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

MD Staff

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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

How Islam can represent a model for environmental stewardship

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The world, not just the UN, is waking up to the power of faith-based organizations (FBOs). How can Islam, and other faiths, contribute to solutions to sustainability and mitigate climate change risks?

Odeh Al-Jayyousi, Professor and head of innovation at Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain, scholar in sustainable innovation and a member of UN Global Scientific Advisory Panel, for UN Environment’s Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6), argues that Islamic worldview represents a unique model for a transition to sustainable development by focusing on justice, degrowth and harmony between human and nature.

He commented that Islam views the environmental challenges as an indicator for a moral and ethical crisis. Looking at the creation of human, Earth, and cosmos as signs of the Creator (Kitab Manthoor) is a key in Islamic values.

Prof. Al-Jayyousi elaborated that Islamic worldview defines a good life (Hayat Tayebah) living lightly on Earth (Zohd) and caring for both people and nature. Islamic discourse offers a sense of hope and optimism about the possibility of attaining harmony between human and nature. Earth will find a balance if humans rethink their lifestyles and mindsets as stated in the Quran:

Corruption has appeared in both land and sea
Because of what people’s own hands have brought
So that they may taste something of what they have done
So that hopefully they will turn back
Qur’an 30: 41

Professor Al-Jayyousi calls to revive the holistic view of Islam which is founded on the notion of harmony and “natural state” (fitra) and in respecting balance (mizan) and proportion (mikdar) in the systems of the universe. These notions provide an ethical dimension and a mandate for all humans to respect nature and all forms of life.

Hence, the overcoming environmental crisis and mitigating the impact of climate change, from an Islamic perspective is underpinned by defining the role of humans as trustees and stewards (khalifah). This balance has been disturbed because to human choices which result in overconsumption, overexploitation and overuse of resources.

Islamic values call to save integrity and to protect the diversity of all forms of life. Professor Al-Jayyousi commented that the ecological crisis is linked to human ethics and values. Human actions are responsible for the global ecological crisis. “Reflecting on the main environmental problems, such as the destruction of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and erosion of soil, we see that all are triggered by human greed and ignorance. Human responsibility is to save and protect livelihood and ecosystem services to ensure a sustainable civilization learning from and reflecting on the fate of past civilizations”, said Professor Al-Jayyousi.

He cited a verse from the Holy Book, Quran, “Every living thing is in a state of worship”. He commented that when one hurts a bird or a plant, he/she is silencing a community of worshippers. To celebrate the symphony of life, all humans need to celebrate and protect biological and cultural diversity.

Islamic worldview calls to make a transition to a sustainable society and economy by adopting responsible development and respecting sustainability principles. This change requires a shift in norms and practices. Religion can become a powerful part of the solution if humans embody a holistic spiritual view towards mankind, earth and cosmos.

In 2015 in Istanbul, the Muslim world in its Islamic declaration for climate change set the framework for an ethical code of conduct to build a low-emission climate resilient future.

Al-Jayyousi aspires to see a new Islamic discourse that emphasizes and links faith, reason and empathy to ensure an ecological insight (Baseera). He calls to rethink educational systems that neglected the beauty and majesty of nature and the cosmos.

“The extinction of species around us which are simply communities like us (Ummam Amthalokom) may extend to humankind unless we change our worldviews and development models”, warns Prof. Al-Jayyousi.  He calls to revive the concept of Green Endowment Fund (Waqf) to support a transition to sustainable economy by promoting innovation (ijtihad)  inspired by nature and culture.

He proposed a conceptual model with three domains to address climate change and sustainability:

  • Green activism (Jihad)
  • Green innovation (Ijtihad)
  • Green lifestyle (Zohd).

He refers to this as a Green JIZ model, which represents an Islamic response to climate change embodying the concept of de-growth.

“Conflict and poor governance are putting the Middle East and North Africa at jeopardy” points out Prof. Al-Jayyousi. He calls for a sustainable region that is founded on human and environmental justice. An optimist, Prof. Al-Jayyousi is inspired by prophet Mohammed saying “If it is the Last day of life and you have a small plant, make sure you plant it”.

