Iraq’s archaeological treasures face looming threat of climate change

Special The Al-Aqiser archeological site in Iraq, which includes what has been described as one of the oldest eastern Christian churches. (AFP)
The Al-Aqiser archeological site in Iraq, which includes what has been described as one of the oldest eastern Christian churches. (AFP)
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Updated 08 August 2022

Iraq’s archaeological treasures face looming threat of climate change

Iraq’s archaeological treasures face looming threat of climate change
  • Dust storms, rising temperatures and salinity are damaging artifacts and excavation sites, undermining conservation efforts
  • Extreme weather events are harming the country’s natural heritage, including the once verdant southern marshland

DUBAI: In January, the drought which has stalked Iraq for the past three years caused water levels at Mosul dam in the north of the country to drop to their lowest levels since it was built in 1986. But, as the water receded, something unexpected emerged from beneath the surface.

To the amazement of onlookers, there stood the ruins of a 3,400-year-old city of the Mitanni Empire that had once occupied the banks of the Tigris River.

However, the settlement, located in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region, emerged for just two months before it sank into the waters once more. Archaeologists had to race against time to excavate as much of the site as possible while it stood exposed.

Working intensely for six weeks, the team uncovered more than 100 clay tablets etched with cuneiform script dating back to the early Assyrian period.

British Museum and Iraqi archaeologists carry out excavations in the ancient city of Girsu, the capital of the Kingdom of Lagash, in Dhi Qar, in Nov. 2021. (Getty Images)

A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists were able to date the site to the Bronze Age, around 1550 to 1350 BC. They believe the settlement could be the ancient city of Zakhiku, once a bustling political center.

Although undoubtedly an exciting discovery, the same extreme weather events that caused the water levels to drop are also damaging ancient sites in other parts of Iraq, frequently referred to as the “cradle of civilization.”

Scientists believe that the recent cases of extreme weather around the world, including flash floods in Europe and dust storms across the Middle East, are evidence of man-made climate change that will only become worse and more frequent unless carbon emissions are cut quickly and dramatically.

The precise impact these extreme weather events are having on the world’s heritage sites is still being studied. What is known for certain is that in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa, a fearsome mixture of desertification, drought and climate change is damaging artifacts and excavation sites and undermining conservation efforts.

In Yemen, for instance, intense rainfall is damaging the mud-brick highrises of the 16th-century walled-city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site nicknamed “Manhattan of the desert” by British explorer Freya Stark in the 1930s.

At the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bagerhat in southern Bangladesh, salt water from severe flooding caused by heavy rainfall is damaging the foundations of the city’s numerous Indo-Islamic mosques.

In Egypt, high temperatures, heavy rains and flooding are damaging the ancient stonework on monuments in Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria, and elsewhere.

Granite that was once rose-colored has faded to a pale pink or even light grey over the last 15 years, Abdelhakim Elbadry, a restoration expert who works at Karnak temple, told Reuters. “In every archaeological site here in Luxor, you can witness the changes.”

In central Iraq, meanwhile, strong winds have eroded many hilltop sites that are still difficult to reach for security-conscious archaeologists.

According to a study by UNESCO, the UN Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate change has become one of the most significant threats to historic sites and monuments.

The joint 2016 report, titled “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate,” examined the increasing climate vulnerability of these sites and its likely impact on global tourism. According to the UN, Iraq is the fifth most climate-vulnerable country in the world.

Iraqi men remove pieces of cracked earth from the marshes crossing the southern Iraqi town of Al-Azeir. The southern Iraqi wetlands have almost entirely disappeared. (AFP)

“We have three factors that affect cultural heritage in terms of climate change: Dust storms, rising temperatures and salinity — the salt in the soil,” Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq, told Arab News.

“Most of the sites are outside the cities in the desert, such as Ur. Dust storms don’t just affect people and other forms of life, but also heritage buildings. Dust gathers inside the site, affecting its structure, just as high winds create cracks and destroy surfaces.”

Additionally, extremely high temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night cause bricks in old structures to expand and retract, creating cracks.

Then there is the problem of increasing salinity. “People living in or outside cities, including farmers, are increasingly relying on ground water because there is no more fresh water in the rivers,” Jotheri said.


* Climate change is now a top threat to world heritage, says UNESCO.

* Marshlands of southern Iraq among the most vulnerable, the UN warns.

“The groundwater is more salty. We are taking the groundwater and using it for everyday life as well as irrigation, so we are increasingly exposing all kinds of surfaces to salt and saltwater.

