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The Impact of Climate Changes on Iraqi Heritage in the Southern Desert and Marshland

Zainab Mahdi12 January 2022

Dr Jaafar Jotheri, Co-Director of the Nahrein Network, presented a workshop on December 11th, 2021, titled: ‘The impact of climate change on Iraqi heritage’.

The workshop hosted five main speakers and more than 60 attendees, including academics, officials from the SBAH, university students, members of local communities, and social and environmental activists.

The discussion presented a valuable opportunity to advance our knowledge of the extent and complexity of climate change impacts on Iraqi heritage. In addition, it provided insight as to the degree of awareness amongst stakeholders and the community. In this context, Dr Jotheri addressed critical questions related to the topics, followed by a broad open discussion amongst the participants. The questions were:

  •   What are the features of climate change impact on the Southern desert?
  •   What are the features of climate change impact on the marshes?
  •   How should we adapt to the impact on the desert?
  •   How should we adapt to the impact on the marshlands?
  •   Are there Iraqi studies concerning these issues?
  •   Does the Iraqi government have a clear plan to solve these issues?
  •   Do any NGOs fulfil roles in this field?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the archaeological sites in the desert?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the archaeological sites in the marshes?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the heritage?
  •   How has climate change been reflected in society and its activities (like artistic activities) in Iraq?
  •   What is the role of individuals and communities to mitigate the effects of climate change?

Speakers

Dr Nawrast S. Abdalwahab provided a brief review of the most critical climate indicators on heritage and their associated risks, with diverse physical, social, and cultural impacts. In addition, she explained the complex nature of climate change impact on legacy and the ongoing Iraqi efforts toward achieving Climate Action, the 13th Sustainable Development Goal, which is considered one of the most challenging SDGs in Iraq.

Dr Sofia Jabbar Jassim introduced a brief description of the impact of climate change in the southern desert and its consequences on wildlife, such as the disappearance of hundreds of plants and changing migratory paths of birds. In addition, increasing  construction and farming’s effect as it expands into rangeland and affects natural plants, and the inequitable irrigation using groundwater resources. Furthermore, Dr Sofia outlined how certain desert cities like Alsalman and Bisaya vanish with their communities.

Dr Raheem Hameed Al-Abdan discussed the role of desertification in the loss of geomorphological features in the Iraqi desert, such as valleys, lakes and grassland. This deterioration in the environment directly impacts the Bedouin, who are not moving to the desert this year due to lack of rain. Overall, the Iraqi desert is losing its animal resources due to climate change.

Dr Rajwan Faisal discussed the disappearance of the historic Haj road, the ‘Zubeida Road’, and its Abbasid artefacts, and the migration of the original camel herders into the floodplain sites, causing increased friction and dispute.

Dr Ali Abdulkabeer Ali provided a brief overview of the Arab marshes’ unique way of life and the demographic changes for these communities resulting from the threat to their livelihood in their region.

Discussion and engagement by workshop attendees:

 The participants shared their most significant research outcomes on the topics. Some shared their memories of the area before the recent extensive impact of climate change, while others told stories and gave eyewitness accounts.

–         Dr Rasha Abdulwahab, Archaeologist at the Maintenance and Restoration Department, Samara University, shared her own experiences while explaining the impact on the artefacts and archaeological sites, specifically the role winds play in the deterioration of the facades of structures and building surfaces due to erosion.

–         Dr Qusay Fadel, Climatologist at Almuthana University, raised questions on climate adaptation and water management.

–         Dr Omar Jassam, Archaeologist in the Cultural Heritage Management Department at the University of Mosul, provided insight into the natural and cultural heritage of Mosul city. He discussed the value of Mosul’s Forest and the Tigris River, and their symbolic value to the people. He drew attention to the recent disforestation due to new construction projects.

–         Dr Khalil Aljubory, from the University of Tikrit, shared a story from his childhood, where one of his primary school teachers was from the desert, and kept a ledger of complaints against the farmers who used to extend their farming area, encroaching on grazing land. He emphasised that this type of dispute between the shepherds and the farmers has been ongoing since the 1980s. He was also an eyewitness to the levelling of the historic Ottoman ditches (or trenches), which were one metre deep and now been covered.

–         Dr Sabbar Alzubaidy, a member of a popular community for heritage protection in Najaf, provided eyewitness stories of the southern desert, specifically the deserts of Najaf and Almuthana. These stories were related to the Bedouin heritage and the impacts of wars, specifically the impact of often unexploded cluster bombs and mines in the desert.

–         Dr Wissam Raje, a landscape specialist, referred to the vast numbers of landmines in the desert and Basra and the importance of removing them.

–         Dr Waffa Almamory, a researcher in the maintenance of archaeological premises, highlighted the consequences of environmental impact on buildings. She also recommended recognition of the damage as the first step toward the process of maintaining the conditions of the buildings.

–         Mr Ahmed Hashoush, a geologist in water resource management, shared his memories of Lagash (his birthplace) and the effects of climate change, specifically the current distribution of salty soils due to high levels of evaporation.

–         Dr Raheem brought up the effects of rising sea levels and marine incursion at Shatt Al Arab and probably on the marshes.

–         Dr Naeem Alzubaydi, an archaeologist at the University of Almuthana, shared a story of flooding as a result of the heavy rainfall of 2019 and discussed how this water is lost in the absence of rainwater harvesting projects in the desert. He also emphasised the cultural disconnectedness between the old and new generations due to the loss of many social traditions.

