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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Environment

MIDDLE EAST: Black gold rush threatens regional stability

Tugboat oil rig abu dhabi

The race is on for oil in the eastern Mediterranean, with at least four major competitors gunning to win.

But it's far from a friendly competition. Of those four, two are locked in an ongoing state of war and the third refuses to recognize the fourth.

So will Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Cyprus find a way to work things out?

Not likely, although the possibility of war between Israel and Lebanon is far more likely than an outbreak of violence between Turkey and Cyprus, observers say.

Turkey this week announced its intention to start oil exploration off the northern coast of Cyprus near the breakaway Turkish Cypriot enclave while simultaneously expressing dismay with the Greek Cypriot government's decision to negotiate oil exploration deals with Lebanon.

"Greek Cyprus does not represent the entire island and it cannot strike deals that concern the interests of the whole island," an unnamed Turkish diplomatic source told the Turkish English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. "That's an attitude we have often shared with our Lebanese friends and I think they will take this into consideration."

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TURKEY: Dam threatens to inundate heritage, livelihood of Kurdish town

Empty bazaar Hasankeyf

The historic town of Hasankeyf on the banks of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey was once an important stop on the Silk Road connecting Asia to Europe, part of a rich history that sustains some 3,000 residents who depend on tourism to make a living.

But Hasankeyf will soon be completely submerged, along with its many archeological treasures, as the government hastens to complete a huge hydroelectric dam just 45 miles downstream.

On the foothills of a nearby hill, heavy machinery is busy constructing the foundations for a new town where the government plans to resettle the mostly Kurdish residents of Hasankeyf once the Ilisu Dam is completed, but support for the resettlement plan among locals is low.

“The authorities will pay us 30,000 lira ($20,000) for our homes but they want to charge us 70,000 lira ($46,850) to move into the houses up there,” said local retailer Muhyettin Talayhan, pointing to the machinery in the distance.

The massive 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric dam is part of a wider development called the South-East Anatolia Project (GAP), which, when completed, will be one of the largest regional projects in the world. The $32-billion project will provide much needed electricity, and, the government hopes, undermine Kurdish opposition groups galvanized by popular resentment over poverty and poor infrastructure.

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EGYPT: Fuel spill fouls Nile River, threatening drinking water

RA spill of around 100 tons of diesel into the Nile River has forced Egyptian authorities to shut down four water purification stations as a precaution to prevent contamination.

The spill resulted from the partial sinking of a barge owned by the state's Nile Co. for River Transportation that was docking in the city of Aswan, 650 miles south of Cairo, because of low water levels Saturday. It further degrades an Nile River basin already damaged by overuse, pollution and drought.

"All measures are being taken to clean up the leakage and ensure that drinking water supplies are safe," Aswan's governor, Mustafa Sayed, was quoted as saying by Egypt's official news agency MENA. "Sites along the Nile that feed river water to purification stations have been blocked off as a precautionary measure to prevent polluted water from entering filters."

The vessel's captain, who was interrogated right after the incident, blamed low water levels as the main reason for the leakage.

Egyptian prosecutors have ordered the formation of an investigative committee, with the participation of officials from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Environment, to find reasons for the leak.

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SYRIA: Photos reveal hidden devastation of a years-long drought


On a dusty, rocky plain patches of dried grass try to poke through. A couple of makeshift tents, composed of scraps of material flapping insecurely in the wind, attract the eye while two swaddled figures can be seen talking in the background. 

Utterly exposed and barren, a feeling reinforced by the black and white photographer Doha Hassan, it is no place to call home. But for some whose rural livelihoods have been ravaged by a three-year drought in Syria, it is. 

They are farmers, herders and business owners who were reliant on the local agricultural economy in the northeastern states of Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. 

When the crops failed and the grazing land shriveled up, many people -- up to 300,000 of the 1.3 million the United Nations and government estimates to have been affected -- were forced to leave. 

Some went to the cities to seek work; others ended up in camps such as the one seen above in a photograph taken by Hassan, who has chronicled the effects of the drought. 

"Their plight has gone undocumented," she says. "Many people in this country don't even know how bad the drought was and how many lives have been ruined."