First published in UN Environment

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Green Planet

Greening Vietnam’s tea industry

MD Staff

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“We’ve stopped using herbicides completely”: Thanh is one of thousands of Vietnamese tea farmers who have embraced sustainable farming. Photo by UN Environment / Lisa Murray

How sustainable farming is turning the tables for Vietnamese tea growers

The act of drinking tea is a key part of many of Vietnam’s social rituals and interactions. As a commodity, tea is also one of the country’s most important exports. But in recent years, unpredictable, heavy downpours and overuse of agrochemicals have led to poor quality crops, low yields and a decline in the reputation of Vietnamese tea within the global export market.

But now, with the help of UN Environment and partners, Vietnamese tea growers have begun to turn the situation around, resulting in an impressive adoption of sustainable farming techniques and a 30 percent increase in average income in only two years.

Thanh has been growing tea since 1983. Her two children grew up among the tea bushes. Tea has always been Thanh’s primary income source and the six cyclical harvests she reaps throughout the year have become integral to the rhythms of family life. Standing amidst the perfectly straight rows of tea plants covering her two-hectare plantation, she explains the devastating effects of heavy rainfall on her smallholding in past years.

Climate change has led to increased heavy rainfall and flooding in this region of northern Vietnam; those farmers who are unlucky enough to grow on steep gradients without sufficient tree cover have had to cope with frequent landslides and severe crop damage due to soil erosion. Like most other tea farmers in her commune, Thanh’s previous reliance on herbicides and pesticides meant her crops fell short of international trading standards.Her heavy chemical use was also damaging the  soil  she and her family depend on – killing off beneficial organisms along with pests, resulting in reduced organic matter and poor soil drainage capacity. These poor natural resource management techniques contributed to the widespread water contamination threatening livelihoods throughout Vietnam’s Central and Northern Highlands.

The scale of this land degradation challenge and its impact on tea farmers around Asia prompted UN Environment to collaborate with The Rainforest Alliance to establish the Sustainable Tea Production Landscapes project. Since 2014, the Global Environment Facility-funded initiative has been working across five of Asia’s best-known tea-producing regions – Darjeeling and Assam (India), Yunnan (China), lowland Sri Lanka and Vietnam – educating smallholder farmers and large estate tea growers on the dangers of land degradation and training them in sustainable farming and land management techniques.

While the project’s environmental aims are to protect and restore soil fertility, enhance carbon sequestration and conserve the biodiversity found in tea production landscapes, it also aims to secure farmers’ livelihoods by reducing their vulnerability to climate-related crop failure – an aim that is already bearing fruit.

Since she began implementing sustainable farming techniques after receiving training from the project, Thanh’s family income has doubled, and the nearby tea factory is willing to pay more for her crops due to their improved quality.

“We’ve stopped using herbicides completely,” she says, explaining how she now uses organic methods to control pests and boost the soil’s nutrients. “I’ve learnt to apply mulch and grow hedges, so that natural ecosystems can work against pests; we also intercrop tea with legumes, which replenish and fix the nitrogen into the soil.”

Thanh’s enthusiasm has also made her an excellent peer educator, and she has trained around 70 other tea growers in sustainable farming techniques to date. According to Rikolto, the project’s implementing partner in Vietnam, over 3,000 stakeholders from tea-producing communities, grower cooperatives and local government in Yen Bai, Lai Chau and Thai Nguyen provinces have been trained in alternatives to agrochemicals and effective soil management. Rikolto have used the Farmer Field School methodology, which focuses on learning through experience, capitalising on local knowledge and empowering growers to take ownership of land and soil issues. The curriculum also emphasises the importance of using compost and green manure, and of planting shade trees to keep temperature and moisture levels constant.

Today, Thanh’s fields are a lush, rich green. But it wasn’t always this way.

