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.
Efforts to curb carbon emissions are falling short. As climate change impacts become all too clear, geoengineering is again in the spotlight. Some see it as a last-resort option to fight climate change. Detractors highlight the risks and uncertainties. Will governments end up ‘tinkering with Earth’s thermostat’?
In the summer of 2018, a succession of heatwaves struck the EU. Record-breaking temperatures were reported, and wildfires ravaged the continent. Sweden suffered the worst forest fires in modern history. In Greece, blazes swept through Attica and left 102 dead. For many citizens, wildfires threw the reality of climate change into sharp relief.
Under the Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries pledged to keep global warming well below 2°C. But progress in curbing carbon emissions is not on track. If the current trend is not reversed, extreme weather events like the 2018 heatwave will become more and more frequent.
Geoengineering refers to large-scale interventions in the global climate system, intended to counteract climate change. In 2008, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity called for a moratorium on geoengineering ‘until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities’. Only a decade later, scientists and policy-makers are again looking for last-ditch solutions to buy some extra time. Geoengineering is again in the spotlight.
Potential impacts and developments
Geoengineering includes a number of techniques of varying complexity, risk, and cost. In policy-making, the debate revolves almost entirely around ‘solar geoengineering‘. This describes a set of methods aimed at cooling the planet by reflecting a portion of solar energy back into space, or increasing the amount of solar radiation that escapes the Earth.
Cirrus clouds are known to have a warming effect on Earth. Seeding the atmosphere with innocuous Sahara dust would prevent the formation of cirrus clouds, and reduce global temperatures. Stratospheric aerosol injection entails creating an artificial sunshade by injecting reflective particles in the stratosphere. Its working principle is based in nature. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 pumped around 15 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere; in the two years that followed, global temperatures decreased by about 1°C.
But there is no simple solution. For a start, solar geoengineering does not target the root of the problem; it only mitigates its effects. Solar geoengineering has never been tried before. If done incorrectly, it could cause even more global warming; and there could be other unintended consequences. The real challenge, however, may not be technological but rather one of governance. Climate politics is slow and complex; agreeing on using untested technology on a planetary scale could prove impossible. Who decides to use solar geoengineering? Who benefits from it? Who is affected?
Solar geoengineering is a geopolitical issue. The atmosphere has no borders, and the actions of some countries could affect the climate of others. To make matters worse, the science is not always conclusive. Some climate models suggest that almost every region in the world would benefit from solar geoengineering. Other scientists claim that since heat-trapping gases would still operate, temperatures would be more evenly distributed. This would reduce precipitation. Such a geoengineered world would be cooler, but also drier.
Many stakeholders see a moral hazard in solar geoengineering. All efforts are now focused on reducing emissions. With new tools in their climatic toolbox, governments could become complacent. Scientists insist that geoengineering is a supplement and not a substitute for mitigation. For example, solar geoengineering will not solve ocean acidification, and its impact on the water cycle is uncertain. Eventually, part or all the carbon released into the atmosphere will need to be recaptured, regardless of whether geoengineering is used or not.
To some citizens, meddling with the climate may sound like playing god. But across the world, about 40 % of the population live within 100 kilometres of the coast. Rising sea levels will threaten these coastal communities. Many regions will see more intense and frequent summer droughts, extreme weather events, and heavy rainfall. This could strain the fragile agricultural systems in the global South, sparking an exodus of climate refugees. As the consequences of climate change accumulate, the public’s opinion on solar geoengineering could shift rapidly.
Perceptions could be as important as the science. In 1962, the US started a programme to weaken hurricanes through seeding. In 1963, Hurricane Flora caused thousands of deaths in Cuba. The Cuban government accused the US of waging weather warfare. Similarly, any country suffering from extreme weather could blame geoengineers. In addition, geoengineering would be deployed progressively. Its effects would be initially difficult to decouple from natural fluctuations and climate change. Detractors would be quick to discard it as a failed idea.
There is a bigger problem, however. Once started, solar geoengineering cannot be stopped. Assuming that carbon emissions continued, the artificial sunshade would mask increasing amounts of extra warming. If geoengineering ceased abruptly – due to sabotage, technical, or political reasons – temperatures would shoot up rapidly. This termination shock would be catastrophic for humans and ecosystems.
