Iraq’s vast marshes, reborn after Saddam, are in peril again

Children play with a calf in the Chabaish marsh in Nasiriyah, 320 km from Baghdad. (AP)
Updated 28 October 2017

Iraq’s vast marshes, reborn after Saddam, are in peril again

CHABAISH, Iraq: In the southern marshlands of Iraq, Firas Fadl steers his boat through tunnels of towering reeds, past floating villages and half-submerged water buffaloes in a unique region that seems a world apart from the rest of the arid Middle East.
The marshes, a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization, were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein when residents dismantled dams he had built a decade earlier to drain the area in order root out Shiite rebels. But now the largest wetlands in the Middle East are imperiled again, by government mismanagement and new upstream projects.
Fadl, at 26, is too young to remember the death and rebirth of the marshes, but he has seen their steady decline in recent years as he has struggled to make a living by fishing the brackish waters. Upstream electrical dams and irrigation projects have reduced the flow of freshwater, allowing saltwater from the Arabian Gulf to seep in.
“The situation is good, it’s just the water is bad,” he said. “Ever since 2012, the water hasn’t been fresh.”
Farming and sewage runoff have depleted fishing stocks, forcing some fishermen to resort to using car batteries and chemicals. The flares of nearby oil wells light up the night sky, but the sweltering, humid region remains mired in poverty.
Facing a lack of employment options, hundreds of young men from the area took up arms in the fight against Daesh, joining state-sanctioned Shiite militias. Posters honoring the fallen crowd traffic circles along the roads leading to the wetlands and line the walls inside a monument honoring those killed by Saddam a generation earlier.
The overwhelmingly Shiite region rose up against Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government in 1991 after his crushing defeat in the Gulf War, and the rebels took cover in the marshes as they battled his forces. The government responded by deliberately draining 20,000 square km of wetlands, turning the area to desert and displacing half a million people.
Andrew Whitley, a former Human Rights Watch researcher who interviewed survivors at the time, described the draining of the marshes as a “large-scale crime against humanity.”
Iraqis who lived through that era speak of a paradise lost.
“The marshes were a state outside of Saddam’s control. The resources were a great boon,” recalls Fadel Duwaish, 84, who was displaced in the 1990s and only returned in 2003. “The marshes contained a wealth of fish, the wealth of raising water buffalo. You could turn the reeds into paper. All of the marsh was a treasure.”
After the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam, residents dismantled the local dams, allowing the waters to return, and with them the plants and animals on which the community relied. The revitalization of the wetland was hailed as a rare success story in a country beset by conflict. But still, today’s marshlands are only around 14 percent of what they were in the 1970s.
Development along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, particularly the construction of so-called mega dams under Turkey’s Southeast Anatolia Project, have caused a 40-45 percent reduction in downstream flow in the Euphrates alone, according to a 2015 report from Chatham House, a London-based think tank. The dams also block silt, depriving the rare ecosystem of life-giving nutrients, according to a UN report.
The marshes were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, and there has been talk of exploiting their tourism potential. Southern Iraq has largely been spared the violence that has gripped other parts of the country, and the marshes were always hundreds of miles away from the front lines in the war against the Daesh group.
But the weak central government has long neglected the region, and residents complain about a lack of electricity and other basic services. The 6,000 people who live in the marshes dwell in thatch huts and barns, relying on fishing and the raising of water buffaloes. Wooden boats ply channels braided through a forest of reeds.
Migratory birds like eagles, cormorants and pelicans still visit the marshes on their seasonal journeys. Richard Porter, a longtime researcher of the marshes and adviser to Birdlife International, said the loss of the wetlands would be a “big blow” to several species.
The marsh’s residents brought the wetlands back from the brink after 2003, said Jassim Al-Asadi, the managing director of Nature Iraq and a leading advocate for the area. Now, he says the government needs to finish what they started.
“The Iraqi government did not return the marshes to this state — the people brought back the water,” he said. For the region to continue to survive, he says, the government needs to better regulate the use of water in the arid country and work with its neighbors to prevent the construction of more upstream dams in Turkey and Iran.
He warns that if such construction continues, “that will result in the finishing off of Iraq’s marshes.”


United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

Updated 6 sec ago

United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

  • UAE aims to make it easier for digital companies to incorporate
  • Sets a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates is cutting red tape to make it easier and quicker for digital companies to incorporate, the latest economic policy announcement as the government seeks to further diversify the economy away from oil revenues.

