Monday, May 05, 2014

Field of Dreams

Hareer, Iraq 2 May 2013
Image (C) Badir N. Albadran. Reed Fields near Hareer, Iraq.

Most of us would look at this emerald expanse, sigh, and think of the Low Country, or the Everglades, or the Bayous, or some other half-wild place of shrimping, crabbing, crawfishing, and trolling from a john-boat.

Image (c) Jennifer R. Pournelle. Water Buffalo Rancher near Hareer, Iraq.

Abu Fathi (not his real name) looks at this and sees a hay field. Do not be fooled: there's nothing Rousseauian about this expanse: it did not even exist two years ago. The field was leveled, water diverted, and the reed allowed to grow to young lushness for the sole purpose of feeding cattle. Specifically, water buffalo.

Abu Fathi's brother has a thriving business in Chicago, but Abu Fathi, along with his rather extended family, eschewed the winters of the windy city to pursue a more agrarian business venture at home. He sold up, packed up, and invested all in water buffalo. It's a new departure: in these fields his father tended orchards, not beasts. With salinization the orchards died, but the less-than-ideal waters that killed them are handily digested by Phragmites. To maximize growth, the beasts are penned in mud-walled corrals, fed on vast piles of hand-cut reed-hay.

It's a good living, says Abu Fathi. Hard work, but a good living - he's turning a tidy profit on his investment. But more to the point, he says, the kids are all healthy and strong, with brilliant white teeth. I have to agree: a convivial pack, just released from their classroom, followed me about, giggling and practicing their school-boy English as I snapped photos of outrageously ridiculous things like old boats and dung-heaps.

For us, a living proof-of-concept that expanding reed beds is practicable, locally welcomed, and immediately beneficial. #cmarsh

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Rooftops of Basra

Basra, Iraq 29 April - 1 May

Image (c) Jennifer R. Pournelle. View of Shatt Al Arab from Shams Al Basra Hotel.

Cor, what a sight. Our trip to the Majnoon Oilfield was cut short by a noon luncheon meeting at the U.S. consulate, hard by Basra International Airport. A useful meeting, with introductions to the new Consul-General, who thankfully will be in residence for two whole years. Then, runors confirmed that Iraqi airspace would close for the elections, the rest of the team bugged out, leaving me to hold the fort at the University Guest House.

Except that the fort capitulated at the moment of my arrival. Not through any grave security concern (indeed, I was by then the only guest, tucked away in a corner room far from any prying eyes). No: the concern was occupational - or rather lack thereof. It seems that, with no prior notice, in honor of the elections, the powers-that-be declared a three-day holiday, making for a five-day weekend. Thus closing all national, regional, and local government offices, as well as the university. Including the guest house. On the spot, my lovely guest house staff, only that morning only too pleased to guard the gate, cook, and make tea, had urgent and undeniable cause to be at home. They could not possibly be expected to remain at their duties for the benefit of one paltry guest. I guess I can't really blame them.

It's this sort of day-to-day reality that makes discretionary funds so essential for operating here. No problem: I did what one would do in any normal city: I packed off to a nice hotel. At the Shams Al Basra, frequented by air crews, I joined a bare handful of guests stranded by flight cancellations, and settled in for three days of waiting, reading; waiting, writing; waiting, sleeping; and waiting, re-booking meetings. At this jucture, I must note that in this corner of the world, waits are usually measured in weeks, not days. Think not, in this case, bureaucratic stonewalling. Think instead of the mix of exasperation and secret relief that accompanies snow days. Unexpected by all, unwanted by all, inconvenient for all, but secretly a chance to catch up on niggling tasks and empty the in-box.

