A race against salt: Iraq and climate change Culture, ATLAS

Iraq, which stretches along what was once known as Mesopotamia or the Fertile Crescent, a land bathed by the Tigris and Euphrates and rich in resources, is today an emblematic mirror of climate change. Iraq’s enormous heritage is now being “swallowed up” by rising salt concentrations and sandstorms, which are rapidly becoming more problematic and destructive. Unique elements of humanity’s cultural heritage – such as the ancient Sumerian capital Ur or the legendary city of Babylon – may suffer irreparable damage faster than expected. The fall in rainfall and the growing shortage of water caused by the dams built upstream of Iran and Turkey by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have increased the natural concentration of salt in the soil. The salt infiltrates the bricks of old buildings and splits them from the inside. Under certain circumstances, the salt in the soil can help archaeologists, but the mineral itself can also be destructive and destroy heritage. The climate crisis exacerbates the problem. Iraq and the surrounding region are expected to become gradually warmer and drier in the coming years.

For experts, the danger of a “social and economic disaster” is real, while a report from the World Bank last November spoke of a collapse of more than 20% of water resources by 2050, with devastating consequences for the 41 million inhabitants. The United Nations estimates that average annual temperatures will rise by 2 ° C by 2050, with several days marked by extreme temperatures above 50 ° C. While precipitation will fall by up to 17% during the rainy season, and the number of dust and sandstorms will more than double from 120 to 300 per year. Meanwhile, rising sea levels could bring much of the South underwater in less than 30 years. “Imagine,” emphasizes geoarchaeologist Jaafar Jotheri, a professor at al-Qadisiyah University, “that within 10 years, most of our sites could be covered in a blanket of salt water.” A danger already real in UNESCO-listed Babylon, where a veil of salt covers 2,600-year-old mud stones. Meanwhile, in Ishtar’s temple, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, the walls are crumbling rapidly. The salt accumulates until it crystallizes in the thickness of the walls, cracks the bricks and causes them to crack.

An additional problem that should not be underestimated is the progressive loss of intangible heritage, which includes unique rituals and practices of cultures, such as dances, traditional songs, crafts. In southern Iraq, for example, climate change has exacerbated the already enormous difficulties for the indigenous peoples in the swamps, manifested after they were drained by Saddam Hussein. “Their traditions were undocumented, so their loss is a disaster for us Iraqis,” Jaafar Jotheri said. “Before 2003, there were 300,000 Bedouins. Now about 3,000 or fewer live back in the desert. In 15 years, we have lost 300,000 people with their culture, their community, their craft. Because? Due to climate change: no rain, high temperatures, no more water in the springs ». Jotheri estimates that within 10 years, the swamp people and their traditions will have completely disappeared due to emigration to urban areas and assimilation with traditional Iraqi culture. He and other members of the Nahrein Network (a group of archaeologists working on the socio-economic situation in Iraq, based at University College London) are trying to salvage these traditional practices, but – as he himself puts it – it is a race against time.

Photo: The Ziggurat in Ur, Iraq. Credit: mushtaq saad / Shutterstock.com

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