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

‚ÄčEven 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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