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Professor helps protect vital Mideast watershed


This 2009 photo by Nature Iraq shows drying marshes with boats stranded in the water. Conditions are even worse now. For more photos, see the Facebook link on the story.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is not the only major watershed experiencing water shortages, sociopolitical tension and environmental degradation. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, source of Mesopotamia and the world's Abrahamic religions, are also in sociopolitical and environmental crises.

“Mideast crisis” conjures up images of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan combating terrorists while Israel and its adversaries seek a peaceful settlement of the perpetual Palestinian problem. For Sacramento State Professor Michelle Stevens, it means protecting the Tigris and Euphrates watershed, upon which so many of the region’s residents depend.

Stevens has traveled to the region several times during the last decade, meeting with her scientific counterparts and urging collaborative actions to rehabilitate the Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq. A couple of years ago, she concluded that the rescue effort must encompass the entire watershed. Consequently, she recently created a nonprofit, Hima Mesopotamia, dedicated to preserving and sustaining the watershed’s eco-cultural heritage.

Hima’s local and international board of directors, plus more than 50 scientists worldwide, is fully committed to creating a clearinghouse of scientific information that can be used by policymakers to effect incremental changes.

Stevens, an environmental specialist, notes that Iraqi scientists are finally able to present their findings to an international audience after being silenced for three decades by Saddam Hussein.  In early June, more than 500 decision makers and scientists prepared the Basrah Declaration of Principles of a National Vision for the Iraqi Marshlands at the first conference on Marshland revitalization. They have implored Baghdad and other governments in the region and scientific organizations to help ensure the watershed’s viability.

She sees information sharing as the first step in creating a consensus that the watershed’s continued deterioration will have deleterious social, economic and political consequences. That consensus could be accelerated by emphasizing warnings from the United Nations, the State Department and the Defense Department that chronic water shortages are a prime source of global conflict.

As executive director, Stevens envisions Hima Mesopotamia’s role as that of a synthesizer to help provide improved communication and environmental alternatives throughout the watershed. She and board member Tim Horner have no illusions about solving the problem. But the geology professor, who has been at Sac State for 17 years, sees an opportunity to start making a difference. The key, he believes, is showing the region’s stakeholders (Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria) that restoring and preserving the watershed is both in their self-interest and cost effective.

The creation of the nonprofit has benefitted from Sac State students Monica Dean and Tova Fleming. Dean, who received the president’s award during the spring commencement, interned with Steven for two semesters. Fleming a senior student assistant and Hima board member, traveled with Stevens to Spain to arrange a conference.

From the time she first encountered the Mesopotamian Marsh devastation, Stevens became committed to making a difference. Characterizing the scene as “heart-breaking,” she added: “The environment I witnessed in Basrah had shattered buildings and rivers so polluted with the algae that the water had turned to bright pink. Garbage was everywhere, and stray dogs snuffled through the garbage, well fed but in ill health. Heavy particulates from dust caused the air to appear sepia-toned, and visibility was similar to dense fog.

"Yet there is always hope: statues of soldiers pointing firearms across the Shat al Arab at Iran were replaced with dolphins and pottery fountains, newly planted green parks and people feeling safe to walk the river’s shores.”

The nonprofit’s operation will be financed by grants and donations. Tax deductible contributions can be made via

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