Why ecosystem restoration should be high on Arab region’s agenda

Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait. (AFP/File Photos)
Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 31 July 2021

Why ecosystem restoration should be high on Arab region’s agenda

Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Experts want a more collaborative regional approach to restoring ecosystems ravaged by war
  • UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was launched this year for the revival of endangered habitats

DUBAI: Even after the passage of some 30 years, Saudi Arabia’s environment continues to suffer the effects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait and its subsequent liberation during the 1991 Gulf War.

The establishment of major encampments for hundreds of thousands of allied troops, military fortifications and roadways, together with the remnants of munitions, including depleted uranium, left over from combat operations, have left deep and lasting scars on the terrain.

But more devastating still was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s deliberate policy of burning an estimated 700 Kuwaiti oil wells as his forces retreated and the spillage of an estimated 11 million barrels of crude into the Gulf — one of the worst oil spills in history.

Most of this gigantic oil slick came ashore on the Saudi coastline, killing wildlife and devastating fishing communities along an 800 km stretch from the Kuwaiti border to Abu Ali Island and Jubail Industrial City.




An abandoned Iraqi Soviet-made T-62 tank sits in Kuwaiti desert 02 April 1991 as an oil well at the Al-Ahmadi oil field is burning in the background. (AFP/File Photo)

“Although they removed lots of the oil for reuse, much of it damaged marine fauna and there was air pollution,” Samira Omar, director of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), told a recent conference on ecosystem restoration.

“Nearly $3 billion from the UN Compensation Commission has been invested for restoration and rehabilitation from destruction and burning of oil wells during the Kuwait war.”

Approximately $1 billion of this was awarded to Saudi Arabia to undertake environmental remediation and restoration activities, overseen by the Kingdom’s General Authority of Meteorology and Environment.

Omar says other states in the region can learn a great deal from the experience of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. “We have great opportunities to collaborate together with the Kingdom in learning from our restoration program,” she told Arab News.

“Since we have a lot of similar environmental problems and conditions, it’s a very good opportunity for scientists from KISR and Saudi Arabia to work together in a regional project or program, whether in marine or land ecosystems.”




Clean-up workers pump oil from a man-made reservoir into waiting trucks 18 March 1991. Oil released by the Iraqi army during the Gulf War continues to drift south in the Arabian Gulf. (AFP/File Photo)

Indeed, with their shared shoreline, whatever happens in Kuwait affects the Kingdom also. Likewise, any environmental restoration program launched by Saudi Arabia would no doubt benefit neighboring countries, including Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan.

“Any policies issued by these governments to reduce the impact of overgrazing for example, or any demographic changes in land use, will be very useful for the region,” Omar added.

Along with other GCC countries, Saudi Arabia is accelerating action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow this November.

It has unveiled a National Renewable Energy Program — through which it aspires to meet 50 percent of its domestic energy needs from renewable sources by 2030 — and launched the Saudi Green Initiative, a project to plant 10 billion trees in the country to mitigate its CO2 emissions.

Riyadh has also initiated the Middle East Green Initiative to work with other Arab states to plant an additional 40 billion trees across the region — representing the world’s biggest reforestation program.

INNUMBERS

* 700+ - Kuwaiti oil wells set on fire during the Gulf War.

* $3bn - War reparations used for Kuwait eco-restoration.

* 50%+ - Saudi renewable energy generation by 2030.

The Kingdom has also pioneered the “circular carbon economy,” an integrated strategy for tackling emissions while enabling economic growth that was endorsed by G20 leaders under last year’s Saudi presidency.

Omar was among a host of experts taking part in a virtual session of SER2021, the 9th World Conference on Ecological Restoration, which took place in June. Participants warned that without a collaborative approach involving regional governments, businesses and civil society groups, environmental degradation would only continue.

The conference coincided with the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The decade runs from 2021 to 2030, which is also the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals and the timeline scientists have identified as the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The UN General Assembly proclaimed the UN Decade following a proposal for action by over 70 countries from all latitudes. It is a rallying cry for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature, and aims to halt the degradation of ecosystems, and restore them to achieve the global sustainability goals.




Kuwaiti reporter Barak al-Hindi stands on charred ground 12 March 2003 in front of a destroyed oil tank during a visit to the al-Ahmadi oil complex outside Kuwait City, which was destroyed by retreating Iraqi troops as they left Kuwait at the end of the Gulf war in 1991. (AFP/File Photo)

Climate change, overfarming and a slew of other man-made disasters have already taken a devastating toll on Middle Eastern ecosystems, degrading soil quality, polluting waterways, destroying biodiversity and displacing rural and coastal communities.