“The more we use the salty groundwater, the more salty exposed surfaces will be. People use drains but then the salt also accumulates in the drain canals and reach the foundations of heritage buildings, creating cracks in the bricks and the walls.

It was not until recently that Iraq had to contend with what many regard as telltale signs of man-made climate change. “The temperature was mild, sandstorms were less harsh and less frequent, and we had fresh water, so we didn’t have to use groundwater,” Jotheri said.

Suspected climate change has also taken a toll on Iraq’s natural features. Entire lakes have disappeared, such as Sawa, known as “the pearl of the south,” located in the Muthanna governorate, which lies close to the Euphrates River.

The country’s once verdant wetlands in the south, which had been drained by Saddam Hussein and later reflooded after his fall, are disappearing once again — this time owing to changing weather patterns.

Bedouin communities who had lived in these areas for generations have been forced to leave as a result. “We are losing everything in Iraq, our natural landscape, our heritage and our traditions,” said Jotheri.

In Nov. 2021, the World Bank warned that Iraq could suffer a 20 percent drop in water resources by 2050 due to climate change.

In May, the Iraq News Agency reported that the number of dusty days had increased from 243 to 272 a year over the past two decades, and the country could experience up to 300 days of dust storms a year by 2050.

“Over the past two months I have personally witnessed over a dozen sandstorms in such a short period,” Lanah Haddad, regional director for Tarii, the Academic Research Institute in Iraq, told Arab News.

“The desertification and the increasing number of sandstorms is affecting the erosion of excavated sites or heritage buildings, which are already in ruins and have not been restored yet.”

Mark Altaweel, a reader in Near East Archaeology at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, is convinced that climate change poses a dire threat to world heritage.

“This includes more frequent sandstorms, weathering of sites, sometimes harsh and drastic rains, and other events that can damage or lead to degraded sites,” he told Arab News.

A farmer checks soil compacted by drought near Mosul, Iraq. (AFP)

For instance, Iraqi sites such as Taq Kisra, the remains of a Sasanian-era Persian monument, have weathered badly, and the structure has partially collapsed as a result.

“Mosques and old houses have collapsed in villages and different sites when you have sudden and violent rain events,” said Altaweel.

“The sandstorms disrupt our work, mostly affecting visibility and our equipment, but they can affect archaeological sites. For archaeologists, the main challenges are working in a place like Iraq with frequent sandstorms that also disrupt flights and work.”

To prevent further damage, Altaweel says the main thing that authorities can do is to tackle the immediate man-made causes, including overuse of groundwater and poorly managed surface water.

“There needs to be a re-greening effort, but it has to be done carefully to ensure plants survive, and plants can prevent sand from becoming airborne,” Altaweel said.

The international community also has a responsibility to protect heritage sites. Adam Markham, deputy director of the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told TIME magazine in 2019 “that if the world wants to save these sites, countries will also need to share financial resources.”

Additionally, architects and archaeologists have discovered that adhering to traditional craftsmanship and knowledge is the best way to repair, restore and maintain the heritage of such sites. However, precious few individuals have such skills today.

In Cairo, at the Jameel School of Traditional Arts, the only school in Egypt dedicated to the study of traditional Islamic craftsmanship, students passionate about preserving centuries-old techniques are seen as essential for the restoration of Egypt’s multitude of ancient sites.

In Iraq, as in many other Arab countries, historic sites and monuments are potentially at risk from climate change. (AFP)

They are locked in a race against time as the suspected effects of climate change accelerate the destruction.

There are also prescient lessons for present-day societies as extreme climate events batter modern infrastructure, stretch resources and destroy livelihoods, creating the conditions for displacement and even conflict.

“If we look at locations of ancient sites situated in deserted areas, it shows clearly that climate change was an important factor for forced migrations, resulting in the abandonment of a settlement,” said Haddad.

“Societies always face challenges in providing water for agriculture and to their growing communities in urban spaces. We need to learn these lessons from the past to avoid conflict over water in the near future.”

Jotheri worries that the palpable effects of climate change, if not addressed urgently, could lead to further violence, particularly in societies such as Iraq.

“It will lead to tribal conflict, between the southern Iraqi tribes themselves and between other provinces in the country,” he said.

“We have a fragile state when what we need is a stable one to face the threat of climate change. If water, for example, is cut or reduced in the Tigris or Euphrates over the next few years, people will begin to fight over water.”


