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Eco-Justice Notes
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Plumbing Problems in Eden
distributed 6/18/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Frederica & John Helmiere of Seattle, Washington. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

There is a plumbing problem in Eden -- or at least in the Middle Eastern place long associated with that biblical paradise. What I've read about the water problems there deepens my understanding of eco-justice issues in a world warped by climate change.

A report in the New York Times a week ago described a complicated mix of factors that have disrupted the hydrology of the fertile crescent. In the region known as the birthplace of civilization, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers join, those rivers no longer have enough flow to push encroaching salt water out into the Persian Gulf.

Because the rivers are feeble, sea water runs into the mouth of the joined rivers -- known in its lowest reaches as Shatt al Arab -- and is now found more than 50 miles "upstream" into the delta, where fresh water has always flowed. The salt-laden fluid disrupts fisheries, contaminates drinking water supplies, and ruins agriculture.

You might recall the description in Genesis about Eden, the prototypical garden. We think of it as lush and verdant, but it is in a place where it doesn't rain much. Instead, "a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground." (Gen. 2:6) We read that a "river flows out of Eden to water the garden" (Gen 2:10), and of the four branches of that river named in Genesis, two are the Tigris and Euphrates. From biblical times, these rivers have given life to this region, but now the rivers are not running sufficiently.

Reporter Steven Lee Myers tells of Jalal Fakhir, who farms land along the Shatt al Arab that has been in his family for generations. Fakhir said, "This used to be paradise", but the salt content of the water has killed his grape vines, apricot trees, and vegetable crops. His date palms are suffering. Jalal Fakhir is not alone. The devastation of agriculture has forced the migration of tens of thousands of farmers in the region.

There are many reasons why fresh water is not flowing into the Persian Gulf. There has been drought -- which is an expected consequence of climate change in that part of the world. (Climate scientists predict that, in "Southern Europe, climate change is projected to worsen conditions (high temperatures and drought) in a region already vulnerable to climate variability, and to reduce water availability, hydropower potential, summer tourism and, in general, crop productivity.") A lack of rain, of course, means that there is not as much water to feed the rivers.

There is more going on than changes in rainfall, though. These historic rivers are not free-flowing streams anymore. The countries that contain the headwaters of the great rivers -- Turkey, Syria and Iran -- have built dams that control and divert water. More water used upstream heightens the problems below. Indeed, last year Iran completely shut down the outflow from one of those dams, and for ten months sent no water through the Karun River into the Shatt al Arab.

The New York Times article did not name rising sea levels as a factor in the salt pollution of the Shatt al Arab. But as global warming raises the sea, the waters of the Persian Gulf will push even farther into the fertile crescent, expanding the damage.

Drought, sea level rise and international disputes over water flow all contribute to the degraded water quality in the Shatt al Arab. In addition, industrial pollution adds heavy metals and oil products to the river. Rather than "watering the whole face of the ground", the river in Eden poisons plants and people.

It is impossible to miss the local and regional impacts of this problem. This is a volatile place. The author of the NY Times article, in a related blog posting, noted that the river "has been the contested border between the Arab world and Persia for centuries. It was the front line of the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s". Anything that destabilizes this place will have amplified effects and global consequences. And it is destabilizing when residents have to buy expensive drinking water instead of drawing from the tap, when fish yields plummet and crops fail, and when farmers become refugees.

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The Shatt al Arab flows through a small area, but it shows us the scope and complexity of climate change. It provides insights into the difficulties of adaptation and mitigation to the increasingly large changes that are coming to our whole planet.

Dealing with the repercussions of salt water in the Shatt al Arab will require cooperation between nations that have often been at war. It will require water sharing agreements among countries that will find it hard to agree about this scarce resource. It will require extensive and expensive new infrastructure for water management and water treatment. It will require different food sources to sustain cities where local agriculture is gone.

The Shatt al Arab is a small area, but it provides an example of similar issues that are emerging around the world, and where the implications are much greater. In Bangladesh, sea water is infiltrating into groundwater and rivers. Rising seas and tainted water may lead to millions of refugees in another volatile region that will not easily handle the displaced people. In China, sea level rise will impact "regions located along the coast with the country's most developed economy". The same sorts of problems with agriculture that are occurring in lowland Iraq are likely to appear all along the coast of the world's most populous country. Clearly, this is not a trivial issue.

The plumbing problems in Eden, the disrupted hydrology of the fertile crescent, are a case study in eco-justice. The intersection of global climate, international politics, economic systems, local communities, family life and ecological health are vividly shown along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.

I hear too many leaders, in the US and globally, saying that it is too hard to make the changes needed to minimize climate change. They tell us that we can't put a cap on carbon, or change our way of life. Yet many of those same people express a "fix-it" attitude that believes we can adapt to the changes which will come. Salt water in the Shatt al Arab reveals the foolishness of such confidence.

The theological ethics of eco-justice help us to see the interconnection of complex causes, and to be aware of their significant effects around the world and into future generations. Seeing the world from the perspective of God's shalom points out the moral and practical urgency of action to minimize climate impacts.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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