Vast numbers of fish — one of the Gulf region’s main sources of food — have been killed off by chemical changes in the oceans caused by pollution, rising temperatures and nitrification from the excessive use of fertilizers.

“We need a collective effort at the regional level with rules and regulations on fishing, pollution and waste management,” Omar said.

Plus, with winter temperatures expected to exceed 2.5 degrees above the historical average by the middle of the century — and five degrees higher in the summer months — experts concur that collective action is needed to avert climate catastrophe.

“With sea levels rising, the many islands off the coast of countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are at risk because they have important resources that should be preserved for generations,” Omar said.

“This water rise can also impact the biodiversity of these islands, so a good restoration plan should be considered for them and the coastal zone.”




Boats anchored along the Red Sea coast, in Saudi Arabia, on January 5, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Other challenges to regional ecosystems include urbanization, overgrazing, deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and pollution. These have been particularly pronounced in Jordan.

Moreover, ongoing conflict in the region and the influx of refugees in recent years, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, have placed tremendous strain on soil quality, grazing pastures and food systems.

The situation is similar in Lebanon, a country that has endured years of conflict and which has struggled to provide even the most basic waste collection services.

To address these strains on the environment, while also working to resolve intercommunal conflict, the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) has created a raft of educational programs and youth groups that bring local Lebanese and Syrian refugees together to serve a common goal.

“The LRI’s continuum is a perfect tool for approaching restoration in the region,” Maya Nehme, LRI’s director, told the World Conference on Ecological Restoration.

“In a country with political issues like Lebanon, stability and continuity are rare, so getting the concept of repairing ecosystem function into the mindset of a population, such as in Beirut, that’s trying to repair their windows after the blast that devastated their capital, is not easy.”




The Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) has created a raft of educational programs and youth groups that bring local Lebanese and Syrian refugees together to serve a common goal. (Supplied)

One of its schemes, designed to help communities avoid overgrazing and to prevent pastures being reduced to dry scrub, works with local shepherds to map out areas where their animals can feed, while other fields are left fallow to recover. “New grazing approaches are assisting with fire protection and prevention,” Nehme said.

“Shepherds have become the guardians of the sites. LRI also implements important and highly successful community reforestation programs — working across a wide variety of ecosystems in Lebanon to preserve and restore biodiversity.”

It is activities like these at the local level that will help the Middle East restore its ecosystems. But, in the words of Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan, founder of Jordan’s Royal Botanical Garden, it is a unified regional strategy that is urgently needed to help prevent further decay.

“Many of the issues we are facing can be addressed with restoration and it is a really vital tool that we can use. Our ecosystems have an intrinsic right to life and to exist,” she told the conference.

“As stewards of the earth, we have a duty to ensure that we manage it, not just for utilitarian purposes, but to hand it over to the next generation. We don’t own it.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says

US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says
Updated 40 sec ago

US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says

US envoy to visit Sudan next week, White House says

WASHINGTON: US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman will travel to Sudan next week to reaffirm American support for the country after an attempted coup, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Friday.
In a phone call with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Sullivan "underscored that any attempt by military actors to undermine the spirit and agreed benchmarks of Sudan’s constitutional declaration would have significant consequences for the US-Sudan bilateral relationship and planned assistance," the National Security Council said in a statement.


UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 57 min 19 sec ago

UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • OHCHR included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021

GENEVA: The war in Syria has killed 350,209 fully identified individuals, according to a new count published Friday by the United Nations, which warned the real total of deaths would be far higher.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021.

“We assess this figure of 350,209 as statistically sound, based as it is on rigorous work,” High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council.

“It is not — and should not be seen as — a complete number of conflict-related killings in Syria during this period.

“It indicates a minimum verifiable number, and is certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the benchmark for counting victims of the conflict, published a report on June 1 raising the death toll to 494,438 since the start of the violent crackdown on anti-regime protests in 2011.

The Observatory revised up by 105,000 its previous death toll from March 2021, following months of investigation based on documents and sources on the ground.

UN rights chief Bachelet said more than one in 13 victims on the OHCHR count was a woman — 27,727 — while almost one in every 13 was a child — 27,126.

She said the greatest number of documented fatalities was in the Aleppo governorate, with 51,731 named individuals killed.

Other locations with heavy death tolls were Rural Damascus (47,483), Homs (40,986), Idlib (33,271), Hama (31,993) and Tartus (31,369).

Bachelet said OHCHR had received records with partial information which could not go into the analysis but nonetheless indicated a wider number of killings that were not yet fully documented.

