the Line of Fire
Amparo Lasso - Tierramérica*
MEXICO CITY, Apr 3 (IPS) - A recurring
nightmare is troubling environmentalists worldwide: the
firepower being used in the second Gulf War is devastating
what little is left of the wetlands of Mesopotamia, a place
that many believe was the setting of the Bible's Garden of
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
”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
A photo of a little bird, a grebe, blackened by
petroleum was seen by people around the world at the time, and
became a symbol of one of the worst oil spills in history.
Such oil disasters might not happen this time around,
but military experts say it is still relatively early in the
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 in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
ecosystem forms part of the Tigris and Euphrates river basin,
which provides sustenance to Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
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 Britain on 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
mobilisation 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 militarised.
Partow is a member of a
team of specialists from the United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) that 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 since
”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 neighbours 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) have
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 years.
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.
Wetlands also served
to purify 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.
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 heron.
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
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
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,
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 Tierramérica.
UNEP will head up
environmental assessments in post-war Iraq. But nobody dares
hope that the environmental question will be at the centre 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.
* Tierramérica is a specialised
news service (www.tierramerica.net) produced by IPS with the
backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the
United Nations Environment Programme.
Lasso is editorial director of Tierramérica.)
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