Monday, April 20, 2009

Shatt al Arab April 16

Several of us went out on a large boat on the Shatt al Arab from Basrah. This is upriver from Iran, although the impacts of the Iran-Iraq war could be seen. There were a lot of large dead ships in the water and along the banks. This would be worth a fortune in salvage, that metal would be worth millions at least! There was not much riparian vegetation, and all exposed flat areas were covered with garbage. There was not a lot of additional boat traffic besides us.
Some of the side channels were quite lovely, with date palm trees and bougainvillea and reeds. You got a sense of the pre-war Shat al Arab, and how beautiful it was. We got to get out and walk around on private land at one point, and stretch our legs. Saw some beautiful birds in the natural areas. Very little riparian development along the main stem of the river. A great restoration opportunity, including native species and date palms – a living working landscape!
A patrol boat drove up to us with American and Iraqi soldiers. They were patrolling “to keep us safe.” I was wearing a scarf and looked down with my back to them and stayed quiet. I guess if they knew an American woman was on board they would have really hassled us for a long time, wondering what I was doing there. It made me realize things weren’t really safe. They were suspicious and kept getting their boat closer - I’m so much taller than Iraqi women, plus I was in field clothes and they were dressed beautifully. The soldiers asked if we had guns, meanwhile saying they were there to protect us and acting friendly. We were glad when they left.
We passed Saddam’s palace. It was huge. He had never been in it. The British and now Iraqi soldiers are garrisoned there. A sign says anyone coming within 50 feet will be shot. We stayed far away.
The joy of the day was being with Iraqi families and visiting on the boat. It was thoroughly an enjoyable treat to be with everyone.
However, the air was horrible. It wasn’t a driving dust storm, but the air was foglike and sepia toned from all the dust. It obscured our vision, and burned eyes and lungs. Pretty awful.
I’m left with the impression that this area has highly polluted air, land and water. It’s very important to document toxins with good lab equipment to then remediate and begin to rebuild a healthy environment. The Shat al Arab is much more salty, from 1 ppt to 4-5 ppt. Flows are significantly reduced. In 1977-1978 they were from 990-1,277 m3/sec; in 1993-1994 550-1,100 m3/sec, from 2005-2006 204 m3/sec, and this year <100 m3/sec. That is a significant reduction. Shad populations have declined 75%. Many other invertebrates etc are also declining, and the salty turbid water with warmer temperatures is adversely affecting the gulf. Terrible degradation of ecosystem structure and function.

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