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IRAN: Dangerous levels of nitrate in Tehran's drinking water reported

Amid reports that water in parts of Tehran may be tainted with high levels of toxic nitrate, the Ministry of Power has handed out free bottles of water to an underprivileged suburb south of the city.

Parliamentarian Hasan Ta’mini, a member of the Health and Medicare Commission, reported that authorities had hoped to address the water crisis within a week, though no solution has yet been announced.

Water consumption soars as the summer heat rises in densely populated Tehran. For neighborhoods and families struggling with overpopulation, endemic poverty and air pollution in the south, the heat, and dehydration, can be oppressive.

South tehran

The Water and Sewage Waste Organization, an agency of the Ministry of Power, recently dug new wells to expand the water supply. Though most of the drinking water for Tehran typically flowed from the reservoirs of Karaj Amirkabir Dam, one hour west of Tehran, 30% of the water is now coming from these wells.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Dr. Marziyeh Vahid Dasjerdi announced that the amount of nitrate found in the drinking water pipes in parts of Tehran exceeded the appropriate level, posing a serious threat to city-dwellers’ health.

The director-general of the Water and Sewage Waste Organization, Mohammad Parvaresh, denied the claim of a nitrate threat, claiming that all water was uncontaminated and safe to drink.

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EGYPT: Radar finds an ancient city in Nile Delta

Ancient CityBeneath the flag-like fields of the Nile Delta, an ancient city lingers.

A team of Austrian archeologists using radar and satellite imaging has discovered what is believed to be an ancient city once controlled by the Hyksos, invaders from Asia who ruled Egypt from about 1664-1569 BC. 

"The pictures taken during radar [imaging] show an underground city complete with streets, houses and tombs, which gives a general overview of the urban planning of the city," said Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's office of antiquities.   

The archeological find is a reminder of Egypt's deep historical layers. It is a nation with a glorious and raucous past underfoot, waiting to be unearthed, whether it be tombs, mummies, buried boats or walls of hieroglyphics. Each discovery also makes Egyptians more determined to regain what has been hauled away from digs throughout the centuries. 

The country has been trying for years to have the Rosetta Stone returned from the British Museum and for the Egyptian Museum in Berlin to give back the bust of Queen Nefertiti, which is believed to be about 3,400 years old.

"We are the country with the loudest voice on this issue and have so far had returned about 5,000 artifacts," Hawass said this year at a conference on stolen art. "We want to know how we can learn from each other; we need to cooperate to come up with one wish list and fight until we return those artifacts back."

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Radar imaging of the site of an ancient city in the Nile Delta. Credit: Associated Press

EGYPT: Cairo scoffs at new Nile water agreement


Egypt, the largest user of Nile River water, has played down the importance of a new Nile Basin Cooperative Framework agreement that could limit how much water flows into the country. 

The treaty, signed Friday by Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania in the Ugandan city of Entebbe, will replace a 1959 agreement that secured Egypt its historic rights of Nile waters (55.5 billion cubic meters of water each year). Egypt and Sudan boycotted the meeting and have filed objections to the agreement.  

The new treaty comes after the collapse of negotiations between the river's source countries, including Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda, and the downstream nations, Egypt and Sudan, during a convention in Sharm el Sheik last month. Egypt, however, is unfazed by the new accord.

"Egypt and Sudan will not be legally committed to any agreements signed in their absence. The new treaty doesn't mean anything to both countries," Moufid Shehab, Egyptian Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, was quoted as saying by MENA news agency.

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EGYPT: Minister rejects Nile sharing deal as experts warn of water shortage


After the recent failure of Nile River nations to agree on water sharing, Egypt has announced it will take whatever steps are necessary to protect its historical rights to billions of gallons of water it needs each year to survive. 

"Nile water is a matter of national security to Egypt. We won't under any circumstances allow our water rights to be jeopardized," Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, told Parliament this week.

The minister's comments came after the Nile Basin Initiative convention in Sharm El Sheik failed to secure a new deal on regulating water shares between six Nile source nations and Sudan and Egypt. Nile source countries include Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The great river flows through them, making up the Blue Nile and White Nile that come together in Khartoum, Sudan, before flowing into Egypt.

