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Decoupling of emissions from economic growth in MENA

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BROOKINGS’ FUTURE DEVELOPMENT published this article on how the MENA countries should kick-start the decoupling of emissions from economic growth in their region. Here it is.

How to kick-start the decoupling of emissions from economic growth in MENA

By Martin Philipp Heger, Senior Environmental Economist – World Bank and Lukas Vashold, Ph.D. Student – Vienna University of Economics and Business

The burning of organic materials (such as fossil fuels, wood, and waste) for heating/cooling, electricity, mobility, cooking, disposal, and the production of materials and goods (such as cement, metals, plastics, and food) leads to emissions. This affects local air quality and the climate. In a recent blog, we showed that the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) lags behind all other regions in decoupling air pollutant emissions from economic growth.

Particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) is the air pollutant associated with the largest health effects. MENA’s cities are the second-most air-polluted following South Asia; virtually all of its population is exposed to levels deemed unsafe. In 2019, exposure to excessive PM2.5 levels was associated with almost 300,000 deaths in MENA and it caused the average resident to be sick for more than 70 days in his or her lifetime. It also carries large economic costs for the region, totaling more than $140 billion in 2013, around 2 percent of the region’s GDP.

A good understanding of the emission sources leading to air pollution is necessary to planning for how to best reduce them. Figure 1 shows that waste burning, road vehicles, and industrial processes accounted for around two-thirds of PM2.5 concentrations. Electricity production is also a significant contributor, most of which is used by manufacturing and households.

5 PRIORITY BARRIERS AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR POLICY REFORMS TO KICK-START DECOUPLING

A forthcoming report titled “Blue Skies, Blue Seas” discusses these measures, alongside many others, in more detail.

1. Knowledge about air pollution and its sources is limited, with sparse ground monitoring stationsDetailed source apportionment studies have only been carried out for a few cities within the region, with results often not easily accessible for the public.

Extensive monitoring networks and regular studies on local sources of air and climate pollutants are foundational, as is making results easily accessible to the public (e.g., in form of a traffic light system as is done in Abu Dhabi). This will empower sensitive groups to take avoidance decisions, but also nurture the demand for abatement policies.

2. MENA’s prices for fossil fuels and energy (predominantly from burning fossil fuels), are the lowest in a global comparisonFor example, pump prices in MENA for diesel ($0.69 per liter) and gasoline ($0.74 per liter) were about half the EU prices and less than two-thirds of the global average in 2018.

MENA’s heavy subsidization of fossil fuels, whether that is at the point of consumption or at the point of intermediary inputs in power generation and manufacturing, makes price reforms essential. Aside from incorporating negative externalities better, lifting subsidies also reduces pressure on fiscal budgets, with freed-up fiscal space being available to cushion the impact for low-income households. There have been encouraging steps by some countries such as Egypt, which reduced the fossil fuel subsidies gradually over the last couple of years, leading to significant increases in fuel prices, which in turn had positive effects on air quality.

3. Underdevelopment of public transportlow fuel quality, and low emissions standards drive high levels of emissions from the transport sector. In MENA, the modal share is often heavily skewed toward the use of private cars; when public transportation is available, it has a low utilization rate in international comparison.

To support a shift in the modal share toward cleaner mobility, it is imperative to invest in public transport systems, while making them cleaner and supporting nonmotorized options such as walking and biking. Cairo’s continued expansion of its metro system has been effective in reducing PM pollution and other MENA cities have also invested heavily in their public transport infrastructure, moving the needle on improving air quality. Furthermore, it is also important to raise environmental standards, both for fuel quality and car technology, together with regular mandatory inspections.

4. Lenient industrial emissions rules and their weak enforcement. The industrial sector is characterized by low energy efficiency standards, also due to the low, subsidized prices for energy mentioned above. MENA is currently the only region, where not a single country has introduced or is actively planning to introduce either a carbon tax or an emission trading scheme.

