Thousands of years old archaeological sites in Iraq are being severely damaged by climate change factors, such as sandstorms and increased salinity, in a country that "suffers more and works less" to cope with this phenomenon.

Standing on top of sand that almost completely covers an archaeological site, Iraqi archaeologist Aqeel al-Mansrawi contemplates the monuments around it dating back more than 4,<> years, saying, "um al-Aqrab is in fact one of the most important Sumerian cities in southern Mesopotamia," noting that "it had a distinctive role during the third millennium BC."

um al-Aqrab, which gathers many temples, including the Sumer god "Street", on 5 square kilometers of desert land in southern Iraq, reached its peak of glory in 2350 BC.

During their expeditions, archaeologists discovered canals, pottery pieces, discs, tablets and vital pieces that tell the history of the Sumerians.

Today, the um al-Aqrab site suffers from indirect effects caused by climate change, including the increasing sandstorms in Iraq, in addition to the repeated looting of the site, as is the case with other sites that are not well guarded.

In 2022, more than 10 sandstorms swept through Iraq, according to a tally compiled by AFP.

Archaeologist Aqeel Mansrawi inspects old bricks and construction remains at the archaeological site of um al-Aqrab (French)

Sand expansion

"Shifting sand has begun to creep in, covering large parts of the site" of um al-Aqrab, in a phenomenon that has been going on for "10 years," al-Mansraoui said.

According to him, "quicksand, as it encroaches in large quantities on these sites, may cover over the next ten years 80 to 90 percent of these sites" in southern Iraq.

"The (forthcoming) archaeological missions will have to do more" to clear the land before excavation begins, he said.

Remains of an ancient structure in um al-Aqrab buried by sandstorms due to desertification in the Rifai area in southern Iraq (French)

Sand, silt and salinity

Jaafar al-Jodhari, a professor of archaeology at the University of Qadisiya, said the wind is currently "full of more dust" and "carries impurities from the ground, especially sand and silt, which erodes buildings."

The problem lies in drier winters and increasingly hot summers, with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius, which leads to "weakening and fragmentation of the soil due to the lack of vegetation", he said.

Another factor is salinity, which is the second enemy of archaeological sites, and is caused by the "very dry" environment, according to Mark Tawil, professor of Near Eastern archaeology at UCL University in London, saying that "when water evaporates very quickly, only salts remain." And the accumulation of large amounts of salts leads to the erosion of everything.

Iraq is one of the 5 countries in the world most affected by some of the tangible effects of climate change, foremost of which are prolonged droughts, according to United Nations reports.

Iraqi archaeological marvels that have survived thousands of years and the devastation of war are now under modern threat from climate change (French)

Iraq suffers from drought despite the presence of its famous rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which are the main source of irrigation for the majority of the country's farmers, and the drought is due to the lack of rain significantly, and some dams in Iraq's neighboring countries limit the flow of water as well.

Al-Jawthri says that the Iraqi has "the worst hydraulic administration", which dates back to the Sumerian and Akkadian eras and continues to this day, in which farmers rely on flooding irrigation, which consumes huge amounts of water and causes large losses.

Water shortages are gradually pushing farmers and pastoralists to migrate to cities in order to survive.

As a result, "after farmers abandon their land, the soil becomes more vulnerable to the wind" that carries sand and silt, according to Al-Jothery.

The former President of the Republic of Iraq, Barham Salih, warned at the end of 2021 that "39% of the Iraqi territory was affected by desertification", which is an increase in the percentage.

A land stripped of high temperatures and prolonged drought (French)

Climate change

Here, it is necessary to search for a solution to save Iraq's archaeological heritage, as this country suffers from corruption, a third of its population lives in poverty and its archaeological sites are neglected, despite its vast oil wealth.

Shamil Ibrahim, director of antiquities in Dhi Qar province, where um al-Aqrab is located, acknowledges that archaeological sites "are more vulnerable to erosion and wind due to desertification, drought and climate change, especially during these years when Iraq faced water shortages, lack of rain and drought."

At the same time, he stressed that the Iraqi government is working to control the sandy areas from which the wind blows, by afforesting these areas and establishing a "green belt" represented by planting trees at a cost of 5 billion dinars (about $ 3.8 million).

However, Al-Jodhri questions the effectiveness of these initiatives, because preserving vegetation "requires large amounts of water," adding that "we are the country that suffers the most and works less" to cope with the effects of climate change.

Despite the significant disadvantages of desertification and drought on Iraqi monuments, the recent drop in the water level in the Tigris River has led to the appearance of the effects of Zakhiko in the Kurdish region of Iraq. A team of local and German archaeologists began excavating the site, revealing new details about the city after a brief preliminary excavation in 2018 that revealed the ruins of an ancient palace.

The Zakhico site disappeared completely in the eighties, when it was flooded as part of the Mosul Dam project built under the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (formerly known as the Saddam Dam), the largest and most important water reservoir in Iraq used for downstream irrigation.

Peter Walzner of the University of Tübingen in Germany, an archaeologist working at the site known locally as Commune, told an earlier report published in Al Jazeera Net that "with recent excavations, locals have become familiar with Zacheco. They visit the site, it was broadcast on local television, and people delve deeper into their history and are proud of it."

Mesopotamia has long been known as the oldest region where wheat was first planted about 10,<> years ago, and bread was the staple food of the inhabitants of Zakheko, often eaten with vegetable soups and stews, according to Walzner.