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IRAN: On city streets, another 'green' movement rolls out


Every day 35-year-old shopkeeper Reza Baqerpour Uskowi takes the subway from his west Tehran home, gets off at the Sarsabz Metro stop and walks over to the Bicycle House, where he slips his card into a reader, pulls out a bicycle and then rides the rest of the way to work 

"It's just a couple of kilometers away," said the fabric vendor, among thousands of residents in the capital who are slowly taking advantage of a new fad that shows much about the changing values of Iran's middle class.

As soon as Morteza Majidi, 26, opens the Bicycle House at 7 a.m., riders as diverse as high school and college students, engineers, doctors and younger merchants rush to borrow the 40 bicycles he carries for a few hours.

The municipality has established a dozen of such bicycle venues in one district of the city as part of an experimental program to help ease traffic congestion, improve air quality and cater to the desires of increasingly health- and fitness-oriented Iranians.

The program resembles similar ones launched in European cities, except for one glaring feature.

Even though women are also eager to rent the bicycles, they can't because of Islamic and cultural restrictions. 

"First we should pave the way culturally," said Manouchehr Daneshmand, a veteran bicyclist who oversees a branch of the Bicycle Houses. "We should let the eyes of people get used to it, and when everybody gets used to riding bicycles in public, then we gradually let women ride."

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EGYPT: Cairo's hovering 'black cloud'

Cairosmog1_200 Fires burn in the provinces, and mornings break smoky in the city.

It’s harvest time. The rice has been gathered, and farmers light the chaff. The Cairo skyline -- smudged gray even on good days -- turns ominous, an ashy, strange-scented cloak. Lungs grow scratchy. Eyes water. 

Is the annual rice harvest alone to blame for what Egyptians call the ‘black cloud’? Many say, definitely. But there are other theories and myths: Military maneuvers kicking up sand in the desert, dust storms, rubbish fires, global warming, autumn fog off the Nile or, perhaps, all of these mingling with the smoke from rice farms to create a sky of gloom.

Some days are worse than others, but even on the “clear” afternoons the horizon seems tinged with smoke. Egypt is not known for environmental protection, and Cairo, a city of 18 million, is streaked in air the shades of mustard dust and pepper. 

"It has been 10 years since we first saw the black cloud," said Dr. Mostafa Ghoneim, a specialist in respiratory illnesses. "The government and the Ministry of Health never put any effort into investigating such a phenomenon despite the diseases many are suffering because of it."

The problem is larger than the burning of rice straw "because smoke that spreads from these burnings can only have limited effect and shouldn’t reach Cairo with the strength we see here. Cairo alone has more than 12,000 factories and 2 million vehicles," said Ghoneim. "The black cloud is most dangerous to people with sensitive eyes, as well as children. Children’s lungs become very vulnerable when inhaling such smoke, and they can easily develop asthmas once exposed to smoke for long."

The harvest fires in the Nile Delta will burn until mid-November. Until then, shutters stay dirty, windshields gritty and the sky is a plague, descending.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: A policeman views Cairo's '"black cloud." Credit: AFP/Getty Images

IRAN: Old trees cut in name of Islamic purity

Tree The daily Iranian newspaper Etemaad today covered a funny but sad story about the cutting down of two centuries-old mulberry trees by authorities under the pretext of fighting local superstitions.

The story comes out of the town of Rezvanshahr, along the Caspian Sea province of Gilan, where lush forests are increasingly destroyed by  urbanization and pollution.

There the local head of an Islamic charity named "Mr. Eshkavari" has decided to tear down a pair of old trees on properties he owns because some people are placing candles and ribbons at them as part of an ancient ritual.

Eshkavari was quoted as saying that "votive offerings to the trees have no justification is Islamic precepts."

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ISRAEL: How green is my army?

It's early in the morning and the young guys learn about the desert ecosystem and the sex life of porcupines. They might be biology majors on a field trip but they're carrying guns: meet Company B of the next generation of IDF officers, in environmental training.

The Israeli army lost large parts of its stomping grounds when Sinai was returned to Egypt but it's got to  train somewhere. Many army bases, including the officers' school of Bahad Ehad, are located in the southern Negev desert constituting 60% of the country's territory.

Greenarmy11 Greenarmy8 

Fifty percent of the Negev is fire zones, 20% nature reserves. Another 20% overlap (the other 10% is residential/infrastructure). All army activity in the overlaps must be coordinated between liaison officers and park rangers assigned to the area.

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