Mandating stricter emissions caps, or technology requirements, together with proper enforcement and monitoring is crucial. Incentivizing firms to adopt more resource-efficient, end-of-pipe cleaning, and fuel-switching technologies are additional crucial means to reduce air pollution stemming from the industrial sector. A trading system for emissions could either target CO2 emissions, or air pollutants, such as the PM cap-and-trade system recently introduced in Gujarat, India. Such a system should target both the manufacturing industry as well as the power sector.

5. Weak solid waste management (SWM) is a major issue in MENA. Although the collection of municipal waste has room for improvement in many countries, it is mainly the disposal stage of SWM where the leakage occurs. Too often waste ends up in open dumps or informal landfills, where it ignites. Furthermore, processing capabilities are often limited, and equipment outdated, at least for the lower- and middle-income countries of the region.

Hence, enhancing the efficiency of disposal sites is critical to reducing leakage and the risk of self-ignition. To start, replacing or upgrading open dumps and uncontrolled landfills with engineered or sanitary landfills is a viable option. Going forward, recycling capabilities should be improved and the circularity of resources enhanced. For agricultural waste, the establishment of markets for crop residues and comprehensive information campaigns in Egypt showed that such measures can supplement the introduction of stricter waste-burning bans.

Kick-starting decoupling and banking on green investments hold the promise for MENA not only to improve environmental quality and health locally, and to mitigate climate change globally, but also to reap higher economic returns (including jobs). Moreover, decoupling now will prepare MENA economies better for a future in which much of the world will have decarbonized its economies, including its trade networks.

Key combination for corporates targeting successful sustainability

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Arabian Business posted DeBacker’s thoughts on how the Key combination for corporates targeting successful sustainability breakthroughs are the one and only remaining way out of today’s traumatic times. Here they are.

Key combination for corporates targeting successful sustainability breakthroughs

Through the convergence of technology, capital, and scale-up capabilities, industry incumbents can translate their sustainability visions to reality – ushering in a new chapter of green finance practicality

Philippe DeBacker, managing partner, global practice leader Financial Services, at Arthur D. Little.

As corporates navigate persisting economic difficulties, unlocking growth and creating strategic advantages represents an entirely different sustainability challenge.

While transformational change has traditionally been hindered due to funding restrictions and expensive innovation projects, a new approach can now be pursued with the post-pandemic era approaching.

Through the convergence of technology, capital, and scale-up capabilities, industry incumbents can translate their sustainability visions to reality – ushering in a new chapter of green finance practicality.

Although this scenario may have seemed improbable not long ago, several trends have simultaneously transpired to lay the foundations for green financing breakthroughs.

Governments are engaging in heightened regulatory activity to build resilient economies and investors are prepared to pursue higher-risk green initiatives. Industrial companies are also introducing corporates to potential green technologies, while collaboration activities are broadening ecosystems via new players, partners, and opportunities.

Crucially, this applies to the Middle East, where the required framework and levers for green finance can benefit the wider corporate community and region exponentially. Green financing for sustainability projects increased by 38 percent to reach $6.4 billion in H1 2021 alone, while green finance is projected to create $2 trillion in economic growth and over one million new jobs by 2030.

These statistics certainly highlight the potential accompanying the green finance segment – and there are various innovative green asset and technology financing options available for interested parties to explore. Besides investment funds, project financing, and debt or equity investments, experts and commercial banks can facilitate technology deployments and green project acceleration through several green funding areas.

As corporates strive to achieve transformational change by acquiring capital, harnessing technology, and successful scaling their capabilities, they can do so backed by the following:

  • Sustainable bonds: Climate bonds are viable for mature investors seeking to introduce climate change solutions and projects, increasing available funding for green initiatives while providing positive sustainability benefits. Blue loans can also raise finance for projects within the blue economy, while ESG-linked finance is available and not linked to specific use cases.
  • Asset recycling platforms: As demonstrated courses of action from capital-intensive clean infrastructure, there are multiple asset recycling platform choices for corporates. Capital recycling designates funds toward greener projects, ‘farm down’ entails equity stakes being sold progressively, yield companies produce cash flow and returns through long-term contracts, and special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) raise funding for capital-intensive startups – including $80bn in 2020.
  • Technology financing: Corporates exploring development expenditure (DEVEX) financing can utilise several sources depending on project technology readiness levels (TRLs). These include public funds for early investment and support, government-backed venture funds to complement private venture capital, and SPACs for sizeable technology funding.
  • Asset management: As Shariah investing emerged a decade ago as a desirable asset class, green financing is increasingly attractive capital with promising returns due the the profound change in economic make up, such as electric vehicles promising to overtake carbon fueled cars.

Admittedly, green financing options are bound by demands, aspirations, and conditions per each individual corporate, with eventualities dependent on specific factors. That being said, every corporate seeking sustainability finance can do so having taken note of similar instances in other sectors. In line with this, there are four actions one can take to help drive success:

Create a sustainable ecosystem

With an array of green technology ecosystems continuously welcoming partners specialising in different industries and technologies, corporates should prioritise developing and forming a sustainable ecosystem. This ecosystem should comprise technology, scale, and capital, which will be central to investment objectives coming to fruition.

While large companies already tend to be involved in multiple ecosystems, realising aspirations and achieving maximum value for many others hinges on proactive action in this direction.

Establish a comprehensive business model

No matter their readiness level, all corporates should pursue projects knowing that their assets or technologies becoming commodities starts and ends with a robust business model. Particularly during early development phases, models often have discrepancies in terms of clarity and direction. Therefore, corporates should define the value they are striving to build, identify the most prudent way to create cash flow, and decide where ownership and control will rest.

Deliver on priorities and objectives strategically

For businesses, executing every element of their business model requires a strategic approach. Whether this is done internally, via an external collaborator, or combining the two, successfully meeting targets and progressing requires a strategic roadmap that includes stakeholder alignment and ambition-timeframe balance.

Adapt the corporate governance model

From board to ethical investing, the corporate world is rethinking the way it creates value and governs itself. New oversight committees are formed in global complex companies to ensure consistency across multiple business lines and geographies – and this is something corporates should also pursue.

Backed by the most suitable innovative financing option, corporates have an opportunity to embrace the support available to them and make continuous strides towards sustainable growth breakthroughs.

The above steps will guide companies on their innovation journeys, with technology, capital, and scale-up capabilities simultaneously driving project success and green growth.

Philippe DeBacker, managing partner, global practice leader Financial Services, at Arthur D. Little.

A greener construction sector?

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 Neeraj Akhoury, CEO of LafargeHolcim, questions India could opt for a greener construction sector? Is it an idea whose time has come or not. Let us find out.

The reason is as industries worldwide increasingly turn towards environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies to abide by all Sustainable Development Goals and support their recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus on green construction is more and more apparent.

In the Middle East Gulf area, where Indian construction workers dominate all human construction resources, the author’s thoughts would not fall into deaf ears.

A greener construction sector? An idea whose time has come

By 2030, more than 250 million people will be added to India’s urban population that will require 700-900 million square meters of new residential and commercial space. In greening the construction sector lies immense opportunities and gains . . .

Image: Shutterstock

For most people, the construction sector is not what first comes to mind when we talk about creating an environmentally sustainable future. It is either the energy or utility sector or other core industries such as steel, coal, fertiliser, and others. Yet, globally, the construction sector is estimated to contribute around 40 percent of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

If we scratch the surface, the reason starts to get more obvious. The construction sector, whether it is urban housing or infrastructure, is an end-user industry that consumes a lot of the materials listed earlier like steel, energy (including temperature control) and cement.

The scale of the challenge

The construction sector is a fairly large umbrella that goes beyond housing and commercial buildings to include the infrastructure sector that will see huge public spending in the coming years. The latest union budget saw gross budgetary allocation towards capital expenditure increase to Rs 5.54 lakh crore or around 34 percent more than what was allocated in 2020-21, thus giving a big push to the investment in road and railway projects. A further Rs 55,000 crore of public spending is also expected to go towards government housing projects.