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Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class
Updated 9 sec ago

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class
  • Lebanon’s three-year financial meltdown has left public schools shuttered so far this academic year
  • Teachers wage an open-ended strike over their severely devalued salaries
DEIR QUBEL: School teacher Claude Koteich, her teenager daughter and 10-year-old son should have all been back in class weeks ago – but a crisis in Lebanon’s education sector has left them lounging at home on a Monday afternoon.
Lebanon’s three-year financial meltdown has severely devalued the country’s pound and drained state coffers, pushing 80 percent of the population into poverty and gutting public services including water and electricity.
It has also left public schools shuttered so far this academic year, with teachers waging an open-ended strike over their severely devalued salaries and administrations worried they won’t be able to secure fuel to keep the lights and heating on during the winter.
Koteich, 44, has taught French literature at Lebanese public schools for exactly half her lifetime.
“We used to get a salary high enough that I could afford to put my kids in private school,” she told Reuters in her living room in the mountain town of Deir Qubel, overlooking the Lebanese capital.
But since 2019, Lebanon’s pound has lost more than 95 percent of its value as other costs skyrocket following the government’s lifting of fuel subsidies and global price jumps.
From a monthly salary that was once about $3,000, Koteich now earns the equivalent of $100 – forcing her to make a tough choice last summer over whether to put her children back in costly private schools or transfer them to a public education system paralyzed by the pay dispute.
“I was stuck between yes and no – waiting for our salaries to change, or if the education minister wanted to fulfill our demands,” Koteich said.
By September, there had been little progress on securing higher salaries given Lebanon’s depleted state coffers. At the same time, her children’s private school was asking for tuition to be paid mostly in cash dollars to guarantee they could afford to pay for expensive fuel and other imported needs.
That would amount to a yearly fee of $500 per student, plus 15 million Lebanese pounds, or about $400.
“I found the number was very high and out of this world for me,” she said.
So as their former classmates don their private school uniforms, Koteich and her two children still have no clear idea when they will return to class.
Lebanon’s education system has long been heavily reliant on private schools, which hosted almost 60 percent of the country’s 1.25 million students, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.
However, the strain on households from Lebanon’s financial collapse has forced a shift: around 55,000 students transitioned from private to public schools in the 2020-2021 school year alone, the World Bank has said.
But public education has been historically underfunded, with the government earmarking less than 2 percent of GDP to education in 2020, according to the World Bank — one of the lowest rates in the Middle East and North Africa.
And the combined stresses of recent years – from an influx of Syrian refugees starting in 2011 to the COVID-19 pandemic and the port blast which damaged Beirut – has beleaguered schools.
“My students’ worries are beyond educational – they started to think about how they can make a living. This age is supposed to be thinking of their homework,” Koteich said.
The head of the United Nations’ children agency UNICEF in Lebanon told Reuters that about one third of children in Lebanon – including Syrian children – are not attending school.
“We have worrying numbers of an increase in children being employed in Lebanon, and girls getting into early child marriage,” said Edouard Beigbeder.
A UNICEF study this year found that 38 percent of households had reduced their education expenses compared with just 26 percent in April 2021. This trend makes a return to class ever more important.
Some hope schools will re-open in October, although there has been no such indication from the government.
“There’s a kind of race against the clock to ensure the first week of October, we will have the right kind of opening,” Beigbeder said.

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president
Updated 27 September 2022

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president
  • The country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliament speaker on Tuesday summoned lawmakers for a session this week to elect the country’s next president, offering a glimmer of hope of a political step forward even as chaos roils this Mideast nation.

Parliament is to convene on Thursday, according to a memo from the speaker, Nabih Berri. Under Lebanon’s fragile sectarian power-sharing system, the country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian.

The six-year term of incumbent President Michel Aoun — a retired military general and an ally of Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group who was elected in October 2016 following a two-year stalemate — ends on Oct. 31.

Aoun’s successor is to be elected at a time when Lebanon is going through an economic meltdown and the government struggles to implement structural reforms required for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The crisis, which started in late 2019, has plunged three-quarters of the tiny Mediterranean nation into poverty and the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.

However, it is unclear whether legislators in a deeply divided parliament will be able reach a quorum for the session, raising prospects of renewed political paralysis.

In recent months, no majority or consensus candidate has emerged for the post of Aoun’s successor.

Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada Party, an ally of Hezbollah who calls Syrian President Bashar Assad a “friend and brother,” has the backing of some key parties but hasn’t received the backing of a major Christian bloc.

