Iraq’s ancient treasures sandblasted by climate change

Iraq’s ancient treasures sandblasted by climate change

Iraq’s ancient treasures sandblasted by climate change

Iraq’s archaeological marvels that have survived millennia and the ravages of war now face a modern threat: being destroyed and slowly buried by climate change-related dust storms.

Ancient Babylonian treasures, painstakingly unearthed, are slowly disappearing back under windblown sand in a land parched by increasing heat and prolonged drought.

Iraq, one of the countries hardest hit by climate change, experienced a dozen major dust storms last year that turned the sky orange, disrupted daily life and left its people breathless.

When the storms clear, layers of fine sand blanket everything, including the Sumerian ruins of Umm al-Aqarib, “the mother of scorpions,” in the southern desert province of Dhi Qar.

Dust storms have slowly begun to undo years of work there to unearth the terracotta facades of the temples and many priceless artifacts, archaeologist Aqeel al-Mansrawi said.

Archaeologists in Iraq have always had to shovel sand, but now the volumes are growing.

After a decade of worsening storms, sand from Umm al-Aqarib now “covers a good portion of the site,” which dates back to around 2350 BC and covers more than five square kilometers, he said.

In the past, the greatest threat was the looting of antiquities at the ruins, where pottery shards and clay tablets bearing ancient cuneiform scripts have been discovered.

Now the changing climate and its impact on the land, especially creeping desertification, poses an additional threat to ancient sites across southern Iraq, Mansrawi said.

“Over the next 10 years,” he said, “it is estimated that sand could have covered 80 to 90 percent of archaeological sites.”

– ‘Thinning and disintegration’ –

The fabled land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was home to some of the world’s earliest civilizations, the remnants of which are under threat in present-day Iraq.

The oil-rich country is still reeling from decades of dictatorship, war and insurgency and remains plagued by bad governance, corruption and widespread poverty.

Compounding its woes, Iraq is also one of the five countries hardest hit by some effects of climate change, including drought, the United Nations says.

Upstream dams in Turkey and Iraq have reduced the flow of its major rivers, and more water is being wasted by Iraq’s ancient irrigation system and outdated agricultural practices.

Summer temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) now frequently hit Iraq, where drought has parched agricultural areas, driving farmers and herders to crowded cities.

“The sandstorms have become more frequent, the wind has become dustier and temperatures have risen,” said Jaafar al-Jotheri, a professor of archeology at Iraq’s Al Qadisiyah University.

“The soil has become more fragile and fragmented due to a lack of vegetation and roots,” he explained.

As more and more farmers flee the countryside, “their land is left behind and abandoned and its soil becomes more windswept”.

The winds pick up “more fragments of sediment reaching archaeological sites,” Jotheri said, adding that “sand and silt cause physical erosion and disintegration of buildings.”

– ‘Contain the Sand Dunes’ –

The problem is being exacerbated by salinisation, said Mark Altaweel, professor of Near Eastern archeology at University College London.

During extreme heat, he explained, water on the earth’s surface evaporates so quickly that the ground doesn’t reabsorb the crystals, which remain in the form of a crust.

“When it’s hyper dry, the water evaporates quickly and leaves that salt residue,” he said, adding that “you can see it on the bricks.”

Jotheri said salt in the earth carried by sandstorms causes “chemical alterations to archaeological buildings”.

Iraqi authorities insist they are addressing the complex and multifaceted problem.

The government “is working to contain the sand dunes,” said Chamel Ibrahim, antiquities director of Dhi Qar province.

He outlined a plan to plant a “green belt” of trees at a cost of about $3.8 million.

But Jotheri expressed doubts, saying “a lot of water is needed to keep the vegetation alive.”

When it comes to climate change, he said, “we are the country that tackles the most and does the least. We are at the bottom of the list in terms of action against climate change.”


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