fertile crescent [was: Looters Sack Baghdad Antiquities Museum]
Joseph S Barrera III
joe at barrera.org
Sat Apr 12 07:22:23 PDT 2003
Adam L. Beberg wrote:
> Good thing we went and "saved" all the people not smart enought to get out
> of Iraq in the last 10+ years. Guess there really is something to having
> ancestors smart enough to live in places that food grows.
Well, their ancestors *did* live in the fertile crescent.
But it's not so fertile anymore...
Ancient Fertile Crescent Almost Gone, Satellite Images Show
National Geographic News
May 18, 2001
The rich Mesopotamian marshlands known for centuries as the Fertile
Crescent have almost completely disappeared, with only 10 percent of
the important ecosystem still remaining, according to a study based on
satellite images of the region.
The Fertile Crescent lies at the confluence of the Tigris and
Euphrates in southern Iraq and extends into Iran. Analyzing historical
data and new images from NASA's Landsat satellites, scientists at the
U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) found that the marshy area has almost
completely dried up over the past three decades and is now mainly
desert with large salt-encrusted patches. A small northern fringe of
marsh that straddles the Iraq-Iran border is all that remains.
The researchers say the damage is a result of extensive damming of the
two rivers and heavy draining of the river basin in recent decades.
Maps illustrate the Fertile Crescent in 1973 (top) and 2000 (bottom).
Permanent marshlands, pictured in green, have shrunk 90 percent in
There have been warnings in recent years that the Mesopotamian
marshlands were disappearing. But the UNEP report offers the first
hard evidence of how dramatically the marshlands have shrunk.
According to the UNEP study, due to be published later this year, the
marshlands previously totaled an area of 15,000 to 20,000 square
kilometers (5,800 to 7,700 square miles) but now cover less than 1,500
to 2,000 square kilometers (580 to 770 square miles).
Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of UNEP, said scientists did not
have a full understanding of the situation until recently because
conditions in Iraq over the past decade limited access to the area and
hindered monitoring of the environmental changes.
"These findings on Mesopotamia have only been made possible by 'eyes
in the sky,'" said Toepfer.
The UNEP is urging Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, which are dependent
on the marshlands and the rivers that feed them, to undertake a
recovery plan. The UNEP and regional organizations are doing a
scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin to determine
what improvements are needed.
Dams and Drainage Projects
The UNEP report highlights the mounting pressure being put on
freshwater areas around the world, which is radically altering the way
of life for people in the affected regions and threatening native
According to the UNEP, an indigenous group of people known as Marsh
Arabs—who trace their culture to ancient Sumerians and Babylonians—has
been displaced by the loss of the marshlands. About a fifth of the
group's estimated population of half a million reportedly have settled
in refugee camps in Iran, while the rest live in Iraq.
Scientists say the major ecological changes have put an estimated 40
species of waterfowl at risk, while mammals unique to the region, such
as the smooth-coated otter, are now considered extinct. Coastal
fisheries in the northern Gulf, which depend on the marshlands for
spawning grounds, have experienced a sharp decline. Migratory birds
from Siberia to southern Africa may also be seriously affected.
The UNEP attributes the relatively rapid loss of the Mesopotamia
marshlands to extensive damming upstream and drainage schemes
implemented since the 1970s. More recently, a major factor
contributing to the problem is a massive drainage works program
installed in southern Iraq in the early 1990s.
The Tigris and the Euphrates are among the most intensively dammed
rivers in the world, according to the ENEP. In the past 40 years, the
two rivers have been fragmented by the construction of more than 30
large dams, whose storage capacity is several times greater than the
volume of both rivers.
The dams have substantially reduced the water available for downstream
ecosystems and eliminated the floodwaters that nourished the marshlands.
Even the last patch of the once vast marshlands is at risk, scientists
warn, as its water supply is impounded by new dams and diverted for
To save the remaining transboundary marsh, the UNEP is calling for
immediate action to reassess the role of the area's water engineering
works and modify them as necessary. Over the longer term, it
recommends the use of managed flooding.
The agency is also urging Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran to develop a
joint program to manage the dwindling water supply and halt further
The newest satellite data used in the Mesopotamian study are from a
collection of about 16,000 Landsat images from space, taken from 1992
to 2000, that the U.S. government and its National Aeronautics and
Space Administration recently donated to the UNEP to monitor major
"With these new data sets, we hope to learn much more about the true
level of environmental damage happening on Earth—from the real extent
of illegal logging in Southeast Asia and urban sprawl in the United
States to habitat loss in sub-Saharan Africa," said UNEP chief Toepfer.
The images will also aid the work of the UNEP's program to identify
regions particularly vulnerable to devastation from drought, flooding,
hurricanes, and other catastrophes.
"More precise information on the extent of environmental degradation,
urban sprawl, and the effects of phenomena such as El Niño and global
warming should allow us to better predict areas of the world at
greatest risk from natural calamities," said Tim Foresman, director of
the UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment. "In turn, this
should help local, regional, and national governments to act before it
is too late."
As countries seek to implement the many international and regional
conservation agreements that have been adopted in recent years,
satellite imagery will also make it possible to more accurately assess
conditions and track progress, said Foresman.
In the past, efforts to assess environmental conditions such as the
extent of illegal logging or the drainage of wetlands have depended
mainly on individual countries' willingness and ability to gather
information in the field.
"Once these images, giving us wall-to-wall coverage of Earth, are
studied," said Foresman, "we will be able to say for the first time,
with a great deal of precision, if the government figures are sound."
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