The other announced candidates, Tracy Chamoun, the granddaughter of a former Lebanese president running on an anti-Hezbollah platform, businessman Ziad Hayek, and writer and women’s advocate May Rihani have yet to receive any formal endorsements.

Hezbollah’s opponents, backed by the United States and Gulf Arab monarchies, are hoping to use their influence to ensure that Lebanon’s next president is not an ally of Hezbollah. Separately, 13 independent reformist lawmakers are lobbying to try to push for a reformist president who would prioritize reforms and pull Lebanon out of the quagmire.

100 dead in Lebanon migrant shipwreck off Syria: new toll

100 dead in Lebanon migrant shipwreck off Syria: new toll
Updated 27 September 2022

100 dead in Lebanon migrant shipwreck off Syria: new toll

100 dead in Lebanon migrant shipwreck off Syria: new toll

DAMASCUS: Syrian authorities have recovered 100 bodies from a Lebanese migrant boat that sank off Syria last week, state media reported about one of the deadliest recent shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.
The first bodies were found last Thursday and only 20 people were rescued out of as many as 150 passengers.
“The number of victims of the Lebanese boat has reached 100 people so far after another body was recovered from the sea,” Syria’s official news agency SANA on Monday quoted the head of Syrian ports Samer Kbrasli as saying.
All survivors have been discharged from hospital, SANA said.
Nearly three years of deep economic crisis have turned Lebanon into a launchpad for migrants, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees desperate to flee rising poverty via dangerous sea voyages.
Those aboard the ship that sailed from Lebanon’s impoverished northern city of Tripoli were mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and included children and elderly people, the United Nations said.
Lebanon hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s civil war and has been mired in a financial and economic crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi described the shipwreck as a “heart-wrenching tragedy.”
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of migrants attempting the perilous crossing in jam-packed boats to reach Europe.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF said that 10 children appeared to be “among those who lost their lives,” adding that “years of political instability and economic crisis in Lebanon have pushed many children and families into poverty.”

Iranians outraged after TikToker shot dead in protests

Iranians outraged after TikToker shot dead in protests
Updated 27 September 2022

Iranians outraged after TikToker shot dead in protests

Iranians outraged after TikToker shot dead in protests
  • Najafi was shot six times in the city of Karaj, receiving bullets in the face and neck

DUBAI: A funeral has been held for Hadis Najafi, a young Iranian woman who was shot dead by security forces during protests near Tehran.

Najafi was shot six times in the city of Karaj, and was hit by bullets in the face and neck, according to a report by Radio Farda.

Videos of Najafi's funeral has been circulated on social media as online users paid tribute to the 20-year-old.
She had earlier gone viral in a TikTok video where she was seen tying her hair and preparing to join the anti-government protests, which were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the ‘morality police’ for breaching the strict Hijab rules.
At least 41 people have been killed as Iran continues to crack down on the nationwide demonstrations.

Algeria’s UN integration will develop with support, says FM Lamamra

Algeria’s UN integration will develop with support, says FM Lamamra
Updated 27 September 2022

Algeria’s UN integration will develop with support, says FM Lamamra

Algeria’s UN integration will develop with support, says FM Lamamra
  • Algiers seeks non-permanent seat on Security Council
  • Candidacy endorsed by African, Arab and Islamic bodies

LONDON: Algeria’s development remains on track and will continue with the support of UN member states, the country’s foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra said on Monday.

During his speech at the General Assembly Debate, Lamamra also reaffirmed his country’s push for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

“My country is a member of the UN, it celebrates this year the 60th anniversary of independence,” he said. “It resolutely pursues the process of building a new Algeria under the leadership of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.”

He continued: “My country reaffirms its compliance with the values and principles (of the UN) and its determination to revive the role of multilateral action in keeping international peace and security and the achievement of comprehensive, fair, and sustainable development.”

Lamamra outlined Algeria’s commitment to the principles of the UN charter ahead of elections scheduled for next June on membership in the Security Council.

“Algeria is aware of the magnitude of unprecedented challenges that arise at the international and regional levels,” he said.

“Therefore, it has submitted its candidacy for the position of non-permanent member of the Security Council, a candidacy endorsed by the African Union, the League of Arab States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.”

Lamamra also confirmed Algeria would host an Arab Summit on Nov. 1 and 2, and that Algiers “aspired to make this event a crucial step in the joint Arab action, for an effective contribution of the Arab world to dealing with the current challenges on the regional and international scenes.”