The photo above is a wonderful illustration of point-of-view. No doubt, to most of you dear readers, it looks a rather ugly study in dust and concrete. But on arrival, we all gasped at its beauty. After a few days here, the eye is instantly drawn to the stretch of sparkling blue that is the river. The sun rises directly thereover, reflected in a shimmering disk on the waters. Swallows circle and wheel, doves coo, and finches cheep in the dawn chorus. Ashar boats and motor launches cruise past, and traffic cruises over the pontoon bridge to the shopping and restaurant districts on the other shore. It is a pleasant sight, and one I have revisited again and again these past several days, tracking the hours through the river's changing moods. #cmarsh

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Saturday, May 03, 2014

Water and Oil

Al-Qurna, Iraq, 28 April 

Images (c) Jennifer R. Pournelle. "Pipes Bridge," Majnoon Oilfield.

This 250-meter-wide canal was cut 25 years ago to drain marshes along the Iranian border. At that time, water levels topped the culvert pipes beneath the bridge, allowed that precious commodity to flush down the Tigris. Now, a dam conserves what little is left, creating a precious green strip of marsh habitat to the west. To the east, de-watered for over a decade, desiccated reed beds stretch to the horizon.

Royal Dutch Shell, the operators of this oilfield, are, like their national homeland, sensitive to the importance of wetlands and wetland management, and take multiple precautions to protect this small refuge.  No return water is currently produced here, but it may be at some point in the future. When that happens, one option may be to turn the 20 km-long dry bed, for which there is no longer any water supply, into salt- or brackish-marsh. That will be tricky, though. Protecting groundwater from salt intrusion would require lining the bed - and before that could be done safely, the entire 300 m - wide basin would need to be cleared of explosive ordnance left from the 1980s Iran-Iraq wars. #cmarsh

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Nature Finds a Way

Zubayr, Iraq, 27 April 2014

Image (c) Jennifer R. Pournelle. Raw sewage flows into the Basra River at Abu Al Khasib near Az-Zubayr, Iraq

​Even with the foulest of raw materials, life emerges. Just a few miles upstream from its outlet into tidal flats at the head of the Gulf, raw sewage flows into the Shatt Al Basra from the municipal cloaca - all that remains of the primary and secondary sewage treatment systems destroyed and abandoned during war and decades of economic sanctions. Yet, in the hinterground, amid salt-fouled dirt, sewage-fouled water, and petrochemical-fouled air, sandpipers and egrets scuttle and poke around a rough patch of marsh grasses, eking out a few small clams and fingerlings. With a bit of help, this drainage system can be improved and expanded into a larger, healthier remediation marsh - something more like that in my previous entry - eliminating the need for expensive new waste treatment plants, while vastly improving downstream water quality. #cmarsh

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Sheep, Sedges, and Sustainability

 Basra, Iraq, 26 April 2014

Image (c) Jennifer R. Pournelle. Sheep grazing near the U. Basra Marine Science Center Field Station, Hareer,

The first field day was spent viewing firsthand the opportunities and limits for broad-scale freshwater marsh restoration outside Basra City. This stand of cattails (Typha), rushes (Juncus), and bulrushes (Scirpus) is scarcely four years old - re-formed when brackish irrigation return water was allowed to re-flood areas desiccated for over a decade. This mix of marshy plants provides good grazing, and supports local production of mutton, wool, and dairy products.
However, extreme, and unpredictable, fluctuations in salinity due to upstream water releases are more than the date and fruit orchards that used to cover this plain can bear - new trees that manage to survive seldom bear fruit. Likewise, those random fluctuations kill off both fresh- and salt- tolerant fish fry. Unlike in a natural estuary, subject to predictable daily ebb and flow, they cannot follow a salt gradient within their range of tolerance.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Arrivals and Departures

Dubai and Basra, 25 April 2014

Image © Jennifer R. Pournelle 2014. Rice souk. Al Ras, Dubai, UAE.

Wandering the alleys of the rice souk in the post-dawn hour Friday morning, imagine my double-take on turning a corner and seeing this signage. "Carolina Gold" rice, the crop that made Charleston, South Carolina the wealthiest city in America in the 18th century, is making a comeback, but as far afield as Dubai? A quarter-hour spent peering through the immaculate wholesaler's windows revealed an astonishing array of basmati and aromatic rices, but no "Carolin." A bit of online sleuthing later, I discovered that the Carolin displayed here is a brand of vegetable oil-based margarine marketed by Ngo Chew Hong Edible Oil Pte Ltd of Singapore. It seems that the British love of buttered Carolina rice became associated with the color, and the rest is, well, marketing.

