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 
that period.

    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 
environmental damage.

Better Monitoring

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 
environmental changes.

"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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