“Before I joined the project. The tea plants were small and red in colour due to malnutrition. Now, they look healthy because they are under the shade and getting what they need,” she says with a grin. “My yield has doubled!”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

The Plight of Birds and Human Responsibility in the Sixth Mass Extinction

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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As birds become fewer, wildflowers vanish, butterflies disappear, and animals in the wild are threatened, extinction and a grim future haunts.  How often does Rumi write about birdsong … there is a reason.  Nature revives the spirit.

World Environment Day has come and gone.  It was June 5th.  A UN outreach program hosted by a different country each year, it is designed to draw attention to the country’s environmental challenges and to offer it support.  This year the host is India and the theme is beating plastic pollution.  But plastics are not just a blight on the landscape, they are in the seas destroying coral and the species it shelters, painfully killing whales and other creatures … including birds.

Yet, it is far from the only cause of bird distress and their sharply declining numbers.  One example comes from the Arctic, where receding ice has taken with it the nutritious cod, which favor cold waters, and has endangered the black guillemot now forced to feed chicks on the bony and difficult-to-digest fourhorn sculpin.

When the EU commissioned a State of Nature report, they expected bad news but not quite as dire a result.  Prepared by the European Environment Agency and sourced from EU-wide data, it found one in three bird species threatened and only a little over half secure.  It also drew a bleak picture of European habitats finding over half of those studied to be unfavorable.  Habitat loss, pesticides particularly neonicotinoids, even excessive hunting, notably in southern Europe, are all to blame.

Earlier, a comprehensive study conducted by University of Exeter (UK) professor Richard Inger and colleagues had analyzed avian biomass across 25 countries over 30 years.  Using data from Birdlife International and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, they discovered a surprisingly large and troubling loss:  from 1980 to 2009 the estimated total avian population had declined by 421 million birds.

Meanwhile, new research in the US with far-reaching consequences places blame squarely on human action.  It examines avian consequences of noise pollution.  If certain constant noises irritate us — think of road repair and a pneumatic drill — then birds are no exception.  Noise from oil and gas operations is stressing out birds and harming reproduction.  They exhibit signs of chronic stress, lay fewer eggs or fewer eggs hatch, and nestling growth is stunted.

So reports a study by Nathan Kleist and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (unfortunately not available to the general public without a fee).  The authors study three species of cavity nesting birds (the ash-throated flycatcher, the mountain bluebird and the western bluebird) breeding near oil and gas operations — located on Bureau of Land Management property in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin .

The researchers placed 240 nest boxes on 12 pairs of sites, close to and at varying distances from the drilling pads where loud compressors operated non-stop.  The team took blood samples of adult females and nestlings from all the nest boxes for three years.  They examined nestling body size and feather length and found them to be less well developed in both noisy and lower noise areas, suggesting any level of irritating noise is disruptive.

Baseline levels of a key stress hormone, corticosterone, showed high stress in birds nesting closest to the noise.  In addition, when subjected to a test of being held for 10 minutes, nestlings in noisy areas produced significantly greater stress hormones than those in quiet areas.

It also turned out that the western bluebird was the only species willing to nest in the sites closest to the compressors.  Such behavior had cultivated a belief it was immune to noise.  Not so, the study results revealed.

That environmental stress is increased by noise pollution, and that it degrades avian reproductive success is thus the conclusive message of this study.  With background noise constantly increasing in the US, even protected areas are no longer immune.  On the face of it, there is also the distinct possibility other species could also be affected.

If the anthropocene is our age, it is also our look in the mirror to see what the human footprint has wrought, even if unwittingly.  Global warming, extreme weather events becoming more severe, plastic pollution and stressed wildlife, record extinctions, insect declines … all appear to be portents of an impaired future warning humans repeatedly of urgency.  The sixth mass extinction is underway but it will take centuries if not thousands of years, and man can help by alleviating global warming and increasing preservation efforts.  Clearly related to CO2 levels, global warming has been the culprit in the previous five.  CO2 levels are already in excess of 0.04 percent perilously close to the 0.05 percent calculated to melt icecaps through temperature rise causing serious flooding of coastal areas.

Are leaders and decision-makers listening?

Authors note:  This article appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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