Iraq ‘green belt’ neglected in faltering climate fight

Iraq ‘green belt’ neglected in faltering climate fight
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A picture shows a view of the dried-up soil in a palm and olive grove in the "green belt" area of Iraq's central city of Karbala, on April 18, 2022.(AFP)
Iraq ‘green belt’ neglected in faltering climate fight
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A picture shows a view of a palm and olive grove in the "green belt" area of Iraq's central city of Karbala, on April 18, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 20 April 2022

Iraq ‘green belt’ neglected in faltering climate fight

Iraq ‘green belt’ neglected in faltering climate fight

Karbala: Envisioned as a lush fortress against worsening desertification and sand storms, the “green belt” of Iraq’s Karbala stands as a wilted failure.
Sixteen years after its inception, only a fraction of the 76-kilometer (47-mile) crescent-shaped strip of greenery has materialized, though the years proved a deep need for protection against mounting environmental challenges.
Eucalyptus, olive groves and date palms first took root in 2006 as part of a plan for tens of thousands of the trees to form a green protective shield around the city in central Iraq.
“We were very happy because the green belt would be an effective bulwark against dust,” said Hatif Sabhan Al-Khazali, a native of Karbala — one of Iraq’s Shiite holy cities that attracts millions of pilgrims every year.
Iraq’s host of environmental problems, including drought and desertification, threaten access to water and livelihoods across the country.
But nowadays, the southern axis of Karbala’s green belt is only about 26 kilometers long while the northern axis of the 100-meter (328 feet) wide strip is even shorter, at 22 kilometers.
Irrigation is sparse. No one pulls out the weeds anymore. Branches of the stunted olive trees sway between date palms — symbolic of Iraq — that struggle to grow.
“The construction was stopped,” said Nasser Al-Khazali, a former member of the Karbala provincial council.
He blamed “lack of interest from the central government and local authorities,” saying: “The funding didn’t follow.”
According to him, only nine billion dinars ($6 million) was spent on the northern axis, out of the originally planned 16 billion dinars.
“Negligence” is how Hatif Sabhan Al-Khazali explains the fate of the green belt project.
It’s a frequent refrain — along with “financial mismanagement” — on the lips of many Iraqis and was a driving factor behind near-nationwide protests against graft, crumbling public services and unemployment that shook the country in 2019.
Iraq has consistently been a low scorer on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 157th out of 180 countries for perceived corruption levels in state institutions last year.
What was meant to be a buffer against frequent dust storms that envelop the country does little to lessen their impact.
Earlier in April, two such storms blanketed Iraq in less than one week, grounding flights and leaving dozens hospitalized due to respiratory problems.
According to the director of Iraq’s meteorological office, Amer Al-Jabri, sand and dust storms are expected to become even more frequent.
He attributed this increase to “drought, desertification and declining rainfall,” as well as the absence of green spaces.
Iraq is particularly vulnerable to climate change, having already witnessed record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years.
In November, the World Bank warned that Iraq could suffer a 20 percent drop in water resources by 2050 due to climate change.
Water shortages have been exacerbated by the building of upstream dams in neighboring Turkey and Iran.
These water shortages and the attendant soil degradation have led to a drastic decline in arable land.
Iraq “loses around 100,000 dunams (about 250 square kilometers or 97 square miles) of agricultural land every year,” said Nadhir Al-Ansari, a specialist in water resources at Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology.
“This land is then transformed into desert areas,” he said, warning that Iraq should “expect more dust storms” — which would have dire consequences on agriculture and public health.
Ansari blamed this on the Iraqi government and the “absence of water planning.”
During the country’s last dust storm, the agriculture ministry assured that it was working on “restoring vegetation cover” in Iraq.
Last year an official with the Ministry of Water Resources referred to “several initiatives” to plant green belts but he said that “unfortunately these belts were not maintained,” the state INA news agency reported.
As an example the official cited Karbala, where Hatif Sabhan Al-Khazali despairs at seeing the city’s green belt left to “criminal gangs and stray dogs.”