Trade minister Thani Al Zeyoudi, flanked by executives from many state-linked entities, on Wednesday announced the changes that include better access to the financial and banking system.

“We want to show digitally enabled companies from Europe, Asia, the Americas, that the UAE is the world’s best place to live, work, invest and scale,” the minister told reporters, setting a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year.

Those setting up in the UAE, home to financial center Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi, would have visas issued sooner and be offered attractive commercial and residential leases, he said.

As other governments step up national efforts to increase renewable energy sources and move away from fossil fuels, the UAE is rolling out a series of initiatives to double the economy to $816 billion by 2030.

“We want to show that we are here to help; from commercial licenses and work visas, to opening bank accounts, finding office space and the perfect place to live,” Al Zeyoudi said.

United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi gestures during an interview with Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2022. (REUTERS)

Some company executives complain about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business, including in hiring international staff in a country where citizens are a minority.

Still, the UAE’s Dubai has established itself as the region’s premier business hub and is already home to many multinational corporations and international businesses.

But regional competition has intensified as Saudi Arabia takes steps to re-mold itself as a leading financial and tourism center under the leadership of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We’re moving from a regional hub to a global hub,” Al Zeyoudi said. “We’re competing with the big, big boys now.”


Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

Updated 06 July 2022

Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

  • Army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition

CAIRO: Sudan’s military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan issued a decree relieving the five civilian members of the sovereign council from their duties, a statement on the council’s telegram account said on Wednesday.
Burhan said on Monday the army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition, and urged political and revolutionary groups to start talks to form a transitional government.


Palestinian killed during Israeli raid in West Bank

Updated 06 July 2022

Palestinian killed during Israeli raid in West Bank

  • At least 50 Palestinians have been killed since late March, mostly in the West Bank

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: A Palestinian man was killed by the Israeli military during a raid in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Rafiq Riyad Ghannem, 20, was “shot by the occupation (Israeli army)” near the northern West Bank city of Jenin, the ministry said in a statement, adding that he was killed in the town of Jaba.
The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Sunday, a 17-year-old Palestinian died after being shot a day earlier in another Israeli army raid in the same town.
At least 50 Palestinians have been killed since late March, mostly in the West Bank, among them suspected militants and non-combatants.
Israeli security forces have launched near-daily raids in the West Bank following a spate of attacks in Israel in recent months.
Nineteen people — mostly Israeli civilians inside Israel — have been killed mainly in attacks carried out by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Three Arab Israeli attackers have also been killed.


Palestinian president and Hamas chief hold rare meeting

Updated 06 July 2022

Palestinian president and Hamas chief hold rare meeting

ALGIERS: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met publicly for the first time in over five years, on the sidelines of Algerian independence anniversary celebrations.
Algeria’s state broadcaster reported late Tuesday that representatives of the Palestinian Authority and the Islamist Hamas movement also attended this meeting, which it called “historic.”
The pair, who officially last met face-to-face in Doha in October 2016, were brought together in a meeting with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, whose country marked the 60th anniversary of independence from France.
Abbas’ secular Fatah party, which dominates the Palestinian Authority that rules the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has been at loggerheads with Hamas since elections in 2007, when the Islamists took control of Gaza.
Tebboune and Abbas also signed a document to name a street “Algeria” in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
As well as Abbas and Haniyeh, Tebboune on Tuesday hosted several foreign dignitaries, who watched a huge military parade to mark independence in 1962 when Algeria broke free from 132 years of French occupation.


Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

Updated 05 July 2022

Algeria to re-open land border with Tunisia: president

  • "We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15," said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune
  • He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied

ALGIERS: Algeria said Tuesday it would reopen its land border with Tunisia later this month, more than two years after it was shut at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have taken the joint decision to reopen the land border from July 15,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
He was speaking at Algiers airport alongside his Tunisian counterpart President Kais Saied, who was leaving the country after attending a huge parade marking 60 years since Algeria’s independence from France.
Passengers had been blocked from crossing the border since March 2020 to stop the Covid-19 illness spreading, although cargo traffic had continued.
Being cut off from a neighbor of some 44 million people has dealt a serious blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry.
More than three million Algerians usually visit the country every year, according to local media.
Air and sea links between the two countries were restored in June 2021.