshlands, a quest for endangered otters

CHIBAISH, Iraq (AP) — “Don’t move a muscle.” His command cut across the reeds rustling in the wind. On a moonlit embankment several kilometers from shore in Iraq’s celebrated southern marshes, everyone stood still.

Omar al-Sheikhly shined a flashlight across a muddy patch. “Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. His team of five exhaled in unison.

The environmentalist spearheaded this midnight expedition through the marshes of Chibaish. It is the latest in a quixotic mission that has spanned nearly two decades: to find any sign of Maxwell’s smooth-coated otter, a severely endangered species endemic to Iraq whose precarious existence is vital to the iconic wetlands.

Most of al-Sheikhly’s pursuits have been in vain; the quick-witted otter has always been one step ahead. But as climate change looms, finding evidence they still exist assumes new importance. Al-Sheikhly is among the conservationists issuing a stark warning: Without quick action to protect the otters, the delicate underwater ecology of the UNESCO protected site will be disrupted, and could all but wither away, putting at risk the centuries-old Iraqi marsh communities that depend on it.

At stake is everything: “We stand to lose our Iraqi heritage,” said al-Sheikhly, who is the technical director at Iraqi Green Climate Organization.

Studies indicate there are between 200-900 smooth-coated otters left in the marshlands. Dangerously unpredictable water levels, illegal fishing and neglect are driving their demise.

This year, Iraq is set to face an insufferable summer, with Turkish dam projects on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers compounding a year of low rainfall. “There is a real crisis,” Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed al-Hamdani said this month.

Water rates from both rivers are half what they were last year, he said.

The Associated Press accompanied al-Sheikhly and his team on a 12-hour mission over two days in early May. At 8 a.m. on the second morning, al-Sheikhly was off again.

In long wooden canoes — called mashuf — they traversed narrow waterways lined with dense reedbeds crisscrossing the heart of the wetlands.

Jumping fish left ripples in their wake. Water buffalos languidly chewed grass. A kingfisher dove headfirst to catch unsuspecting prey.

As dragonflies chased his water-borne convoy, al-Sheikhly named whatever animal crossed his path as though they were acquaintances. “Marbled duck,” he pointed. “Squacco heron.” He has been studying them for 18 years.

Finding the evasive smooth-coated otter is the equivalent of winning the lottery. Since their discovery in 1956 by Scottish naturalist Gavin Maxwell, the otter, distinguished by its sleek dark fur and flattened tail, has only been photographed twice: when it was first found, and 60 years later, by al-Sheikhly.ADVERTISEMENT

Locals had tipped him off that otters were seen in the part of the marshes close to the Iran border. There, on the remnants of an old military road forged by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, he waited for six hours. He saw the otter for only a few seconds.

Because research efforts are so poorly funded and otters themselves are so hard to find, studies about the species have relied on their dead skins for signs of life.

In January 2006, the fresh skin of an adult male was obtained from a local fisherman — it was among the first indications that the otter still thrived.

On this mission al-Sheikhly watched for signs they leave behind: footprints, discarded fish heads, local sightings. He goes to areas they prefer, such as lakes lined with reedbeds and muddy shores.

In the central marshes of Dhi Qar province, his team happened upon two fishermen unloading the day’s catch. Al-Sheikhly stopped and asked them when they had last seen an otter — local observations are a main part of survey efforts.

“Maybe one year ago,” said one, piling mullets, catfish and carp onto a pickup.

Al-Sheikhly furrowed his brow.

“That is a big concern, if the local community sees them rarely it means something has happened,” he explained.

Their importance can’t be underestimated. To environmentalists, otters are known as “bio-indicators,” species used to assess the health of an entire ecosystem. Because they are on top of the food chain in Iraq’s marshes, eating fish and sometimes birds, their presence ensures balance.

There was a time when the otters were abundant.

British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, a contemporary of Maxwell, wrote in his travel book Marsh Arabs about one occasion when he spotted two otters playing a hundred yards away. “They appeared upright in the water, eyeing us for a few seconds, before they dived and disappeared.”

In that moment, his Iraqi escort reached for a gun. “Their skins were worth a dinar a piece,” he wrote. The durable otter skins were popular among smugglers who used them to transport illicit goods.

Hunting is on the decline, but electric pulse fishing, illegal but widely practiced in the south, is partly to blame. The electric pulse paralyzes the otter. Most die.

