Thursday, June 03, 2010

A New Gulf War: Lessons from Mesopotamia

Could we be witnessing the U.S. version of the destruction of the Marsh Arabs’ habitat?

Remember how outraged we were in August 1990 when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded his much smaller neighbor, Kuwait?

In response, the United States and about 33 nominal UN allies waged what the George H.W. Bush administration and US media dubbed the Gulf War (or Gulf War I or Persian Gulf War). It lasted less than six months.

We resoundingly defeated our former friend, teaching him a stern lesson -- and then leaving him to his own devices.

Environmental Gulf War I
Saddam Hussein drained the marshes down south in Iraq, near the Gulf, to drive out rebellious Marsh Arabs and starve them to death or kill them outright.

A half million people lived there, fishing and either farming or raising water buffalo. In just a short time, when Saddam’s armies were done, only a few thousand remained. The birds and fish disappeared, too, their habitat destroyed.

Those marshes were already drying up before Hussein’s army invaded; some 30 years of drainage of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (which originate in Turkey) by Turkey and Iran as well as Iraq was helping desertify the marshlands, as were other Iraqi government policies.

Hussein just hastened the region’s demise, the assassination of its wildlife and ecology, and the murder, incarceration, or displacement and dispossession of its people.

I’d say this qualifies as genocide.

The United States and the rest of the world vaguely expressed outrage, but there was little coverage in the media and nobody did anything to help the Marsh Arabs or reverse the environmental and economic damage to the wetlands.

It wasn’t until 2004 that a huge international project, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, was begun to remove dams. By 2006 about half the Marsh Arabs’ homeland was successfully re-flooded, and a few species seemed to be recovering slightly; some people returned to the area to try to reclaim their way of life.
But a drought over the last three years, in which the region received only 30 to 40 percent of previous rain levels, has turned those wetlands back into deserts and made them too hostile an environment for people and wildlife.

Again man stepped in to make matters worse. Drainage of both the Tigris and Euphates upriver in Turkey and northern Iraq has caused a 40 to 60 percent drop in water flow into Iraq and Syria in the last few years.

Turkey claims
the water belongs to Turkey. But Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (and Iran to a much lesser extent) share these fragile and diminishing water supplies and are suffering severe water shortages.

The region is warming, like most of the planet. The ongoing drought is probably its new “normal” rather than an aberration.

Iraq remains occupied and, like Syria, has an unstable government. Iraq’s human-built infrastructure is still shattered. Oil exploitation, by BP and others, continues unabated.

And preposterously, the entire area’s population is growing, despite the loss of probably a million Iraqis to war and violence.

Water wars look increasingly possible.

Back in the USA
Now to the United States, where Gulf of Mexico marshlands are being assaulted by BP oil and further poisoned by toxic dispersants. We’re already seeing massive ecosystem destruction, wildlife kills, and livelihood losses, and inevitably we’ll soon see widespread mental health problems and the breakup of families and communities.

A kind of genocide, too, one might argue.

Just like Saddam Hussein and his minions did, BP CEO Tony Hayward and his executive staff are getting away with murder.

BP is still running the “cleanup operation,” which everyone knows is a sham, just as Saddam Hussein was left to “clean up” after the Gulf War.

BP has insisted, even against EPA orders, on using a highly toxic dispersant (in a procedure that has never been tried before) that is less effective than others. (There’s a good reason for this: BP owns the company that makes Corexit, and Corexit breaks the oil particles into smaller particles that make it harder to see how much oil BP has unleashed.) The United States and the world community looked away when Saddam Hussein used nerve gas and other toxins to combat the rebels in 1991.

BP has not allowed the low-paid cleanup workers who are standing in broiling sun while raking oil-soaked sand 12 hours a day to wear face masks, let alone the full haz-mat protection suits they should be provided. Bush I ordered U.S. soldiers to stand by as Saddam Hussein’s army helicopters strafed Shiite communities with sarin and other chemical weapons.

Today, fishers, boaters, and residents of Gulf of Mexico shore communities are being forced to construct homemade barriers to try to save their beautiful beaches and coastal marshes. Many of them, no doubt, will flee the region, just as hundreds of thousands of the Marsh Arabs and 1991 rebels who survived Saddam’s slaughter became permanent refugees.

BP has banned journalists, camera wielders, and the public from vast areas where they could be documenting the crude spill. In 1991, Saddam kept journalists out of the rebel areas, and Bush I was eager to keep them out as well. Bush didn’t want the U.S. public to know about the brutal repression of the rebels, who were rebelling because he had urged them to. It was easier to let Saddam crush them; their religion made the U.S. uncomfortable, and they might have formed an alliance with Iran that was unfavorable to U.S. interests. As Barry Lando wrote in Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush (Other Press), "Anonymous government figures, wise in the ways of Realpolitik, were making statements such as, 'It is far easier to deal with a tame Saddam Hussein than with an unknown quantity. ' "

If the journalists at Grist, Mother Jones, and other good news organizations keep on this story, and the rest of us step up the pressure to make oil and gas companies accountable and transparent in all their actions, and if enough people continue working on the cleanup in a sensible way, perhaps the marshlands of southern USA will survive.

It will take all these actions together. The alternative is unthinkable but not impossible. They could end up like the marshlands of southern Iraq: permanently uninhabitable.

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