A 2010 estimate by McKinsey Global Institute had suggested that by 2030, more than 250 million people will be added to India’s urban population that will require 700-900 million square meters of new residential and commercial space.

The bottom line is that the massive spending in building a national infrastructure fit for a future-ready India along with large scale urbanisation is going to add more pressure to the construction sector to ensure the environmental concerns are adequately addressed.

The redeeming factor is that every major sector such as steel, energy and construction have understood their respective roles in creating a greener future. Achieving medium to long term environmental objectives including global commitments—like the Paris Accord of 2015—will mean every sector and their consumers will have to pull their weight. We are already seeing this in energy and steel where renewable alternatives and other ideas like circular economy are becoming increasingly mainstream.

Even traditional sectors like automobile are paying more attention to creating a culture of green mobility with electric vehicles. In each of these sectors, the shift towards more sustainable and responsible behaviours is emerging because of the coordinated efforts of both producers and consumers.

A promising green future

The scope for creating a more sustainable construction sector is quite immense and the use of environment-friendly building materials is an important part of it. Every aspect of a building—from the kind of materials used to the construction process itself—offers immense scope to make it more sustainable. For example, today steel and cement manufacturers have embraced the idea of a circular economy in a big way and are offering a wide portfolio of building materials that leave behind far less carbon footprint.

It is for the construction industry to work closely with these manufacturers to ensure that the final product is environment-friendly. The idea of a circular economy within the construction sector is also catching up in a big way through increased use of recycled building material, a sustainable process that allows us to build more with less input including water, energy, and so on.

A science-driven approach to creating more sustainable building materials is also fast catching in India. It is pushing manufacturers to work closely with the academia through exclusive and outcome-driven partnerships to find solutions.

The consumer side of this story is also equally fascinating. Today’s consumers, in both residential and commercial spaces, are playing an active and vital role in ensuring that their contribution to the carbon footprint is minimal.

From energy efficiency mechanisms backed by renewable energy sources to using greener materials and construction processes, new methods have become USPs for builders because they are now addressing a more enlightened set of consumers. In many ways, this is the vital link that completes the whole cycle of creating a more sustainable construction sector in India.

The idea of creating a greener construction sector in India is still in its infancy but the future certainly looks promising or as the 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo said, ‘it’s an idea whose time has come’.

The writer is a CEO of LafargeHolcim India and Managing Director & CEO of Ambuja Cements Ltd

A Touch of Nature + Sustainability to Modern Architecture

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A tall building is not defined by its height or number of stories. The important criterion is whether or not the design is influenced by some aspect of “tallness.”It is a building in which tallness strongly influences planning, design, construction and use: the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Yanko Design has pertinent pictures of the world’s main trendy construction types to illustrate that statement best. A Touch of Nature + Sustainability to Modern Architecture are the elements that come, as it were, to justify the tallness of these structures and take into account all ecological concerns as if to alleviate their higher demand in the required material, men and money.

The above picture is for illustration and is of Yanko Design.

Green Skyscrapers that add a Touch of Nature + Sustainability to Modern Architecture!

By Srishti Mitra on 9 June 2021

Skyscrapers have taken over most of the major cities today. They’re symbols of wealth and power! And most of the skylines today are adorned with glistening glass skyscrapers. They are considered the face of modern architecture. Although all that glass and dazzle can become a little tiring to watch. Hence, architects are incorporating these tall towers with a touch of nature and greenery! The result is impressive skyscrapers merged with an element of sustainability. These green spaces help us maintain a modern lifestyle while staying connected to nature. We definitely need more of these green skyscraper designs in our urban cities!

Zaha Hadid Architects designed a pair of impressive skyscrapers that are linked by planted terraces, for Shenzhen, China. Named Tower C, the structure is 400 metres in height and is supposed to be one of the tallest buildings in the city. The terraces are filled with greenery and aquaponic gardens! They were built to be an extension of a park that is located alongside the tower and as a green public space.

