The desert blooms – Environmental restoration in post-Saddam Iraq
Religion & Liberty Online

The desert blooms – Environmental restoration in post-Saddam Iraq

I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to hell with them that descend into the pit: and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, shall be comforted in the nether parts of the earth. — Eze 31:16

America had folks like Fossey and T.R. and Muir and Carson and Audobon and Carver and Pickering who brought conservation and ecology into our emerging national conscience.

After 30 years of Saddam’s stalinist rule and nearly four years since he was deposed, a democratic Iraq is making great strides on the environment in its own right, and with the help of the international environmental community…(read on)

This effort has been going on since the US-led coalition helped Iraq establish its provisional government. The environment program was first headed by Kurdish engineer Abd al-Rahman Saddiq Karim. After Iraq’s first free elections, it’s first Ministry of Environment was established on 28 May 2004, led by Dr. Mishkat Al Moumin.

She knows it’s been a long time since Iraqis took an interest in their environment. “The environment has been neglected since 1921 when the Iraqi state was born,” said the minister, who formerly served as a professor of law at the University of Baghdad.

She was succeeded by Mrs. Narmin ‘Uthman in the Iraqi National Unity Government, who is currently serving as Environment Minister today.

The new Iraq Constitution has much to say on conservation generally, and the environment of Iraq specifically.

First, it requires the following oath of each member of its elected Council of Representatives:

I swear by God the Almighty to carry out my legal tasks and responsibilities devotedly and honestly and preserve the independence and sovereignty of Iraq, and safeguard the interests of its people, and watch over the safety of its land, skies, waters, resources and federal democratic system… [italics mine]

Specific constitutional requirements:

– Article 33 requires the Government of Iraq to undertake “the protection and preservation of the environment and biological diversity.”

– Article 107 requires the fledgling government to “Plan policies relating to water sources from outside Iraq, and guarantee the rate of water flow to Iraq and its fair distribution, in accordance with international laws and norms.”

– Article 110 commits to “formulate the environmental policy to ensure the protection of the environment from pollution and to preserve its cleanness in cooperation with the regions and governorates that are not organized in a region.”

Narmin and her staff can’t carry out all of these requirements alone, and thanks to the UN, USAID, the US and others, they haven’t had to.

I’ve often been tough [click & scroll down to Jan 20th] on the U.N. because of their lack of accountability and tendency toward world domination and graft. But the UN Environmental Programme should get credit for what they’ve been doing in Iraq.

They’ve addressed difficult subjects like depleted uranium munitions, toxic hazardous waste dumps, looted nuclear facilities, and sabotaged petrochemical factories. They’ve also helped Iraq develop short and long-term environmental management plans.

World Bank is supporting the Environment Ministry through millions of dollars in grants which are being spent as noted in the table at right.

Your tax dollars are at work as well. Your US Air Force built the Ministry of Environmental Headquarters offices. Your US Army Corps of Engineers and Navy Seabees are restoring environmental and sanitary services. Jordanians are providing environmental training. Japan is providing funding for marshlands restoration.

On that last point, there isn’t a much better example of the diligent efforts going on by Iraq and coalition forces with respect to natural and cultural restoration than the recovery of the Mesopotamian Marshes.

As this UN presser says, recovery has been remarkable:

After a decade of decline in which the fabled Marshlands of Mesopotamia all but vanished almost 40 per cent have now recovered to their former 1970s extent. This phenomenal rate of recovery of the marshlands in southern Iraq, considered by some as the original biblical “Garden of Eden” and a key natural habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries, is revealed in new satellite images and preliminary analysis from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The UN grossly understates the scope and scale of this tragedy in their articles. Jay Nordlinger wrote this one year after Iraqis turned out en masse to adopt their new constitution, and just a few months after Iraqis elected their first constitutionally-established government:

The Mesopotamian Marshlands — home of the Marsh Arabs — exist at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Many have imagined this area the site of the Garden of Eden. Until the early 1990s, this “Eden” was the Middle East’s largest wetland, covering about 7,500 square miles. The Marsh Arabs — also known as the Madan — are among the oldest peoples on earth, dating back 5,000 years. They are a link to the Sumerians. For all these millennia, they have lived in their marshes, gliding in their skiffs, called “mashoofs,” and dwelling in their reed huts. They have subsisted on fish and water buffalo, chiefly. The British explorer Wilfred Thesiger made them famous in the 1960s, when he published his book The Marsh Arabs.

The marshes were always a mysterious place, a haven and hideout for rebels, bandits, dissenters. When the Shiites failed in their uprising against Saddam after the Persian Gulf War, many of them sought refuge in these marshes. And the local residents, hating the regime — like most Iraqis — sympathized with them. Saddam decided that the area and the people had to be eradicated.