Arab League chief, Russian deputy FM discuss regional issues, Ukraine war

Arab League chief, Russian deputy FM discuss regional issues, Ukraine war
Updated 21 March 2023

Arab League chief, Russian deputy FM discuss regional issues, Ukraine war

Arab League chief, Russian deputy FM discuss regional issues, Ukraine war

CAIRO: Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Sunday expressed his concerns at mounting violence in the occupied Palestinian territories.

His comments regarding Israeli government actions came during a meeting in Cairo with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

Their discussions also centered around other regional issues and Arab-Russian relations.

Aboul Gheit’s spokesman, Jamal Rushdi, said Bogdanov outlined Moscow’s stance on Syria, Yemen, Libya, and the economic and presidential vacancy crises in Lebanon. Iranian and Turkish policies toward the Arab region were also discussed.

Separately, during his assessment of an Arab strategic report by the Egyptian Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Aboul Gheit said the conflict in Ukraine and rivalries between the US and China were among the most alarming issues since the end of World War II.

“The Arabs are cautious in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis and its effects.

“All of this does not miss China, which is building a large naval power capable of competing with America in the Pacific Ocean and perhaps the world,” he added.

Lebanon fears negative repercussions of Syrian refugees staying in the country

Lebanon fears negative repercussions of Syrian refugees staying in the country
Updated 21 March 2023

Lebanon fears negative repercussions of Syrian refugees staying in the country

Lebanon fears negative repercussions of Syrian refugees staying in the country

Beirut: Brig. Gen. Elias Baissari, Lebanon’s acting director-general of General Security, on Monday spoke about what he called “a disturbing issue for the state and the Lebanese.”

On the matter of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Baissari stressed that the GS would continue its efforts to organize voluntary and safe trips back to Syria, which it has been doing since 2017. Coordination is also underway with UN High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle the refugees in a third country.

“I hope we can reach quick solutions given the negative repercussions of this issue on Lebanon,” Baissari said.

A few days ago, Hermel Bashir Khoder, the governor of Baalbek, addressed the representative of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon during a meeting held at Dar Al-Fatwa in Baalbek, saying: “You are displaced people, not refugees. This is your legal definition in the Lebanese state, and you have to respect the country that hosts you and respect its laws.”

Khoder added: “This is not a discriminatory stance, but the Lebanese have had enough.”

The coordinator of camps for displaced Syrians in the border town of Arsal, which hosts the largest number of camps in Lebanon, demanded increased contributions for the displaced and held Khoder responsible for their difficult conditions.

Khoder’s angered response to these demands was widely shared on social media and received praise from many Lebanese.

“I, as a governor, occupy one of the highest administrative jobs in the Lebanese state, and my salary is less than what one displaced Syrian in Lebanon gets,” he said. “The benefits that the displaced get are much greater than what the Lebanese employees get.”

The audience applauded Khoder, who objected to accusations that the Lebanese were discriminatory. 

“We are one people in two countries, not one people in one country. The time limit for the displaced has extended to 12 years, and displacement is not forever. We are hurting. You are our brothers, and we will never abandon you, but we have nothing more to offer you. Lebanese wages are way too low and we are carrying all the burden. We are not able to carry more responsibilities on our shoulders.”

Khoder told Arab News: “Not one official concerned with the affairs of Syrian refugees has ever contacted me.

“I simply expressed the pain experienced by every Lebanese, particularly those working in the public sector.”

He also expressed concerns about the issue of infrastructure within refugee camps.

“A foreign NGO asked me to allow it to establish extensions for a sewage network in one of the Bekaa camps. But we cannot accept the establishment of infrastructure in the camps. It may later lead to the construction of rooms instead of tents, and this is out of the question,” he noted.

According to the latest statistics announced in December by retired Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the former director-general of the GS, there are currently 2,80,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, while only 540,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned to their country since 2017.

Over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon “do not wish to return to their country,” Ibrahim said.

