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Twilight of the Tigris: Iraq’s mighty river drying up

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It was the river that is said to have watered the biblical Garden of Eden and helped give birth to civilisation itself.

But today the Tigris is dying.

Human activity and climate change have choked its once mighty flow through Iraq, where — with its twin river the Euphrates — it made Mesopotamia a cradle of civilisation thousands of years ago.

Iraq may be oil-rich but the country is plagued by poverty after decades of war and by droughts and desertification.

Battered by one natural disaster after another, it is one of the five countries most exposed to climate change, according to the UN.

From April on, temperatures exceed 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and intense sandstorms often turn the sky orange, covering the country in a film of dust.

Parched land: a thin horse looks for grass at Ras al-Bisha in southern Iraq. Photo: AFP

Parched land: a thin horse looks for grass at Ras al-Bisha in southern Iraq. Photo: AFP

Hellish summers see the mercury top a blistering 50 degrees Celsius — near the limit of human endurance — with frequent power cuts shutting down air-conditioning for millions.

The Tigris, the lifeline connecting the storied cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, has been choked by dams, most of them upstream in Turkey, and falling rainfall.

An AFP video journalist travelled along the river’s 1,500-kilometre (900-mile) course through Iraq, from the rugged Kurdish north to the Gulf in the south, to document the ecological disaster that is forcing people to change their ancient way of life.

Threatened Eden: a young man bows his head on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab in southern Iraq. Photo: AFP

Threatened Eden: a young man bows his head on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab in southern Iraq. Photo: AFP

Kurdish north: ‘Less water every day’

The Tigris’ journey through Iraq begins in the mountains of autonomous Kurdistan, near the borders of Turkey and Syria, where local people raise sheep and grow potatoes.

“Our life depends on the Tigris,” said farmer Pibo Hassan Dolmassa, 41, wearing a dusty coat, in the town of Faysh Khabur. “All our work, our agriculture, depends on it.

“Before, the water was pouring in torrents,” he said, but over the last two or three years “there is less water every day”.

Iraq’s government and Kurdish farmers accuse Turkey, where the Tigris has its source, of withholding water in its dams, dramatically reducing the flow into Iraq.

Not a drop: the dried-up Hamrin artificial lake northeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: AFP

Not a drop: the dried-up Hamrin artificial lake northeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: AFP

According to Iraqi official statistics, the level of the Tigris entering Iraq has dropped to just 35 percent of its average over the past century.

Baghdad regularly asks Ankara to release more water.

But Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq, Ali Riza Guney, urged Iraq to “use the available water more efficiently”, tweeting in July that “water is largely wasted in Iraq”.

He may have a point, say experts. Iraqi farmers tend to flood their fields, as they have done since ancient Sumerian times, rather than irrigate them, resulting in huge water losses.

The Tigris River in Iraq. Photo: AFP

The Tigris River in Iraq. Photo: AFP

Central plains: ‘We sold everything’

All that is left of the River Diyala, a tributary that meets the Tigris near the capital Baghdad in the central plains, are puddles of stagnant water dotting its parched bed.

Drought has dried up the watercourse that is crucial to the region’s agriculture.

This year authorities have been forced to reduce Iraq’s cultivated areas by half, meaning no crops will be grown in the badly-hit Diyala Governorate.

“We will be forced to give up farming and sell our animals,” said Abu Mehdi, 42, who wears a white djellaba robe.

“We were displaced by the war” against Iran in the 1980s, he said, “and now we are going to be displaced because of water. Without water, we can’t live in these areas at all.”

The farmer went into debt to dig a 30-metre (100-foot) well to try to get water. “We sold everything,” Abu Mehdi said, but “it was a failure”.

The World Bank warned last year that much of Iraq is likely to face a similar fate.

Farmer Abu Mehdi on the banks of the dried-up Diyala River in central Iraq. Photo: AFP

Farmer Abu Mehdi on the banks of the dried-up Diyala River in central Iraq. Photo: AFP

“By 2050 a temperature increase of one degree Celsius and a precipitation decrease of 10 percent would cause a 20 percent reduction of available freshwater,” it said.

“Under these circumstances, nearly one third of the irrigated land in Iraq will have no water.”