Solar geoengineering should only be considered as a last-resort solution. There is ample consensus that cutting emissions is the safest, most economical route to tackling climate change. The world needs a climate champion to accelerate these efforts, and the EU could lead the way.
Ultimately, the debate surrounding solar geoengineering could come down to balancing the risks and benefits. Solar geoengineering is not without risks. However, failing to mitigate climate change will also bring major new risks, disrupt ecosystems across the world, and hit the most vulnerable regions particularly hard.
Ironically, one reason that solar geoengineering may become necessary is the slow pace of international climate negotiations. Yet discussions on geoengineering are following the same path. Should solar geoengineering become necessary, governments need to be ready. The EU could help advance preparedness in this area; for example, by throwing its diplomatic weight behind multilateral initiatives moving in this direction.
The EU and its partners could promote an international governance framework for solar geoengineering. However, all parties must be on board. There are real risks that some of the countries worst affected by climate change could act unilaterally. Even if well-intentioned, this could create geopolitical tension. An international regulation system would ensure that no country ‘goes rogue’, and that geoengineering is not done for some at the expense of others.
The EU could also support research on solar geoengineering. Studies and trials may have been hampered by fears of promoting a quick ‘technofix’. But if geoengineering became necessary to avert disaster, its full effects must be known. Current techniques are criticised for posing a risk to biodiversity, precipitation patterns, and the ozone layer. A better understanding of these problems is the first step towards tackling them. Research could also help governance. For example, counter-geoengineering tools could serve as a deterrent against unilateral action.
A report commissioned by international union coalition Industrial examines the geopolitics of fossil fuel producing countries (mainly, the United States, China, Europe and Russia) and the investments and performance of the Oil Majors (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, as well as nationally-owned PetroChina, Gazprom and Equinor). Energy transition, national strategies, and oil companies: what are the impacts for workers? was published in November 2020, with the research updated to reflect the impacts of Covid-19.
In addition to a thorough examination of state and corporate actions, the report asked union representatives from four oil companies about how workers understand the energy transformation and its impact on their own jobs, and whether the concept of Just Transition has become part of their union’s agenda.
Some highlights of the responses:
“the union members interviewed showed little knowledge about either the risks that the current transition process can generate for the industrial employee, or about the union discussion that seeks to equate the concern with the decarbonisation of the economy with the notions of equity and social justice. In some cases, even the term “Just Transition” was not known to respondents.”
Their lack of knowledge regarding the Just Transition can be justified by the fact that they do not believe that there will be any significant change in the energy mix of these companies.
Regarding information about energy transitions within the companies, “Managers are included, but the bottom of the work chain is not”
Lacking corporate policies or support, some employees feel compelled to take responsibility for their own re-training
The researchers conclude that: “Far from being just a statement of how disconnected workers are from environmental issues, these researches reveal a window of opportunity for union movements to act in a better communication strategy with their union members, drawing their attention to the climate issue and transforming their hopes for job stability and better working conditions into an ecologically sustainable political agenda.”
The report was commissioned by Industrial and conducted by the Institute of Strategic Studies of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (Ineep), a research organization created by Brazil’s United Federation of Oil and Gas Workers (FUP).
More than three billion people live in agricultural areas with high levels of water shortages and scarcity, the UN agriculture agency said in a new report launched on Wednesday.
The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) flagship report, noted that available freshwater resources have declined globally by more than 20 per cent per person over the past two decades, underscoring the importance of producing more with less, especially in the agriculture sector – the world’s largest user of water.
“With this report, FAO is sending a strong message: Water shortages and scarcity in agriculture must be addressed immediately and boldly if our pledge to achieve the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] is to be taken seriously”, emphasized FAO Director-General QU Dongyu in the foreword of the report.
Paths for action
From investing in water-harvesting and conservation in rainfed areas to rehabilitating and modernizing sustainable irrigation systems in irrigated areas, actions must be combined with best agronomic practices, the report stressed.
