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How dangerously dirty water is threatening one of the world’s ancient religions

MD Staff



On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in Baghdad, Sheikh Anmar Ayid hitches up his robe and crouches by the Tigris river. Rocking back and forth on his haunches, he flicks the water from side to side – all the while chanting rhythmically in Aramaic. After finishing his ablutions, a two-minute procedure, the young sheikh turns to a small mud-brick temple and begins to pray.

In past years, Ayid might then have quenched his thirst directly from the river. As a Mandaean priest, an adherent of a pre-Abrahamic faith that’s native to the Fertile Crescent, he and his co-religionists believe the Tigris  – and the Euphrates – are sacred and flow from heaven. Clerics are consequently only supposed to drink from and eat food washed in their waters.

That, however, is scarcely even possible these days. Dirtied and drained almost from the moment they rise, Iraq’s great waterways are in bleak states by the time they reach the country’s heavily urbanized centre. To drink straight from them is to invite near instant sickness. And so as the rivers plumb desperate new lows, seemingly worsening by the year, the Mandaeans are struggling to practice their several thousand-year-old rituals.

“We depend on the water for everything, for worship, for daily life, for food,” Ayid said. “But because the water is going from bad to very bad, we are negatively affected.”

Across the world, water pollution is leaving a devastating trail in its wake. Eighty per cent of all wastewater goes untreated, and much of finds its way back into rivers and lakes – where it contributes to ecosystem and public health crises. Up to a third of all rivers are blighted with pathogenic waste, according to UN Environment data, and a seventh suffer from organic waste problems, mostly from agricultural fertilizer run off. In largely desert countries, like Iraq, worsening sandstorms and diminishing grass cover have caked the rivers with dust and saddled water treatment facilities with a new range of woes.

Never before, though, it seems, has poor water quality imperiled an entire religion. Already threatened by jihadists and criminal gangs, who damn them as heretics and target them for their historic role in the gold trade, the Mandaeans’ numbers have fallen from 100,000 to less than 10,000 in Iraq since 2003. For those who remain, pollution’s assault on one of the central tenets of their faith has added final insult to injury.

In Amarah, 350 km south of Baghdad on the Tigris, the pollution is so debilitating that not even boiling water is enough to prevent local priests from falling ill. At their heavily-guarded riverside temple in the Iraqi capital, Ayid and his colleagues have taken to leaving buckets of water to sit for a day, before skimming off the layer of fetid scum that’s usually accumulated on the top. From Baghdad to the Mandaeans’ traditional heartlands in the country’s far south, there’s so much glass and trash in the shallows that few worshippers dare set foot in the rivers without wearing sandals.“Our religion believes human nature requires hygiene, and so for us many things are built around water,” Ayid said. “But where is the hygiene here?”

What makes this all the more frustrating for many Mandaeans is that the culprits are hiding in plain sight. With insufficient wastewater treatment facilities and lax environmental regulations, ever-growing volumes of industrial and domestic refuse are seeping into the rivers. In Baghdad alone, dozens of places, including the Dora oil refinery and the massive Medical City hospital complex, discharge waste directly into the Tigris, according to local conservationists. All this at the same time as upstream dam construction and reduced rainfall cut the rivers’ flow has brought the lifeblood of the Mandaeans faith to the brink of disaster.

“When water levels drop, the health of that lake or river is likely to be affected, both in terms of quantity and quality,” says Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a Programme Officer in UN Environment’s Freshwater Unit. “And the lower the flow, the less likely that water body is to be able to deal naturally with water pollution and contamination.”

Globally, there is an increasing awareness that something drastic has to be done. UN Environment operates a monitoring system, GEMS/Water, which keeps tabs on river and lake water quality, and also helps states establish their own water quality surveillance networks. “For me, it’s like going to the doctor,” Bernhardt says. “You need that monitoring, those stats and numbers, to understand what’s happening and know a bit more about what you can do about it.” By encouraging the planting of water grasses and the preservation of wetlands, for example, UN Environment is pushing for green solutions to water quality problems.

But for the Mandaeans, the fear is that no manner of solutions might arrive fast enough to save their rituals – and perhaps their very existence. Scattered now across Europe, North America and Australia, they question whether a community as small as theirs can endure in diaspora. That a people whose faith teaches care for the environment might die in part because of it is a tragic irony not lost on Sheikh Ayid.

“Above all, we respect the water, of course. But we respect the Earth and the animals too. It is forbidden, for example, to play with a living tree, to slaughter an animal unless it is needed, or to throw things into the river,” he said. “Our daily life depends on nature, but nature is not being kind to us.”

First published in UN Environment

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Green Planet

Teaching youth to plant for the planet and change the world from the heart of Europe

MD Staff



A project run from a remote and beautiful part of the German countryside is transforming young people into climate scouts with a powerful message to share.

The Sustainability Guides and Climate Scouts project is run from the International Meeting Centre, St. Marienthal in Ostritz in the Free State of Saxony near the border with Poland.

Established in 1992, the centre conducts around 60 Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) events for more than 2,500 families, youths, adults and experts each year.

The guides and scouts project started in 1998 and welcomes groups of students for intensive courses that combine study with practical outdoor activities, and make good use of its forest experience trail and nature protection station.

Over 1,100 youth have taken part so far including 680 learning-disabled and socially disadvantaged young people who traditionally have very little access to ESD. Its geographical location means it is perfectly placed to bring together students from Germany, Poland and Czech Republic. And a new model project is currently underway which opens the door to ESD for refugees as well.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is the Plant for the Planet scheme where children have planted around 34 hectares of forest and undertaken more than 30 small-scale energy and water conservation initiatives.