Water scarcity hitting farming and food security are already among the “main drivers of rural-to-urban migration” in Iraq, the UN and several non-government groups said in June.

And the International Organization for Migration said last month that “climate factors” had displaced more than 3,300 families in Iraq’s central and southern areas in the first three months of this year.

“Climate migration is already a reality in Iraq,” the IOM said.

All that is left of the Diyala River, a tributary of the Tigris in the central Iraq. Photo: AFP

All that is left of the Diyala River, a tributary of the Tigris in the central Iraq. Photo: AFP

Baghdad: sandbanks and pollution

This summer in Baghdad, the level of the Tigris dropped so low that people played volleyball in the middle of the river, splashing barely waist-deep through its waters.

Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources blame silt because of the river’s reduced flow, with sand and soil once washed downstream now settling to form sandbanks.

Until recently the Baghdad authorities used heavy machinery to dredge the silt, but with cash tight, work has slowed.

Years of war have destroyed much of Iraq’s water infrastructure, with many cities, factories, farms and even hospitals left to dump their waste straight into the river.

As sewage and rubbish from Greater Baghdad pour into the shrinking Tigris, the pollution creates a concentrated toxic soup that threatens marine life and human health.

Environmental policies have not been a high priority for Iraqi governments struggling with political, security and economic crises.

Ecological awareness also remains low among the general public, said activist Hajer Hadi of the Green Climate group, even if “every Iraqi feels climate change through rising temperatures, lower rainfall, falling water levels and dust storms,” she said.

Thinning and polluted: the Tigris River flows under the Ahrar bridge in central Baghdad. Photo: AFP

Thinning and polluted: the Tigris River flows under the Ahrar bridge in central Baghdad. Photo: AFP

South: salt water, dead palms

“You see these palm trees? They are thirsty,” said Molla al-Rached, a 65-year-old farmer, pointing to the brown skeletons of what was once a verdant palm grove.

“They need water! Should I try to irrigate them with a glass of water?” he asked bitterly. “Or with a bottle?”

“There is no fresh water, there is no more life,” said the farmer, a beige keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his head.

He lives at Ras al-Bisha where the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river, the Shatt al-Arab, empties into the Gulf, near the borders with Iran and Kuwait.

In nearby Basra — once dubbed the Venice of the Middle East — many of the depleted waterways are choked with rubbish.

'There is no more life': despairing farmer Molla al-Rached and his dogs near the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Photo: AFP

‘There is no more life’: despairing farmer Molla al-Rached and his dogs near the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Photo: AFP

To the north, much of the once famed Mesopotamian Marshes — the vast wetland home to the “Marsh Arabs” and their unique culture — have been reduced to desert since Saddam Hussein drained them in the 1980s to punish its population.

But another threat is impacting the Shatt al-Arab: salt water from the Gulf is pushing ever further upstream as the river flow declines.

The UN and local farmers say rising salination is already hitting farm yields, in a trend set to worsen as global warming raises sea levels.

Al-Rached said he has to buy water from tankers for his livestock, and wildlife is now encroaching into settled areas in search of water.

“My government doesn’t provide me with water,” he said. “I want water, I want to live. I want to plant, like my ancestors.”

Climate victim: oil well flare near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The country is one of the worst hit by global warming. Photo: AFP

Climate victim: oil well flare near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The country is one of the worst hit by global warming. Photo: AFP

River delta: a fisherman’s plight

Standing barefoot in his boat like a Venetian gondolier, fisherman Naim Haddad steers it home as the sun sets on the waters of the Shatt al-Arab.

“From father to son, we have dedicated our lives to fishing,” said the 40-year-old holding up the day’s catch.

In a country where grilled carp is the national dish, the father-of-eight is proud that he receives “no government salary, no allowances”.

But salination is taking its toll as it pushes out the most prized freshwater species which are replaced by ocean fish.

Seawater is push further up the Shatt al-Arab threatening the livelihood of fisherman Naim Haddad. Photo: AFP

Seawater is push further up the Shatt al-Arab threatening the livelihood of fisherman Naim Haddad. Photo: AFP

“In the summer, we have salt water,” said Haddad. “The sea water rises and comes here.”

Last month local authorities reported that salt levels in the river north of Basra reached 6,800 parts per million — nearly seven times that of fresh water.

