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Learning Environmental Lessons from Iraq

6:59 AM, May 20, 2013   |    comments
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Columbia, SC (WLTX) - In recent history, war is often what may come to mind when the country of Iraq is thought of; however, there are thousands of years of rich history and lessons that proceed those current events.

In some ways, South Carolina has striking geographic similarities to the war-torn country, and there may be one very important thing that South Carolinians can learn from Iraq. 

Every year millions visit South Carolina's Lowcountry.  The lush marshlands and beautiful waterways are some of the many features of mature that make this little part of the world so attractive.

However, Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, an anthropologist and archeologist at the University of South Carolina, says it would not take a catastrophic event to turn the marshes into something else completely.

"A little bit less rain and a little bit more in the wrong kind in the use of the land and all of the sudden this whole thing ends up looking a whole lot like Iraq," explained Pournelle.

Pournelle studies long lasting ancient cities and tries to determine how they were able to sustain themselves. She then applies their knowledge so we can take the lessons of the past to ensure that we have a future.

"I am interested in how cities survived through deep time and so the oldest known cities were founded in what is now Southern Iraq."

Also known as Mesopotamia which dates back 7,000 years and that's where Pournelle has spent a lot of her time.

"We talk about sustainability and we're think time horizons of one year, ten years or maybe one lifetime. I try to find out what made cities viable in the past that's applicable now."

Pournelle says that through her studies, she has learned that South Carolina is like Southern Iraq in many ways.

"Lower Mesopotamia is largely a patchwork of marshlands. Much like the Lowcountry of South Carolina; many of the same species."

Both the Palmetto State and Southern Iraq are located at the 35° parallel and, like our Lowcountry, used to have thriving marshlands and wetlands.

"It terms of trying to understand what we might look like here in a thousand years, depending on how we use our resources, it's a great place to study. We have lessons to learn from their past, they have lessons to learn from ours."

One of those lessons happened less than thirty years ago when Sadaam Hussein started draining Southern Iraq's marshlands to drive out rebels and add plow agriculture.

"20,000 square kilometers of marshes were drained and they managed to put in about 8,000 acres of agriculture. That lasted for about eight years before it collapsed."

Very quickly plant and animal life starting dying and the newly plowed land couldn't sustain their crops. It was a disaster.

"When those marshes were drained the fisheries collapsed, all livestock production collapsed, and that meant basically, the entire economic basis of the marshes collapsed. Between a quarter and half a million people were made refugees."

There were also reeds in the marshes that filtered brackish water providing fresh water. Those too were destroyed.

"Now 100% of drinking water in Southern Iraq has to be either imported or bottled at one of two rural osmosis plants that were built by USAID. Think of it, there is no such thing as drinkable water in that part of the country anymore."

"This is a horrible object lesson, but it shows us within a 20-year period...manmade, what happens over normally 100, 200, 300-years, if you don't protect your watersheds, if you don't protect your wetlands."

Although South Carolina does not have a dictator destroying state marshes, there are businesses, politics and environmental factors. According to the South Carolina Conservation bank, the state ranks fourth in the country for the number of acres being developed every year.

Pournelle is convinced that what happened on Southern Iraq provides an important lesson to learn by.

"The collapse of those marshes is a warning to us, if we keep nibbling away at our wetlands, we don't just loose that bit of stream bank or this bit of muddy ground. What we lose is an entire intact ecosystem that's not just of course wonderful for the plants and birds, but that's essential to us. It's a case of you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

For further information about Dr. Pournelle and her studies, click here.

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