A recent field survey conducted by the Deir Al-Ahmar Municipalities in cooperation with a statistical team revealed a significant increase in the percentage of births within the Syrian refugee camps in the region.

The survey included a statistical sample of 655 tents, with the total number of refugees occupying them amounting to 3,728, including 1,782 refugees under the age of 15, which constitutes 48 percent. This is, according to the survey, “much more than Lebanese families.”

The Lebanese state fears that attractive donations from international organizations to refugees have encouraged them to have children, remain in Lebanon and not return for fear of being stripped of international assistance.

The Lebanese government previously estimated that the refugees consume daily 500,000 bundles of bread and 5 million gallons of water. The funds the state has spent on refugees have amounted to $30 billion over the course of 11 years.

The statistical bulletin on the official website of the Ministry of Health indicates that in the year 2021, 100,000 births were recorded in Lebanon, 40 percent of which were Syrians. The statistics do not account for births that take place outside hospitals.

A UNHCR report stated: “In 2021, the vast majority of refugees continued to resort to negative coping strategies to survive, such as begging, borrowing money, not sending their children to school, reducing health expenses, or not paying rent.”

These “privileges” that the Lebanese believe that Syrian refugees enjoy in Lebanon have prompted many Lebanese, with the approaching month of Ramadan, to object to sharing aid with Syrian refugees.

“This year we will give aid to the Lebanese first, and what remains we will give to the Syrians,” a mosque employee told Arab News.

Qatar sends 4,000 World Cup huts to quake-hit Turkiye, Syria

Qatar sends 4,000 World Cup huts to quake-hit Turkiye, Syria
Updated 21 March 2023

Qatar sends 4,000 World Cup huts to quake-hit Turkiye, Syria

Qatar sends 4,000 World Cup huts to quake-hit Turkiye, Syria
  • Qatar says it had always planned to donate the mobile homes

DOHA: Qatar has sent 4,000 cabins built to house fans at last year’s World Cup to earthquake survivors in Turkiye and Syria, authorities said Monday.

The Associated Press watched as the latest batch of pre-fabricated cabins was loaded onto a cargo ship in the Arabian Gulf. The Qatar Development Fund began shipping cabins last month and says it will send a total of 10,000 to house people displaced by the Feb. 6 earthquake.

Qatar, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, says it had always planned to donate the mobile homes. They were needed to help house some of the 1.4 million fans who descended on the small country during soccer’s biggest tournament late last year.

The brightly colored cabins, each with thin walls, were designed to hold one or two people with twin beds, a nightstand, a small table and chair, air conditioning, a toilet and a shower inside. They went for around $200 a night — $270 with board — offering a budget option for visiting fans.

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck parts of Turkiye and Syria on Feb. 6, killing more than 52,000 people — the vast majority in Turkiye. More than 200,000 buildings in Turkiye either collapsed or were severely damaged, leaving millions homeless.

Qatar and other wealthy Gulf countries have joined the global effort to send aid to the stricken region.

UNHCR launches Islamic Philanthropy Report with Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund at joint event in Dubai

UNHCR launches Islamic Philanthropy Report with Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund at joint event in Dubai
Updated 21 March 2023

UNHCR launches Islamic Philanthropy Report with Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund at joint event in Dubai

UNHCR launches Islamic Philanthropy Report with Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund at joint event in Dubai
  • Agency in partnership for the first time to demonstrate strength of Gulf support

DUBAI: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has launched its annual Islamic Philanthropy Report for the first time in partnership with the Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund at a joint event in Dubai.

The report details the importance of engaging Islamic philanthropy tools and their increased role in attending to the needs of displaced people globally.

There are now more than 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, according to the UN. The number is likely to reach 117 million by the end of the year.

Khaled Khalifa, UNHCR’s senior adviser and representative to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, said the Muslim world or Organization of Islamic Cooperation states accounted for more than 50 percent of the caseload of refugees globally. 

According to the OIC, Muslim populations are disproportionately affected by disasters and conflict.

The UN began the Refugee Zakat Fund in 2017 due to an increasing desire by donors and institutions to provide funds to refugees. The fund has helped around 6 million forcibly displaced persons since its inception.