The fishermen who were questioned earlier each had electrocution devices on their boats, visible despite attempts to disguise them with carpets.

Al-Sheikhly said this might account for why otters are hard to spot. “Otters are smart, they know they are under threat and change their behaviors.”

Adaptability served them well throughout Iraq’s tumultuous history. The otters were feared extinct when Saddam drained the marshes in the 1990s to flush out hiding Shiite rebels. Since 2003, they have had to navigate a new Iraq where growing urban sprawl and industrialization has taken precedence.

As a result, Iraqi marsh communities are increasingly losing touch with the wetlands they dwell in.

On an island grazing ground for water buffalos, a marsh Arab boy tended to the animals. In the background, oil flares shot plumes of acrid smoke into the air — a ubiquitous sight in crude-rich southern Iraq.

But the greatest enemy to Iraq’s endemic otter species is an incalculable one: Water.

Cruising through a wide waterway, al-Sheikhly said that just last year the entire channel had been dry. Flooding re-filled it, but little rainfall this year threatens levels again. Experts said it is already decreasing by one centimeter a day.

One local woman, Um Muntadhar, said when the water dries up, the birds migrate and her livestock dies. “It is not livable here anymore,” she said.

The U.N. estimates at least 250 square kilometers (96 square miles) of fertile land in Iraq is lost annually to desertification. Rising salinity will likely drive out if not wipe away endemic species.

Iraqis largely blame Turkey’s Ilisu dam project for shortages. Turkish officials said Iraq’s request that Ankara release a set amount of water per year is impossible in the age of climate change.

“So much is unpredictable, we suffer,” said one Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In an open lake at the cusp of the Hammar marshes, al-Sheikhly halted the boat and quickly removed his shoes.

He appeared from a distance like a marshland messiah: knee-deep in water, curly hair dancing in the wind, anchored by a wooden stick.

Threatened from all sides, environmentalists say it will take a miracle to push for conservation of the area.

But al-Sheikhly was absorbed in something unseen. “Listen, listen,” he said.

With rising sea levels, the Maldives is building a floating city

With rising sea levels, the Maldives is building a floating city

This article is part of the the Virtual Ocean Dialogues and is by Natalie Marchant, Writer, Formative Content, gives us a good picture of this conjecture, i.e. what is going on at the periphery of the MENA region. Here it is with rising sea levels, and the Maldives is building a floating city.

Threatened by rising sea levels, the Maldives is building a floating city

19 May 2021

  • The waterfront residences will float on a flexible grid across a 200-hectare lagoon.
  • Such innovative developments could prove vital in helping atoll nations, such as the Maldives, fight the impact of climate change.
  • A Dutch company is also testing the technology in the Netherlands.

The atoll nation of Maldives is creating an innovative floating city that mitigates the effects of climate change and stays on top of rising sea levels.

The Maldives Floating City is designed by Netherlands-based Dutch Docklands and will feature thousands of waterfront residences and services floating along a flexible, functional grid across a 200-hectare lagoon.

Such a development is particularly vital for countries such as Maldives – an archipelago of 25 low-lying coral atolls in the Indian Ocean that is also the lowest-lying nation in the world.

More than 80% of the country’s land area lies at less than one metre above sea level – meaning rising sea levels and coastal erosion pose a threat to its very existence.

With rising sea levels, the Maldives is building a floating city
Image of the Maldives Floating City
Inspired by nature.Image: Maldives Floating City (gallery)

Sustainable design

Developed with the Maldives government, the first-of-its kind “island city” will be based in a warm-water lagoon just 10 minutes by boat from the capital Male and its international airport.

Dutch Docklands worked with urban planning and architecture firm Waterstudio, which is developing floating social housing in the Netherlands, to create a water-based urban grid built to evolve with the changing needs of the country.

Maldives thrives on tourism and the same coral reefs that attract holiday makers also provide the inspiration for much of the development. The hexagon-shaped floating segments are, in part, modelled on the distinctive geometry of local coral.

These are connected to a ring of barrier islands, which act as breakers below the water, thereby lessening the impact of lagoon waves and stabilizing structures on the surface.

“The Maldives Floating City does not require any land reclamation, therefore has a minimal impact on the coral reefs,” says Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, speaker of parliament and Climate Vulnerable Forum Ambassador for Ambition.

