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Desertification between the rivers

July 30, 2009

The Iraqi people have suffered tremendously this decade — and are apparently suffering even more this summer. The LA Times is reporting today that Iraq’s latest calamity is an “environmental catastrophe.”

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.

While most Americans probably think of Iraq as a desert, much of Iraq was previously known as Mesopotamia, which literally means “land between the rivers.”

Indeed, the Iraqi area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers used to feed much of the Middle East. No more.

[Iraq’s] 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.

Some of the environmental damage to Iraq was the fault of Saddam Hussein, and much of the damage has accrued over a 10 to 20 year period. That doesn’t make the damage to Iraq’s marshes, for example, any less devastating:

“We’re talking about an area about the size of Lake Ontario that has been reduced to about a tenth of its original size,” says Dr. [Barry] Warner [of University of Waterloo]. “So, if you can imagine Lake Ontario disappearing, that’s essentially what has happened to the marshes in southern Iraq.”

Nor does this history of mismanagement relieve the U.S. of its responsibilities here.

In IR, much of the research on ecology and security has focused on the possibility that “environmental scarcities” contribute to the outbreak of violent conflict. It would appear as if additional research should focus on the environmental harm of war itself — and the difficulty of making critical green choices in a war context.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.