From the Los Angeles Times

Iraq in throes of environmental catastrophe, experts say

Now-frequent dust storms are just one sign of the man-made damage 
that has taken the country from Middle East breadbasket to dust bowl, 
they say.

By Liz Sly

July 30, 2009

Reporting from Baghdad - You wake up in the morning to find your 
nostrils clogged. Houses and trees have vanished beneath a choking 
brown smog. A hot wind blasts fine particles through doors and 
windows, coating everything in sight and imparting an eerie orange 

Dust storms are a routine experience in Iraq, but lately they've 
become a whole lot more common.

"Now it seems we have dust storms nearly every day," said Raed 
Hussein, 31, an antiques dealer who had to rush his 5-year-old son to 
a hospital during a recent squall because the boy couldn't breathe. 
"We suffer from lack of electricity, we suffer from explosions, and 
now we are suffering even more because of this terrible dust.

"It must be a punishment from God," he added, offering a view widely 
held among Iraqis seeking to explain their apocalyptic weather of 
late. "I think God is angry with the deeds of the Iraqi people."

The reality is probably scarier. Iraq is in the throes of what some 
officials are calling an environmental catastrophe, and the increased 
frequency of dust storms is only the most visible manifestation.

Decades of war and mismanagement, compounded by two years of drought, 
are wreaking havoc on Iraq's ecosystem, drying up riverbeds and 
marshes, turning arable land into desert, killing trees and plants, 
and generally transforming what was once the region's most fertile 
area into a wasteland.

Falling agricultural production means that Iraq, once a food 
exporter, will this year have to import nearly 80% of its food, 
spending money that is urgently needed for reconstruction projects.

"We're talking about something that's making the breadbasket of Iraq 
look like the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th 
century," said Adam L. Silverman, a social scientist with the U.S. 
military who served south of Baghdad in 2008.

So fragile has the environment become that even the slightest wind 
whips up a pall of dust that lingers for days.

Sandstorms are a naturally occurring phenomenon across the region, 
but the accumulation of dust on the surface of Iraq's dried-out land 
has exacerbated the problem, leading to more frequent and 
longer-lasting storms, said Army Lt. Col. Marvin Treu, chief of the 
U.S. military's Staff Weather Office.

This summer and last have seen more than twice as many dusty days as 
the previous four, he said. And 35% of the time, dust is reducing 
visibility to less than three miles, the point at which it is 
normally considered unsafe to fly. On many of those days, visibility 
was zero, delaying flights, disrupting military operations and 
sending thousands of people to hospitals with breathing problems.

"The lack of available water is a huge issue and it's having a huge 
effect on Iraqi society," said Silverman, social science advisor for 
strategic communications with the Army's Human Terrain System, a 
program that links social scientists and anthropologists with combat 
brigades. He emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the 

It's a dramatic turnaround for the country where agriculture 
reputedly was born thousands of years ago. Iraq's ancient name, 
Mesopotamia, means "Land Between the Rivers," and though about half 
the country traditionally has been desert, the fertile plains watered 
by the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers once provided food for much 
of the Middle East.

Now the Agriculture Ministry estimates that 90% of the land is either 
desert or suffering from severe desertification, and that the 
remaining arable land is being eroded at the rate of 5% a year, said 
Fadhil Faraji, director-general of the ministry's Department for 
Combating Desertification.

"Severe desertification is like cancer in a human being," he said. 
"When the land loses its vegetation cover, it's very hard to get it 
back. You have to deal with it meter by meter."

It's difficult to know where to begin to untangle the complex web of 
factors that have conspired to push Iraq to this point. But officials 
say human error is primarily to blame.

It hasn't been scientifically proved that tank movements in the 
desert have helped stir up the dust, as many Iraqi experts believe. 
But other factors are not in dispute.

In the quest to bolster food production, farmers have been encouraged 
by the government to till marginal land. When it fails, they abandon 
it, leaving it cleared of its natural vegetation.

Chronic electricity shortfalls also have played a role. People chop 
down trees for firewood, leaving more bare land, and the shortage of 
power has made it difficult to pump water through the irrigation 
channels that had sustained fertile lands far beyond the rivers. 
Compounding the already dire shortages, power stations have been 
forced to shut down for days at a time because they lack water.

Then came the regionwide drought that has dramatically depleted the 
amount of water available. Last year's rainfall was 80% below normal; 
this year only half as much rain fell as usual.

Turkey and Syria, which control the headwaters of the Euphrates, have 
curtailed the river's flow by half to deal with their own 
drought-related problems, said Awn Abdullah, head of the National 
Center for Water Resources Management.

Water has been diverted from the Tigris to keep the Euphrates 
flowing, causing problems for communities along that river. Iran, 
too, has been building dams on tributaries of rivers that reach into 
Iraq, drying out riverbeds in the east of the country.

The effects extend far beyond the immediate inconveniences of dust 
storms. Drinking water is scarce in many areas of the south as 
seawater leaches into the depleted rivers. The fabled marshes of 
southern Iraq, drained by Saddam Hussein and then re-flooded after 
the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, are drying up, and the traditional 
Marsh Arabs who depend on them for their livelihood are being forced 
to leave again.

In the cities, rural migrants compete with the urban poor for scarce 
jobs and resources, and in desperation some turn to crime or 

And then there are the dust storms, which bring the crisis of the 
countryside directly into the living rooms of city dwellers. The 
falling dust has the consistency of talcum powder, and it finds its 
way into cupboards and corners as well as nostrils and lungs.

"It causes health problems, it disrupts business, it destroys 
machinery, not to mention the psychological effects," said Ibrahim 
Jawad Sherif, who is in charge of soil monitoring at the Environment 
Ministry. "It's a catastrophe that's affecting every aspect of Iraqi 

Fixing the problem would require a huge injection of funds and is 
beyond the capacity of the Iraqi government alone, Environment 
Minister Narmin Othman said. The country needs international aid to 
revitalize agriculture and plant trees, she said, as well as help in 
negotiating water-sharing treaties with Turkey and Syria, which 
previous governments neglected to do.

Whether it can be resolved is another question, said a Western 
official involved with efforts to rejuvenate Iraqi agriculture, who 
spoke on condition of anonymity.

The government has other priorities, he said, and "it's a question 
whether they care. . . . It needs such monstrous help, over such a 
long-term period. You're talking generations."

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