ERBIL — Beyond the challenges of theft and illicit excavation by archaeological smugglers, Iraq faces the broader impact of climate change and environmental crises, including prolonged drought. These issues, persisting for years, have transcended national boundaries, posing a significant threat to renowned historical monuments and their preservation.
Archaeological and environmental experts verify that the impact of heat waves, drought, and intensified dust storms is causing significant damage to monuments in northwestern, central, and southern Iraq. There are warnings that the ancient city of Hazar in northern Iraq is on the verge of disappearing, as the dust carried by winds and desert storms threatens to engulf the city.
The remains of Umm Aqarb, which date back more than four thousand years and include temples and palaces, are also at risk of destruction.
In this context, Dr. Lays Hussein, head of the General Board for Antiquities and Heritage of the Ministry of Culture, emphasized that there are more than 150,000 archaeological sites in Iraq, representing various civilizations, including Assyrian, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Islamic, during an interview with the Iraqi newspaper Mada Press.
Apart from climate change and environmental crises, these sites encounter heightened threats, with theft and haphazard excavation by antiquities smugglers being the most conspicuous. Particularly in desert regions, these activities pose significant risks to archaeological objects.
Another enduring threat, persisting for decades, is the gradual disappearance of Iraq's archaeological sites. This trend has become more pronounced in recent years due to escalating soil salinity, elevated temperatures, and an upsurge in dust storms, depositing substantial amounts of dust and dew on these ancient areas.
Since 2022, Iraq has experienced ten dust storms in various regions, as reported by Amer al-Jabri, the director of weather forecasts. Although only one dust storm has been recorded in the initial nine months of 2023, concerns persist regarding the potential for more storms due to water shortages.
How does drought destroy monuments?
Dr. Jaafar al-Jawsari, a professor of archeology at Al-Qadsiyah University, explains that water shortages resulting from insufficient rainfall lead to elevated salt concentrations in the soil. This, coupled with increased sandstorms, poses a significant threat as the dust covers and damages ancient monuments.
Dr. Jaafar al-Jawsari notes that water scarcity and desertification issues began in the 1990s. In recent years, these problems have contributed to a decline in groundwater levels, ultimately impacting Iraq's climate.
Al-Jawsari suggests that as the soil dries, wind carries substantial dust, contributing to the erosion of buildings, houses, and monument walls. This effect intensifies, particularly with elevated temperatures leading to increased salt content.
According to Al-Jawsari, the significant temperature fluctuations between summer and winter, ranging from several degrees below zero to over 50 degrees Celsius, contribute to soil weakening and fragmentation. These extremes, coupled with the absence of vegetation cover and the expansion-contraction processes in materials used for constructing ancient buildings, exacerbate the deterioration of the soil.
Dr. Jaafar al-Jawsari illustrates the impact of rising temperatures by highlighting the case of Babylon, where fresh groundwater transformed into saltwater. The elevated temperatures accelerated water evaporation, leading to the dissolution of salts in the water. These salts, upon reaching the building materials, caused damage and compromised the foundations of ancient structures.
Dr. Dawood Salman Banai, an expert in petroleum geology and seismological analysis, affirms that dust storms impact the integrity of ancient buildings. These storms contribute to rust and damage in archaeological structures, leading to the appearance of cracks and fractures in these historical sites.
On June 17, 2022, the United Nations, marking World Day to Combat Desertification, declared that Iraq ranks among the top five countries most affected by climate change. In the global context, Iraq stands at 39th place in terms of its vulnerability to climate change impacts, particularly related to water resources.
In 2021, Iraq experienced a historic decline in rainfall, marking the second driest season in 40 years. This significant decrease in precipitation has resulted in severe consequences for the nation, including water shortages, desertification, and soil erosion, as highlighted in the statement issued by the United Nations on June 17, 2022.
The United Nations has identified several environmental challenges confronting Iraq, encompassing prolonged heat waves, low rainfall, the scarcity and loss of fertile land, soil erosion, and the escalation of dust storms. These challenges collectively contribute to the environmental crisis, exacerbating the country's existing issues.