     Meanwhile, the rest of the team landed in Basra, and endured the usual merry-go-round of passport control without me. It seems that a government-issued visa affixed into a passport is as yet not enough to get one through the gate. Phone calls must be made, numbers must be checked, and, of course, somebody must appear on the opposite side of the immigration stand with a letter of sponsorship and assurances that these are, yes, the people who were invited and expected in the first place. At present, the entirety of immigration control still depends on 3-ring binders full of hand-carried bits of paper, and is utterly geared to processing the revolving door of 200,000 contract workers that rotate through the oil and construction sectors annually. A handful of academics flapping about unsupervised is a head-scratching conundrum that takes an hour to resolve. Note that: an hour. It used to take a day. Or two. Or three. Things improve every trip. #cmarsh

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Dubai Dhows at Dawn

Dubai, 24 April 2014

Image © Jennifer R. Pournelle. Dhows at anchor. Deira, Dubai, UAE.

Uptown Dubai may be dominated by the breathtaking new spires of the ​​Burj Khalifa, but the original heart of Dubai still beats down along the creeks, where dhows are still the workhorses of the regional import/export trade. From Africa, Arabia, India, and point further east, they on- and offload ​​spices, gold, and Samsung electronics, which vie for space within new and old souks of the Old City. Explore them ​​here in 360 views (click white arrows to move through the town). As recently as 30 years ago, dhow traffic was heavy in the Shatt Al-Arab, importing fabrics, spices, and pearls to the souks along Basra's Ashar Creek, and exporting reed mats, rice, and dates - with higher energy efficiency and lower environmental impact than today's trucking fleets. Tomorrow, we follow their route over aquamarine seas by air. #cmarsh

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Final Prep - 4 Hours To Go

​Image (c) Jennifer R. Pournelle. "Setting Up Sidescan Sonar and Sub-Bottom Profiler." 
Shatt Al-Arab, near Al-Hartha, Basra, Iraq, May 2013.

Even when we head of to rather desolate stretches or parched lake beds and windblown silt, we often depend on boats to get there, or to carry instrumentation that allows us to peer far beneath, or far across, soil horizons, And when our work requires systematic survey of water bodies themselves, nothing is more reliable than a stout "Ashar" boat. Powered by a sturdy diesel tractor engine, an Ashar boat can "mow the lawn" back and forth; up and down, all day, day after day, for days on end. Mihaly Czako's generous contribution will cover analyses for the equivalent of a day's worth of water sampling, 

All Ashore Who're Coming Ashore!

​Image (c) The National Geographic Society.

​More than any other watercraft, the kelek symbolizes the geographic unity of Mesopotamia. From the north and east the rivers flow and drain to their common delta, carrying vast torrents, vast sediment loads, and vast cargoes. But upstream dams have blocked the rivers themselves, for rural electrification and tilled agriculture. Those are laudable goals, but in cutting the delta from its source, they have also cut the primary trade route that for thousands of years exchanges culture, goods, blood, and toil. My profound thanks to Lynda Rhodes, who knows first-hand the true costs of  halting those economic (and ecologic) flows.

All Day to Go

Image © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.  
Wilfred Thesiger: "​Thesiger's Tarada in the Marshes." Faraigat Marshes between Qubab and Rufaiya, Iraq, 1953.

​In the 1950s, paddling from marsh fringes to market towns was an all-day affair, but relatively straight forward along well-travelled, cleared routes. Now, a boat trip that would take three hours with a small outboard motor would still take all day - because the direct water routes are gone. In this example, there would be no point to the trip, because Qubab and Rufaiya themselves, left high and dry by drainage, no longer exist. California natives understand well the fate of towns without water; our profound thanks for their sympathy to the cause of wetland restoration.