The UNHCR assisted over 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced people in 21 countries with zakat and sadaqah contributions in 2022. 

Partners included His Excellency Sheikh Thani bin Abdullah bin Thani Al Thani and Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, in addition to UNHCR’s global Ramadan and winter campaigns, and the Refugee Zakat Fund mobile app.

Zakat, an Islamic financial term, is one of the pillars of Islam. It requires all Muslims to donate a portion of their wealth to charity. Muslims must meet a certain threshold before they can qualify for zakat. Once they do, the amount given is 2.5 percent of an individual’s total savings and wealth.

Over the last 15 years the Middle East has experienced a dramatic flood of refugees and forced migration, particularly due to the wars in Syria and Iraq, as well as those fleeing wars and failed states in Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair, chairman of Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation. (Supplied)

His Excellency Abdulaziz Al-Ghurair, chairman of Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation, said during the event’s keynote speech: “The Middle East and North Africa is facing grave challenges.

“The region has one of the highest unemployment rates globally for youths under 25 and is home to over 16 million refugees and displaced people.

“We cannot ignore this reality around us. If Islamic philanthropy is effectively applied, as it was intended, it will lead to a long-term sustainability that gives the most vulnerable the chance to become financially independent and self-sufficient.”

Al-Ghurair in 2018 launched the Refugee Education Fund which focuses on beneficiaries in Lebanon and Jordan. It provides $32 million to support 20,000 refugees to enroll in secondary, vocational, and tertiary education over three years.

Jordan hosts 760,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. Some 670,000 of those are from Syria, making Jordan the second-largest host of Syrian refugees per capita globally behind Lebanon.

Danah Dajani, director of partnerships and programs at Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation, told Arab News: “Prior to the refugee crisis, Jordan and Lebanon faced huge unemployment and poverty so they had a double burden, and we are trying to alleviate this through education, which provides access to jobs and a better life.”

It is increasingly difficult for refugees to gain access to education. According to the UNHCR, 68 percent of school-aged refugee children are enrolled in primary school, 37 percent of refugee youth are enrolled in secondary education, while only 6 percent are in higher education.

Al-Ghurair told Arab News: “Access to equitable and quality education is at the heart of the Refugee Education Fund, to enable a better future for refugees across the region.

“With the help of partners like UNHCR, the fund has been able to substantially improve the life chances of more than 60,000 vulnerable youth in Jordan and Lebanon since the launch in 2018.”

This year marks the first time the Islamic Philanthropy Report has been launched in partnership with the Refugee Education Fund.

The report indicates that the Refugee Zakat Fund has enabled UNHCR to support around 6 million refugees and IDPs in 26 countries since it was piloted in 2017.

This figure includes more than 1.5 million refugees and IDPs assisted in 2022.

Al-Ghurair told Arab News: “Islamic philanthropy is one of the largest untapped resources for joint humanitarian work.

“This is significant at a time when we are addressing multiple global crises. We need to collaborate and make concerted efforts to ensure giving is efficient and effective.”

There has been an increased recognition over the last five years of the potential for Muslim philanthropy, with the UN calling for innovative methods and new partnerships, such as the Zakat Refugee Fund, to utilize Islamic financial resources to search for solutions.

“Islamic philanthropy itself is as old as Islam,” says Khalifa. “We are only utilizing the tools of Islamic philanthropy that have been tried and tested over the centuries, but it is something new for the UN. We decided to step into this field because we felt that we could add value, because we saw that 50 percent of the caseload of displaced persons were coming from the states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.”

Khalifa says the last 10 years have seen no drop in the numbers of people forcibly displaced.

He said: “The trajectory is going up because of conflicts that contribute to 80 percent of the problem worldwide, due to persecution in many places because of human rights abuses, and most recently because of climate issues.

“We are also witnessing a spike in the number of climate displacement persons worldwide, and we hope that individuals and governments and institutions will feel the plight of people in need, especially because some of them are suffering or facing a double crisis at the same time, like the Syrians who are really living in a state of emergency due to the recent earthquake.”