Conclusion

The open dialogue in this workshop significantly raised the likelihood of rapid deterioration and degeneration of the Iraqi heritage due to climate change, with clear awareness of these impacts among academic and community members, accompanied by the lack of, or failure to appreciate, this amongst governmental departments and NGOs.

Unique environmental, social, cultural, and economic risks were also highlighted in the lively debates. For instance:

  • The decline of Bedouin communities and their heritage due to the deterioration of the desert.
  • The loss of animal resources due to water shortage in the desert and the migration of the Bedouin.
  • The loss and disappearance of archaeological sites in the desert and marshes due to the impact of climate change, with no apparent government or international plan for adaptation.
  • The loss of diverse cultural heritages in the desert and marshes, especially those related to nature.
  • The loss of natural, valued cultural heritages due to the expansion of building without conservation plans or protective actions.

Recommendations

  • Holding and supporting many workshops, symposiums, and conferences to further discuss the impacts of climate change on heritage.
  • Making approaches to the government, represented by the ministries and local governments, to fulfil their roles of climate change adaptation and activate environmental and pastoral codes.
  • Providing suggestions to all stakeholders for an adaptation  for climate change projects and researches.
  • Supporting and encouraging environmental and social activists.
  • Improving and adding new educational materials on climate change knowledge and adaptation to all levels of education.

Decolonising the Excavation Licence in Iraq

Zainab Mahdi8 December 2021

Written by Dr Jaafar Jotheri

The heritage law in Iraq was written in 1936 and then rewritten in 2002, but in these two versions, the Iraqi heritage authority was incapable of issuing a heritage law that can serve the nation’s needs. In 1936 Iraq was still a young independent state with little experience managing its heritage sector; fast forward to 2002, with Iraq under international sanctions, heritage was not foremost among the state’s priorities. After that, Iraq endured the civil war and the ISIS invasion. In the last few years, the Iraqi academics and the heritage authority have held several meetings to reform and explore a new version of the excavation licence.

As a result of these meetings, several proposals were suggested to the excavation licence such as:

  1. Selecting sites for excavation based on Iraqi opinion and considerations: Iraqi academics and heritage authorities should maintain a list of the sites that excavations are allowed in. This list should be prepared by Iraqis based on their priorities such as critical condition of the site or knowledge. Currently, Iraqis have little contribution in selecting sites for survey or excavation.
  2. Involving the local Iraqi experts in excavations: Iraqi academics and members of heritage authority should be fully involved in all the steps and in each phase of the excavation process. At present, there is limited or no involvement of Iraqis in excavation work. Some investigators from the heritage authority might take part  but they are likely to be inexperienced and  are not experts.
  3. Training Iraqi staff and students: Students from Iraqi universities and members of the Iraqi heritage authority should receive proper training in each excavation phase. Currently, there is no stipulation in place to train Iraqis.
  4. Using advanced techniques in surveying and excavation: Excavation teams should conduct some environmental, geoarchaeological, bioarchaeological and geophysical work on site and train Iraqis in the process. Outdated excavations methods should not be applied anymore; for example, some teams are using cheaper, outdated methods and ignoring new technologies.
  5. Utilise social media for projects: To increase the engagement of the local people with the projects, the excavation teams should make use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, website etc) to share news, events, progress – basically anything related to the project or the team.
  6. Conservation after excavations: After each phase of excavation, sites should be preserved, and conservation should be applied for the structures that have been dug and subjected to weathering and erosion. As it stands, there are no obligations on the excavation team to preserve the sites. It is not unusual for buildings and artefacts to be left abandoned and/or subjected to destruction.
  7. Hosting conferences and exhibitions in Iraq: After or during each excavation phase, the team should host conferences and workshops, and publicise their work, findings, and results. Presently, most excavation teams keep the results confidential.
  8. Publishing results in Arabic in Iraqi journals: At the present, teams are publishing results in international journals which Iraqis have limited access to and leaving Iraqis with few or no idea about the sites. Instead, some results of each phase of excavations or the new findings, artefacts and objects should be published in Arabic in the local Iraqi journals.
  9. Developing Iraqi museums: The excavation team should also contribute to helping Iraqi museums to have the required space and capacity to restore the artefacts properly and present them to the public. The situation currently is unfortunate as Iraqi museums are facing a lack of space to store the artefacts and discovering more artefacts are exasperating the problem of storage – and possibly subjecting them to damage or destruction.
  10. Cooperation with other excavation teams: To better understand the whole picture and narrative, the excavation teams that working in the same region, province, or occupation periods should have a way of cooperation and their plans should be integrated. Now, each team works separately without any coordination.

Jaafar Jotheri holds a PhD Geoarchaeology from Durham University. He has over 15 years of experience in conducting archaeological excavations and surveys about the landscape of ancient Iraq and the ancient paths that rivers and canals that followed in the past. He has published more than 15 articles in some of the world’s most prestigious journals.

He is currently an Assistant Professor and Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Archeology, University of Al-Qadissiyah, Iraq where he teaches and supervises both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

He has been involved in many international archaeological and heritage projects carried out in Iraq, with partners including Manchester University, Durham University,  Sapienza University of Rome, and Tokushima University. He has been awarded research funding from international organizations such as the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (London), the Academic Research Institute in Iraq (USA), and the British Academy, as well as the Nahrein Network.