“What’s more, giant new reefs will be grown to act as water breakers. Our adaptation to climate change mustn’t destroy nature but work with it, as the Maldives Floating City proposes. In the Maldives, we cannot stop the waves, but we can rise with them.”

With rising sea levels, the Maldives is building a floating city
Image of how the Maldives floating city is expected to look
Construction on the floating city is expected to start next year.Image: Maldives Floating City (gallery)

Affordable homes

The islands’ seafaring past also influenced the design of the buildings, which will all be low-rise and face the sea.

A network of bridges, canals and docks will provide access across the various segments and connect shops, homes and services across the lagoon.

Construction is due to start in 2022 and the development will be completed in phases over the next five years – with a hospital and school eventually being built.

Renewable energy will power the city through a smart grid and homes will be priced from $250,000 in a bid to attract a wide range of buyers including local fishermen, who have called the area home for centuries.

Rising sea levels

In March, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that oceans were under threat like never before and emphasized the increasing risk of rising sea levels.

Around 40% of the global population live within 100 kilometres of the coast.

WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas said there was an “urgent need” to protect communities from coastal hazards, such as waves, storm surge and sea level rise via multi-hazard warning systems and forecasting.

Atoll nations are even more at risk than other island-based countries, with the Maldives one of just a handful – alongside Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific – that have built societies on the coral-and-sand rims of sunken volcanoes.

So-called king tides – which can wash over parts of habitable land – and the storms that drive them are getting higher and more intense due to climate change.

Connecting communities for ocean resilience

The World Economic Forum, Friends of Ocean Action and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean will explore how to take bold action for a healthy, resilient and thriving seas during the Virtual Ocean Dialogues 2021 on 25-27 May.

The online event will focus on the vital importance of mainstreaming the ocean in global environment-focused forums and summits – from climate and biodiversity, to food and science.

Hydrocarbon Resources and Their Spillover Effects

Hydrocarbon Resources and Their Spillover Effects

Despite the high oil revenues reaped from hydrocarbon resources and their spillover effects on all oil and non-oil producing countries, most MENA region economies suffer from structural problems and fragile political systems, preventing them from adopting effective politico-economic transformations.

The capital was available, but investments were typically misdirected to form in all cases ‘rentier’ economies, with Arab countries economies remaining very undiversified.  They primarily rely on oil and low value-added commodity products such as cement, alumina, fertilisers, and phosphates. 

Demographic transitions present a significant challenge: the population increased from 100 million in 1960 to about 400 million in 2011.  Sixty per cent are under 25 years old.

Urbanisation had increased from 38 per cent in 1970 to 65 per cent in 2010.

Rural development being not a priority; the increasing rural migration into the cities searching for jobs will put even more strain on all existing undeveloped infrastructures. 

Current economic development patterns will increasingly strain the ability of Arab governments to provide decent-paying jobs.  For instance, youth unemployment in the region is currently double the world average.

The demand for food, water, housing, education, transportation, electricity, and other municipal services will rise with higher learning institutions proliferating; the quality of education below average does not lead to employment. 

Power demand in Saudi Arabia, for example, is rising at a fast rate of over 7 per cent per year.

Amman, Cairo, and other Arab cities gradually lose their agriculture space because of the suburbs’ expansion.  Gated communities and high-rise office buildings are sprawling while ignoring low-income housing. 

In the meantime, the real world feels the planet is in danger of an environmental collapse; economists increasingly advise putting the planet on its balance sheets. For over a Century of Burning Fossil Fuels, to propel our cars, power our businesses, and keep the lights on in our homes, we never envisioned that we will paying this price.

Hydrocarbon Resources and Their Spillover Effects

In effect, a recent economic report on biodiversity indicates that economic practice will have to change because the world is finite.

For decades many have been aware of this reality. However, it is a giant leap forward for current economic thinking to acknowledge that Climate change is a symptom of a larger issue. The threat to life support systems from the plunder and demise of the natural environment is a reality.

Society, some governments, and industry are recognising that climate change can be controlled by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, electric cars and reducing emissions from every means of production.

Talking about replacing fossil fuels would mean a potential reduction of the abovementioned revenues.

However, would the spreading of solar farms all over the Sahara desert constitute compensation for the losses?