Haddad can’t switch to fishing at sea because his small boat is unsuitable for the choppier Gulf waters, where he would also risk run-ins with the Iranian and Kuwaiti coastguards.

And so the fisherman is left at the mercy of Iraq’s shrinking rivers, his fate tied to theirs.

“If the water goes,” he said, “the fishing goes. And so does our livelihood.”

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220920/twilight-of-the-tigris-iraq-s-mighty-river-drying-up/69167.html

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Indonesia set to penalise sex outside marriage in overhaul of criminal code

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JAKARTA — Indonesia’s parliament is expected to pass a new criminal code this month that will penalise sex outside marriage with a punishment of up to one year in jail, officials have confirmed.

The legislative overhaul will also ban insulting the president or state institutions and expressing any views counter to Indonesia’s state ideology. Cohabitation before marriage is also banned.

Decades in the making, the new criminal code is expected to be passed on Dec. 15, Indonesia’s deputy justice minister, Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, told Reuters.

“We’re proud to have a criminal code that’s in line with Indonesian values,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Bambang Wuryanto, a lawmaker involved in the draft, said the new code could be passed by as early as next week.

The code, if passed, would apply to Indonesian citizens and foreigners alike, with business groups expressing concern about what damage the rules might have on Indonesia’s image as a holiday and investment destination.

The draft has the support of some Islamic groups in a country where conservatism is on the rise, although opponents argue that it reverses liberal reforms enacted after the 1998 fall of authoritarian leader Suharto.

A previous draft of the code was set to be passed in 2019 but sparked nationwide protests. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated at the time against a raft of laws, especially those seen to regulate morality and free speech, which they said would curtail civil liberties.

Critics say say minimal changes to the code have been made since then, although the government has in recent months held public consultations around the country to provide information about the changes.

Some changes that have been made include a provision that could allow the death penalty to be commuted to life imprisonment after 10 years of good behaviour.

The criminalisation of abortion, with the exception of rape victims, and imprisonment for “black magic”, remain in the code.

According to the latest draft dated Nov. 24 that was seen by Reuters, sex outside marriage, which can only be reported by limited parties such as close relatives, carries a maximum one-year prison sentence.

Insulting the president, a charge that can only be reported by the president, carries a maximum of three years.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, has hundreds of regulations at the local level that discriminate against women, religious minorities, and LGBT people.

Just weeks after Indonesia chaired a sucessful Group of Twenty (G20) meeting that saw its position elevated on the global stage, business sector representatives say the draft code sends the wrong message about Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

“For the business sector, the implementation of this customary law shall create legal uncertainty and make investors re-consider investing in Indonesia,” said Shinta Widjaja Sukamdani, the deputy chairperson of Indonesia’s Employers’ Association (APINDO).

Clauses related to morality, she added, would “do more harm than good”, especially for businesses engaged in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

The changes to the code would be a “huge a setback to Indonesian democracy”, said Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch.

The deputy justice minister dismissed the criticism, saying the final version of the draft would ensure that regional laws adhered to national legislation, and the new code would not threaten democratic freedoms.

A revised version of the criminal code has been discussed since Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20221202/indonesia-set-to-penalise-sex-outside-marriage-in-overhaul-of-criminal-code/70312.html

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Disasters cost $268 billion in 2022: Swiss Re

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Natural and man-made catastrophes have caused $268 billion of economic losses so far in 2022, chiefly driven by Hurricane Ian and other extreme weather disasters, reinsurance giant Swiss Re estimated Thursday.

Insured losses covered $122 billion — less than half — of the total economic losses to date this year, said the Zurich-based group, which acts as an insurer for insurers.

“Hurricane Ian and other extreme weather events such as the winter storms in Europe, flooding in Australia and South Africa as well as hailstorms in France and in the United States resulted in an estimated $115 billion of natural catastrophe insured losses this year to date,” Swiss Re said in a statement.

There were $7 billion of insured losses from man-made disasters.

It is the second consecutive year in which total insured losses from natural catastrophes topped $100 billion, with the figure hitting $121 billion last year.

“Urban development, wealth accumulation in disaster-prone areas, inflation and climate change are key factors at play, turning extreme weather into ever rising natural catastrophe losses,” explained Martin Bertogg, Swiss Re’s head of catastrophe perils.