What happened next is a picture of pure evil; it can scarcely be absorbed. In a massive push called the Third River Project, the regime created dams, dikes, and canals — and dried up the marshes. One new canal was called the Mother of All Battles River; there was also the Fidelity to the Leader Canal. With amazing speed, this vast wetland became a desert. The plants died, the animals died, water was nowhere. One newspaper report had residents saying that it was as though someone had pulled a plug. Saddam destroyed a full 90 percent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, establishing a military zone in their place.

But there’s much, much more. The elimination of the marshes caused the people to starve, flee, or die — and Saddam did all he could to make sure they died. He poisoned the lagoons; he shelled villages; he set reedbeds ablaze; he imprisoned, tortured, and executed; and he attacked these Iraqis with WMD — with chemical weapons. He left no technique untried. In August 1993, a British writer and filmmaker, Michael Wood, said that the dictator’s “slow genocide of the Marsh Arabs is nearing its climax.” Yet it had not been so slow, really.

And the world knew.

Satellite studies, carried out by the UN Environmental Programme’s DEWA-Europe/GRID-Geneva and covering a period from the early 1970s to 2000, showed that 90 per cent of the marshlands, also home to rare and unique species and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had disappeared.

James Bell has much more on the genocide and “ecocide” that took place over several decades, including this interesting (and damning) bit:

In March, 1995, the European Parliament adopted a resolution deploring the drainage of the marshes and the attacks upon the marsh dwellers. This resolution specifically refuted the assertion made by Hussein’s government that the marshes were being drained for agricultural purposes and demanded that impartial observers be given a right of access to the marshes. Right of access was never granted.

Strangely, usually aggressive environmental groups took little public notice of the destruction of the marshes. When the war to oust Saddam Hussein started, Greenpeace International listed on its website as one of the five reasons for opposing the war that the conflict would “have devastating human and environmental consequences.

They’re still saying that today. But despite this, dillgent actions by hard working folks under very difficult circumstances have yielded spectacular results.

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. — Gen 2:15

Eden Again is a lead non-profit in this marshlands restoration effort. From their annual report:

– Italian, Canadian and American environmental scientists are currently wrapping up a year-long hydrologic, environmental and socio-economic study of the area.

– Nature Iraq and its partners the Italian Ministry of Environment and Territory (IMET) have just released the Interim Report on the Master Plan for Integrated Water Resource Management in the Marshland Areas of Southern Iraq. The Master Plan includes proposals for the inundation of the marshes, and restoration of the natural hydro-period of marsh rivers to allow for continued vitality and biodiversity in the affected region.

– An Environmental Health in Iraq Conference was held in Amman, Jordan from 19-22 Sep, organized by Stony Brook University of New York. [By the way, Jordan’s leadership in ecology as a constitutional power in the Middle East seems to me futher evidence that promoting democracy only enhances environmental stewardship. db]

-The Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative has assembled field teams who have been active gathering ecological data over the past several months at key reference sites in newly reflooded areas of the marshes, two in each of the Hawizeh, Hammar and Central Marshes. Six field teams, focusing on major biological groups comprise 44 students and technical assistants working under the supervision of university professors from Babylon, Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, & Thi Qar, and Al-Qadisia.

Green non-governmental groups are assisting as well, including:

Al Aydat Society (Syria)
Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (Jordan)
Friends of the Earth – Middle East (Jordan)
Jordan Environment Society
Jordan Heritage Development Society
Queen Zein Al Sharaf Institute for Development, Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human
Development (Jordan)
Greenpeace Mediterranean (Int’l based in Lebanon)
Environmental Protection & Sustainable Development Society (Syria)
Syrian Society for Wildlife Conservation Via Nova Group

This effort has not come without tragedy. Among the lives lost restoring restoring life to the Mesopotamian marshes was Ra’ed D. Hameed, a Nature Iraq research assistant conducting field research in the Mesopotamian marshlands.

He was killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home in the Al Ghazalia neighborhood of Baghdad earlier this year.

No doubt there are/will be impossible challenges to overcome on behalf of Iraq’s ecology, but highlighting these successes seems the most fitting way I can imagine to acknowledge the permanent removal of the Butcher of Baghdad, to praise our men and women in uniform (and their families) for their sacrifice in bringing stability to this troubled region, and to joyfully celebrate the emergence of a democratic, ecologically-prosperous Iraq.

Pray for these folks, and pray that hearts there would be similarly fertile for receiving the Gospel.

[Don’s other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist blog.]