The Greening of the Earth approaching its Limit

The Greening of the Earth approaching its Limit

Industrialization, rapid growth and usage of certain natural resources supporting new technological development caused and seemed to continue causing global warming that ultimately impacted the planet’s climate to change. In a recent move to counter that, the greening of the earth was incepted and put into implementation with inventions put into action actually to help fight climate change. Recover from climate change seem these days to be approaching its limit as demonstrated by Mauricio Luque in the greening of the earth is approaching its limit.

The featured picture is a YOUTUBE‘s Greening Deserts Sustainable P[rojects.

15 December 2020

The Greening of the Earth approaching its Limit

Vegetation on earth has a key role in mitigating the climate crisis because it reduces the excess CO2 from the atmosphere that we humans emit. Just like when athletes are doped with oxygen, plants also benefit from the large amounts of CO2 that accumulate in the atmosphere. If more CO2 is available, they make more photosynthesis and grow more, which is called the fertilizing effect of CO2. When plants absorb this gas to grow, they remove it from the atmosphere and it is sequestered in the branches, trunk or roots.

An article published in Science, co-directed by the Professor of the Higher Council for Scientific Research at CREAF Josep Peñuelas and Professor Yongguan Zhang of the University of Nanjin, with the participation of CREAF researchers Jordi Sardans and Marcos Fernández, shows that this fertilizing effect of CO2 is decreasing worldwide.

The study, developed by an international team, concludes that the reduction has reached 50% progressively since 1982 due to two key factors: the availability of water and nutrients.

“The formula has no mystery, plants need CO2, water and nutrients to grow. However much the CO2 increases, if the nutrients and water do not increase in parallel, the plants will not be able to take advantage of the increase in this gas,” explains Professor Josep Peñuelas. In fact, three years ago he himself warned in an article in Nature Ecology and Evolution that the fertilizing effect on the soil would not last forever, that plants cannot grow indefinitely because there are other factors that limit them.

If the fertilizing capacity of CO2 in the soil decreases, there will be strong consequences on the carbon cycle and therefore on the climate. Forests have been ‘doped’ with the extra CO2 for decades, sequestering tons of carbon dioxide that allowed them to do more photosynthesis and grow more. In fact, this increased fixation has managed to decrease the accumulated CO2 in the air, but now it is over.

“These unprecedented results indicate that the absorption of carbon by vegetation is beginning to become saturated. This has very important climate implications that must be taken into account in possible strategies and policies to mitigate climate change at the global level. Nature decreases its capacity to sequester carbon and with it increases society’s dependence on future strategies to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” warns Peñuelas.

The study has been carried out with satellite, atmospheric, ecosystem and modelling information. It highlights the use of sensors that use near-infrared and fluorescence and are thus able to measure the growth activity of vegetation.

Less water and nutrients

According to the results, the lack of water and nutrients are the two factors that reduce the ability of CO2 to improve plant growth in the soil. To reach this conclusion, the team based itself on data obtained from hundreds of forests studied over the past forty years. “These data show that the concentrations of essential nutrients in the leaves, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, have also decreased progressively since 1990,” explains researcher Songhan Wang, first author of the article.

The team also found that water availability and temporary changes in water supply played a significant role in this phenomenon. “We have found that plants slow down their growth, not only in times of drought, but also when there are changes in the seasonality of rainfall, which is increasingly happening with climate change,” adds Yongguan Zhang.

Paris climate pact turns five

Paris climate pact turns five

Reuters’ ANALYSIS – As Paris climate pact turns five, leaders urged to make more space for nature by Megan Rowling  is about how all people at the front can help towards countering the planet’s climate from warming any further.


12 December 2020


Forests and other ecosystems have been neglected in efforts to fight global warming, say officials and activists, calling for a joined-up approach to tackling biodiversity and climate crises.

BARCELONA, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Five years ago, when the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change was adopted, storing planet-warming carbon in ecosystems such as tropical forests, wetlands and coastal mangroves was not seen as a major part of the solution.

Now officials and environmentalists say goals to limit global temperature rise cannot be met without nature’s help.

Ahead of a U.N. “Climate Ambition Summit” to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris accord on Saturday, held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they said threats to plants, wildlife, human health and the climate should be confronted together.

“It is time for nature to have a more prominent role in climate discussions and solutions,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, which works with scientists, indigenous people and conservation groups.