Khalifa added that the UN also covers the expenses of the distribution of the fund from its general budget. Moreover, the money from the fund is distributed in cash.

He added: “We receive a million dollars, we distribute a million dollars, and we report on a million dollars, and we cover everything else, even the bank transfers from other sources.”

UNHCR and the Islamic Development Bank launched the Global Islamic Fund for Refugees at the end of March 2022. The fund is a sustainable and Shariah-compliant resource mobilization instrument that will open new Islamic philanthropy funding in support of millions of forcibly displaced people.

Khalifa said: “Until now, most of our Islamic revenue funding has come from the Gulf.

“Saudi Arabia is one of our largest supporters and donors, particularly through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.”

Al-Ghurair told Arab News: “Philanthropists can help elevate funds where resources are constrained to support better results, and the accountability will generate greater trust that helps support governments to meet the increasing demand for education as the challenges multiply.

“With Ramadan approaching, I urge all fellow philanthropists to come together to support and improve the lives of the future leaders of tomorrow.”

Yemeni government and Houthis agree to release hundreds of detainees

Yemeni government and Houthis agree to release hundreds of detainees
Updated 21 March 2023

Yemeni government and Houthis agree to release hundreds of detainees

Yemeni government and Houthis agree to release hundreds of detainees
  • UN envoy Hans Grundberg said the prisoner exchange is one more reason to be optimistic that things are finally moving in the right direction in Yemen
  • He added that he senses there is now a greater will to resolve the conflict, following the recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement

NEW YORK CITY: The Yemeni government and the Houthis on Monday agreed to release 887 detainees, following 10 days of negotiations in Geneva, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

They added that both sides have also agreed to visit each other’s detention facilities, grant the delegations full access to all detainees during those visits, and to meet again in May to discuss further prisoner swaps.

Hans Grundberg, the UN’s special envoy for Yemen, described the deal as one more reason to believe things are moving “in the right direction” toward a resolution of a conflict that has ravaged the country for more than eight years and caused one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world.

“For hundreds of Yemeni families, today is a good day,” said Grundberg. “Unfortunately, Yemen doesn’t experience as many good days as it deserves. So, I warmly congratulate all involved for this achievement. Today, hundreds of Yemeni families can look forward to reuniting with their loved ones.

“But it is important to remember that when the parties committed to the Detainees’ Exchange Agreement they made a promise, not just to each other, but to thousands of Yemeni families who have been living with the pain of separation from those dearest to them for far too long.”

Referring to the announcement on March 10 of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Grundberg added that he senses there is now “a willingness to engage in a positive direction on trying to come to a settlement on the conflict in Yemen.”

During a UN Security Council meeting last week, Grundberg welcomed the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and said the region was witnessing a “step change in the scope and depth” of talks to end the long-running conflict in Yemen.

At the same time, he urged all those involved in the conflict to seize the opportunity offered by this “renewed regional diplomatic momentum” and take “decisive steps toward a more peaceful future.”

On Monday, he said a “comprehensive and sustainable end to the conflict is necessary if Yemen is to recover from the devastating toll the eight-year conflict has had on its men and women.”

According to a message posted on Twitter by the head of the Houthis’ prisoner affairs committee, Abdul Qader Al-Murtada, and the militia’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis have agreed to release 181 detainees, including 15 Saudis and three Sudanese nationals, in exchange for 706 prisoners held by the Yemeni government. The exchange will take place in three weeks, they added.

“It’s an expression of hope, it’s an expression of humanity and it indicates the way ahead for all parties to the conflict,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s regional director for the Middle East, who was sitting between representatives of the two delegations on Monday.

The talks, which took place near the Swiss capital, Bern, were the latest in a series of meetings under the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement, which previously led to the release of prisoners in 2020 and 2022.

Grundberg thanked the Swiss government for hosting the negotiations, and Jordan for hosting a number meetings of the supervisory committee.

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