Project Manager Georg Salditt said: “Our message is really twofold: we are teaching peace and the environment. We are well placed at the very heart of Europe to bring young people together who may not normally have met and to demonstrate to them that we are all human beings and we must respect each other and the planet.”

The work with refugees who come from Syria, Afghanistan and African countries and elsewhere also has a double aim.

“We want to make sure that if they make their lives here they know how important it is to protect the environment, but also if they are able to return home or to another country that they carry those messages back with them,” said Georg.

Not only is the centre itself a model of sustainability with its own environment management system: when children leave the course they take back with them ideas on how to transform their own schools. The centre ties all theory very tightly to practice. In some schools, environmental representatives have been appointed and students introduced permanent energy saving routines for heating and ventilation and for the reduction of paper use and waste.

As part of the project young people also learn about the effects of climate change on societies in the form of soil erosion, extreme weather phenomena , rural depopulation, economies and the environment especially with regard to forest damage. They are motivated by quick feedback on successes in energy and water conservation and updates on the amount of forest planted.

Crucially children also take part in communication workshops to learn how best to share and pass on what they have learned at open school days or town halls.

For Georg one of the most satisfying aspects of his work is watching the transformation take place before his eyes.

“It might sound silly but students do actually write to me one or two years after the course and say that these five days changed their lives not only as far as the environment is concerned but as a human experience. Some had never met anyone from another country at all. And they got to plant a tree!”

And there is a new project already underway.

“We are now working to introduce a project to protect bees and insects. Everyone loves honey and honeybees so we think it will be a success,” he said.


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Green Planet

World looks to nature-based solutions for urgent water challenges

MD Staff



As more than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than double that number lack access to safe sanitation, the international community is drawing attention to nature-based solutions for the water challenges of the 21st century on this World Water Day.

The theme of this year’s commemoration highlights the unique and fundamental role that nature-based solutions play in regulating the water cycle, keeping freshwater clean and improving the water security of our water cycles.

With the global population continuing to grow rapidly, demand for water is expected to increase by nearly one-third by 2050, while our freshwater ecosystems are degrading at an alarming rate ­– 64-71% of the natural wetland area worldwide has been lost due to human activity in the last century. Furthermore, water pollution has worsened in almost all rivers in Africa, Asia and Latin America since the 1990’s

“We need to deal with the water paradox,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, calling attention to the need to work together towards a solution for our water challenge. “Water is the essence of life, but we don’t save it enough. It’s time to change mindsets, it’s not about development versus the environment.”

The 2018 edition of the UN World Water Development Report outlines a range of nature-based solutions for water management, from personal measure that can be applied in the home, to examples of “green” infrastructure that can be applied to rural and urban landscapes – such as planting new forests, restoring wetlands, and constructing green walls and roof gardens.

The report further clarifies that despite recent advances in the application of green infrastructure, a holistic approach to water management is to identify the most appropriate, cost-effective and sustainable balance between grey infrastructure and nature-based solutions.

“Today, more than ever, we must work with nature, instead of against it,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO in the foreword of the report. “Demand for water is set to increase in all sectors. The challenge we must all face is meeting this demand in a way that does not exacerbate negative impacts on ecosystems.”

World Water Day is celebrated every year on March 22nd. This year, the commemoration coincides with the World Water Forum, held in Brasilia, Brazil. The Forum is the world’s biggest water-related event, organized by the World Water Council. The Forum brings together water experts from around the world to collaborate on making long-term progress on global water challenges.

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Green Planet

Category 5 storms: A norm or exception?



Compared to their larger counterparts, small states are at a higher risk of extreme weather events, which threaten to wipe out their developmental gains, and to some extent, their very existence.

According to the IMF, the economic cost of the average natural disaster during 1950-2014 was nearly 13 percent of GDP for small states, compared to less than 1 percent of GDP for larger states. During that same period, the average natural disaster affected 10 percent of the population in small states, compared to just 1 percent for other countries.

In recent times, the frequency of disasters affecting small states has been far much greater, reflecting small states’ proximity to cyclone and hurricane belts. In addition, there has been a rapid expansion in the number of higher category cyclones.  These have left a trail of devastation in their wake, and are estimated to have generated costs in the billions.

In March 2015, category 5 cyclone  Pam struck Vanuatu, and in Fiji, category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston left over 40 percent of the population negatively impacted. A few weeks ago, Tropical Cyclone Gita, the worst storm to hit Tonga in 60 years, caused significant damage to infrastructure and unprecedented disruption to amenities.

As recent as last year, the Caribbean experienced widespread destruction and substantial loss and damage due to category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria. These hurricanes damaged critical infrastructure in Anguilla and Barbuda, whilst; and the Bahamas suffered remarkable damage to physical structures.  Moreover, there were damages to over 80 percent of homes, electricity and telecommunications in Dominica; and the list goes on.

Is this growing frequency of robust and destructive category 5 storms a norm or exception?

Well, there is a growing body of evidence that seems to suggest that the recent increase of these highly destructive storms are indeed linked to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) model projections, in particular, global warming is expected to cause an intensification of devastating cyclones by the end of the 21st century. I believe that should this projection come to fruition, such weather events will most-likely push small states beyond their coping point, given their already weak adaptive capacities.

The real question is this:

What does all this mean for the economic development and very existence of small states, and can this be solved through increased financing for development?

The Commonwealth

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