“Global leaders can no longer deal with the climate and biodiversity crises in isolation if we are to be successful in addressing either of them,” he added in a statement.

It noted scientific estimates that protecting the planet’s ecosystems could provide at least a third of the reductions in emissions needed by 2030 to meet the aims of the Paris pact.

Under that deal, nearly 200 countries agreed to limit the average rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and ideally to 1.5C above preindustrial times.

But the Earth has already heated up by about 1.2C and is on track to warm by more than 3C by the end of the century, the United Nations said this week.

Understanding has accelerated in recent years about the crucial role ecosystems on land and sea play in absorbing carbon emitted by human activities – mainly from burning fossil fuels – and curbing potentially catastrophic planetary heating.

In 2019, a U.N. climate science report said the way the world manages land, and how food is produced and consumed, had to change to curb global warming – or food security, health and biodiversity would be at risk.

Zac Goldsmith, Britain’s minister for the international environment and climate, said nature had been “left behind” and life on the planet was being exhausted at a “terrifying speed”, as forests were cut down and seas polluted.

“We are denuding the world at a rate that would have seemed impossible to humans a century ago,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Paris climate pact turns five
FILE PHOTO: Village leader Matakin Bondien points to a young mangrove plant which has sprouted in a clearing where mangrove trees were felled in Pitas, Sabah, Malaysia, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

SUPPLY CHAINS

As host of the next major U.N. climate negotiations in November 2021, in Glasgow, the British government has vowed to put protection for forests and natural systems firmly on the political agenda.

Goldsmith said the COP26 team was aiming to build a global coalition of governments and businesses committed to preventing deforestation in supply chains.

That follows a proposed new UK law requiring large companies to ensure the commodities they use – such as cocoa, rubber, soy and palm oil – are not linked to illegal forest clearing.

Britain also will push for countries to phase out close to $700 billion in annual subsidies worldwide for land use that harms the environment and degrades carbon-storing soils, such as intensive farming, he added.

That money could be redirected into efforts to safeguard ecosystems – something sorely needed as less than 3% of international climate finance from donor governments and development banks is spent on that purpose, Goldsmith said.

Financial markets, meanwhile, have yet to recognise the value of nature or the true cost of destroying it.

Paris climate pact turns five
Illegal farmers dry cocoa’s beans in a destroyed Djigbagui village nick-named Bandikro, in the Rapides-Grah’s classy forest, in Soubre, Ivory Coast, March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon.

GREEN GIGATON

U.N. officials working on a new large-scale effort to channel payments to tropical countries and smaller jurisdictions that lock up carbon in rainforests hope to start turning that problem around by COP26.

Last month, they launched a “Green Gigaton Challenge” that aims to catalyse funding for 1 billion tonnes of high-quality emissions reductions a year by 2025 from forests in regions including the Amazon and Congo Basin.

Doing so would cut emissions by the equivalent of taking 80% of cars off American roads, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Tim Christophersen, head of nature for climate at UNEP, said the initiative was spurred by surging business interest in forest protection as a growing number of large firms commit to cutting their emissions to net zero by mid-century or earlier.

That means companies such as Microsoft, Salesforce and Disney need to offset emissions they cannot eliminate themselves by paying to reduce them elsewhere, through projects such as restoring degraded forests.

Under the gigaton challenge, donor governments will invest public money to put a floor under the price per tonne of carbon stored – which could be about $10-$15 – aimed at rewarding successful nature protection efforts that companies will eventually pay even more to back.

Countries including Costa Rica and Chile have shown interest in participating, but deals have yet to be brokered between forest-nation governments and the private sector.

Over the past decade, U.N. agencies have worked to develop the basis for a robust market in forest carbon offsets – but without firm international rules, carbon prices have not risen high enough to provide an incentive to keep trees standing.

“There is a need for countries to see some sort of reward for results” at a price that makes protecting forests financially viable, said Gabriel Labbate, UNEP’s team leader for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

The United Nations and others are still waiting for governments to iron out differences over a system to use carbon credits to meet emissions reduction targets under the Paris pact.

Christophersen warned that companies – especially in the oil and gas industry – should not see supporting forest protection as an alternative to slashing their own emissions.

“Nature is not a substitute for emissions reductions in other areas, and in particular for getting off fossil fuels,” he said.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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