These could involve adopting drought-tolerant crop varieties and improving water management tools – including effective water pricing and allocation, such as water rights and quotas – to ensure equitable and sustainable access.
However, effective management strategy must start with water accounting and auditing.
Mapping the SDG target
Achieving the internationally agreed SDG pledges, including the zero hunger, “is still achievable”, maintains the SOFA report, but only by ensuring more productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 per cent of global water withdrawals.
Against the backdrop that FAO oversees the SDG indicator that measures human activities on natural freshwater resources, the report offers the first spatially disaggregated representation of how things stand today. Meshed with historical drought frequency data, this provides a more holistic assessment of water constraints in food production.
SOFA reveals that some 11 per cent of the world’s rainfed cropland faces frequent drought, as does about 14 per cent of pastureland.
Meanwhile, more than 60 per cent of irrigated cropland is water-stressed and 11 countries, all in Northern Africa and Asia, need to urgently adopt sound water accounting, clear allocation, modern technologies and to shift to less thirsty crops.
Did you know?
Total water withdrawals per capita are highest in Central Asia.
In least developed countries, 74 per cent of rural people do not have access to safe drinking water.
While 91 countries have national rural drinking water plans, only nine have implementation funds.
Around 41 per cent of global irrigation impacts the environmental flow requirements that are essential for life-supporting ecosystems.
Biofuels require 70 to 400 times more water than do the fossil fuels they replace.
As important sources of water vapor for downwind areas, forests such as in the Amazon, Congo and Yangtze river basins are crucial to rainfed agriculture.
Although “the inherent characteristics of water make it difficult to manage”, the SOFA report upholds that it “be recognized as an economic good that has a value and a price”.
“At the same time, policy and governance support to ensure efficient, equitable and sustainable access for all is essential”.
Noting that the rural poor can benefit substantially from irrigation, the report recommends that water management plans be “problem-focused and dynamic”.
Despite that water markets selling water rights are relatively rare, SOFA says that when water accounting is well performed, rights well established and beneficiaries and managing institutions participating, regulated water markets can provide equitable allotments while promoting conservation.
Regreening the Desert would be the ultimate call for action from John D. Liu. Could it be addressed to the MENA region leaders, as part of seeming to be a universal appeal to try and redress the planet’s sad situation?
Can we in the meantime think of a “reforestation campaign” amid a coronavirus crisis? Yes, we can think of everything, since life carries on despite all that is going on. It would be the height of giving up life on the pretext that we are fighting death! Isn’t the tree life? Is there a relationship between reforestation and Covid-19? Certainly not, otherwise, it could be felt like a high contortion. But there is undoubtedly a relationship between the tree and life. It’s even excellent that one. There is oxygen, and there is wood, there is chlorophyll, there is shade, there is the fruit, there are colours and certainly other things that ordinary people cannot know. But do we have the heart to plant plane trees, carob trees and Aleppo pines when the “atmosphere” is to the maddening figures of contamination, the disturbing ambient nonchalance and the not very reassuring news that come to us from the hospitals? Yes, you can plant trees all the time, anywhere. Anyway here is John’s .
“Deserts are advancing and water is becoming scarce. It all seems hopeless… But one man has discovered how to make deserts green and our planet healthy again.”
“It is possible to rehabilitate large scale damaged ecosystems… Why don’t we do that?”
– John D. Liu
John D. Liu filmed Hope in a Changing Climate, following the Loess-plateau in China where local people redeveloped the land from a terribly damaged area into a functioning ecosystem. This documentary follows Liu explain what he’s learned and what he thinks we should do to revitalize ecosystems.
The process looks something like this:
Setting aside land for natural vegetation to return
Exclude grazing in the first 3 years.
Wait for native plants to return to the land.
Allow the microbial communities to grow within the habitat.
Encourage more organic matter, more biomass and more biodiversity.
“We need to redefine and revalue our belief systems. Money is a belief system. There’s nothing wrong with money, as it turns out. The problem is – what is money based on? If money is based on functional ecosystems, then the future will be beautiful. If money continues to be based on the production and consumption of goods and services we’ll turn everything into a desert.”
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