“When Hurricane Andrew struck 30 years ago, a $20 billion loss event had never occurred before; now there have been seven such hurricanes in just the past six years.”

Hurricane Ian is by far the largest loss-causing event in 2022, with an estimated insured loss of $50-65 billion, said Swiss Re.

It estimated that Hurricane Ian caused the second-costliest insured loss ever, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Neighbourhoods flattened

Ian, a category four hurricane, caused more than 150 deaths, almost all in Florida, where it made landfall on September 28.

One of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States, it flattened whole neighbourhoods and knocked out power for millions of people. Storm surges and immense downpours left even inland neighbourhoods submerged.

“This highlights the threat potential of a single hurricane hitting a densely populated coastline,” Swiss Re said.

The reinsurer added that so-called secondary natural disasters such as floods and hailstorms — as opposed to major disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes — caused more than $50 billion of insured losses.

The storms in Europe in February prompted estimated insured losses of over $3.7 billion, putting winter storms back on the insurance industry’s agenda, Swiss Re said.

France experienced the most severe hailstorms ever observed in the European spring and summer, with insured market losses reaching an estimated five billion euros ($5.3 billion), said Swiss Re.

And in Australia in February and March, torrential summer rains led to widespread flooding that, at an estimated $4 billion, became the country’s costliest-ever natural catastrophe.

‘Vast’ protection gap

Swiss Re highlighted how the insurance and reinsurance industry covered roughly only 45 percent of the economic losses so far this year.

“The protection gap remains vast,” said Thierry Leger, the group’s chief underwriting officer.

Of the estimated $268 billion total economic losses for property damage so far this year, $260 billion are from natural catastrophes and $8 billion from man-made disasters, such as industrial accidents.

The $268 billion figure is down 12 percent from $303 billion last year, but above the $219 billion average over the previous 10 years.

At $115 billion, total insured losses from natural catastrophes were down five percent from the $121 billion in 2021, but well above the previous 10-year average of $81 billion.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20221202/disasters-cost-268-billion-in-2022-swiss-re/70296.html

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Future global treaty on plastics must cut production to ease pollution, some states say

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WASHINGTON — Countries have begun to discuss a future global plastics treaty which would cut pollution, some hope entirely by 2040, at U.N. talks in Uruguay this week, with many states calling for curbs on plastic production as a way to reach that goal.

United Nations members agreed in March on a resolution to create the world’s first treaty to deal with the scourge of plastic waste which extends from ocean trenches to mountaintops, although there is divergence on how to proceed.

According to the U.N. Environment Programme, the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute, threatening biodiversity and damaging marine ecosystems, while greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics are expected to reach 6.5 gigatons by 2050.

Delegates from governments, civil society and industry are meeting in beach town Punta del Este for the first of five Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) talks that will run to the close of 2024, and prepare the future treaty.

“At INC-1, we can lay the groundwork needed to implement a life-cycle approach to plastic pollution, which would significantly contribute to ending the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste,” said Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, Executive Secretary of the INC Secretariat on Plastic Pollution.

A life-cycle approach considers the impact of all the stages of a product’s life, such as raw material extraction, production, distribution and disposal, and looks at how governments, consumers and businesses can play a part.

Several country delegations on Monday voiced support for a treaty cracking down on plastic production, an approach opposed by the plastics and petrochemical industries.

The EU, members of the so-called High Ambition Coalition that includes Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Georgia, the UK and others, said they want to see the treaty include binding global obligations for the entire life cycle of plastics – including production – aiming to end plastic pollution by 2040.

Japan also revealed at a Reuters event that a potential treaty should consider placing curbs on problematic plastics like microplastics and those made with “hazardous additives” that are hard to recycle.

The US also called for a treaty that ends plastic pollution by 2040 but through a structure that resembles the Paris climate agreement, based on voluntary national action plans and which does not specifically address plastic production.

Some NGOs that are closely observing the talks expressed concern about the Paris agreement-style approach.

“We are three decades into UN climate talks and seven years into the Paris agreement, which has clearly failed to deliver. That model is one we should be weary of,” said Carroll Moffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20221202/future-global-treaty-on-plastics-must-cut-production-to-ease-pollution-some-states-say/70286.html

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