“Tragically, there are also many other victims who left behind no witnesses or documentation,” she said.

OHCHR has begun processing information on those alleged to have caused a number of deaths, together with the civilian and non-civilian status of victims, and the cause of death by types of weaponry.

“Documenting the identity of and circumstances in which people have died is key to the effective realisation of a range of fundamental human rights — to know the truth, to seek accountability, and to pursue effective remedies,” said Bachelet.

The former Chilean president said the Syrian people's daily lives "remain scarred by unimaginable suffering... and there is still no end to the violence they endure.”

Bachelet said the count would ensure those killed were not forgotten.

“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights,” she said.


Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon
Updated 37 min 18 sec ago

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon

Aoun hails new phase for Lebanon
  • President calls for financial support for country as it tries to “claw its way back to recovery”
  • Praises recent agreement between rival factions to form new government

NEW YORK: Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Friday hailed a new phase for his country that he hopes will lead it to recovery from an unprecedented economic crisis.

In a pre-recorded speech to the UN General Assembly, he urged the international community to financially support Lebanon as it tries to “claw its way back to recovery.”

He praised the recent agreement between rival Lebanese political factions to form a new government, and said corruption and financial mismanagement have contributed to the country’s economic crisis.

Aoun pledged that the embattled central bank would be audited, and called for the international community’s support to help Lebanon recover funds smuggled abroad.

Billions of dollars are believed to have been smuggled into overseas accounts by Lebanese bankers.

Aoun said he rejects the integration of Syrian refugees into Lebanese society, and urged the international community to help resettle them in their country.

Syrian refugees who have returned have faced arrest and torture by the regime of President Bashar Assad. 

More than a year since the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, Aoun said a confidential investigation into the origins of the explosive material and how it entered the port continues.


Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms
Updated 24 September 2021

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms
  • Reforms should include improving public finances, reducing corruption, improving public finances: Macron
  • Mikati vowed to respect the country’s political timetable and hold general elections next year

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday urged the new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to undertake “urgent” reforms to help his crisis-wracked country, as the two men met for the first time in Paris.
After repeating previous criticism of Lebanon’s political class, Macron told Mikati it was “urgent to implement measures and essential reforms” and that Lebanon “could count on” former colonial power France for support.
The reforms should include tackling power and other infrastructure problems, improving public finances, reducing corruption, and stabilising the banking system, he said.
Mikati said he had come to the French capital to reassure Macron that he and his new government, approved by the Lebanese parliament on Monday, were committed to reforming.
“I expressed my determination to implement ... the necessary reforms as soon as possible in order to restore confidence, to give hope and reduce the suffering of the Lebanese population,” he said.
He also vowed to respect the country’s political timetable and hold general elections next year.
The billionaire’s nomination has brought an end to 13 months of political deadlock since an August 2020 blast that killed at least 214 people and devastated swathes of the capital Beirut.
An economic meltdown since then has depleted central bank reserves, devalued the currency by more than 90 percent and plunged three out of four citizens below the poverty line, while those who can are emigrating by the thousands.
France has led the international response to the tragedy, organizing three international conferences devoted to Lebanon and delivering aid in exchange for promises of political reform and accountability.
Macron traveled to Lebanon two days after the blast, and returned for a second trip.
The 43-year-old French leader has repeatedly expressed exasperation over the failure of Lebanon’s leaders to end the political crisis and tackle the economic emergency.
“It’s a secret for nobody that the negotations took too long while the living conditions of Lebanese people were getting worse,” Macron said on Friday.
Speaking next to Mikati on the steps of the Elysee Palace, he said that the Lebanese population had “a right to know the truth” about the August 2020 blast in Beirut.
One of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, the explosion was caused by a vast stock of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had sat for years in a port warehouse, a stone’s throw from residential districts.


Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date
Updated 24 September 2021

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date
  • Senior US official this week made clear Washington's frustration with Tehran over the absence of any "positive indication" it is prepared to return to the talks
  • European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran

NEW YORK: Iran will return to negotiations on resuming compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal "very soon," Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told reporters on Friday.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will return to the table of negotiations. We are reviewing the Vienna negotiations files currently and, very soon, Iran’s negotiations with the 'four plus one' countries will recommence," Amirabdollahian said.
He was referring to talks that began in April between Iran and the five other nations still in the 2015 deal - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran, which has refused to negotiate directly with US officials.
Under the deal Iran curbed its uranium enrichment program, a possible pathway to nuclear arms, in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Then-US President Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, crippling Iran's economy and prompting Iran to take steps to violate its nuclear limits.