Polish designers Pawel Lipiński and Mateusz Frankowsk created The Mashambas Skyscraper, a vertical farm tower, that is in fact modular! The tower can be assembled, disassembled and transported to different locations in Africa. It was conceptualised in an attempt to help and encourage new agricultural communities across Africa. The skyscraper would be moved to locations that have poor soil quality or suffer from droughts, so as to increase crop yield and produce.

The Living Skyscraper was chosen among 492 submissions that were received for the annual eVolo competition that has been running since 2006. One of the main goals of the project is to grow a living skyscraper on the principle of sustainable architecture. The ambitious architectural project has been envisioned for Manhattan and proposes using genetically modified trees to shape them into literal living skyscrapers. It is designed to serve as a lookout tower for New York City with its own flora and fauna while encouraging ecological communications between office buildings and green recreation centers. The building will function as a green habitable space in the middle of the concrete metropolis.

ODA’s explorations primarily focus on tower designs, in an attempt to bring versatility and a touch of greenery to NY’s overtly boxy and shiny cityscape. Architectural explorations look at residential units with dedicated ‘greenery zones’ that act as areas of the social congregation for the building’s residents. Adorned with curvilinear, organic architecture, and interspersed with greenery, these areas give the residents a break from the concrete-jungle aesthetic of the skyscraper-filled city. They act as areas of reflection and of allowing people to connect with nature and with one another.

Heatherwick Studio built a 20-storey residential skyscraper in Singapore called EDEN. Defined as “a counterpoint to ubiquitous glass and steel towers”, EDEN consists of a vertical stack of homes, each amped with a lush garden. The aim was to create open and flowing living spaces that are connected with nature and high on greenery.

Designed by UNStudio and COX Architecture, this skyscraper in Melbourne, Australia features a pair of twisting towers placed around a ‘green spine’ of terraces, platforms, and verandahs. Called Southbank by Beulah, the main feature of the structure is its green spine, which functions as the key organizational element of the building.

Mad Arkitekter created WoHo, a wooden residential skyscraper in Berlin. The 98-meter skyscraper will feature 29 floors with different spaces such as apartment rentals, student housing, a kindergarten, bakery, workshop, and more. Planters and balconies and terraces filled with greenery make this skyscraper a very green one indeed!

Algae as energy resources are in their beginnings and are seen as high potential. Extensive research work has dealt with algae as an energy source in recent decades. As a biofuel, they are up to 6 times more efficient than e.g. comparable fuels from corn or rapeseed. The Tubular Bioreactor Algae Skyscraper focuses on the production of microalgae and their distribution using existing pipelines. Designed by Johannes Schlusche, Paul Böhm, Raffael Grimm, the towers are positioned along the transalpine pipeline in a barren mountain landscape. Water is supplied from the surrounding mountain streams and springs, and can also be obtained from the Mediterranean using saltwater.

Tesseract by Bryant Lau Liang Cheng proposes an architecture system that allows residents to participate in not just the design of their own units; but the programs and facilities within the building itself. This process is inserted between the time of purchase for the unit and the total time required to complete construction – a period that is often ignored and neglected. Through this process, residents are allowed to choose their amenities and their communities, enhancing their sense of belonging in the process. Housing units will no longer be stacked in repetition with no relation whatsoever to the residents living in it – a sentimental bond between housing and men results.

In a world devoid of greenery, Designers Nathakit Sae-Tan & Prapatsorn Sukkaset have envisioned the concept of Babel Towers, mega skyscrapers devoted to preserving horticultural stability within a single building. The Babel towers would play an instrumental role in the propagation of greenery in and around the area. These towers would also become attraction centers for us humans, like going to a zoo, but a zoo of plants. Seems a little sad, saying this, but I do hope that we never reach a day where the Babel Tower becomes a necessity. I however do feel that having towers like these now, in our cities, would be a beautiful idea. Don’t you think so too?

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

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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.