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Real WMDs in Iraq…and in Egypt, Vietnam and Louisiana!

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Four unlikely co-practitioners of delta destruction using WMDs. From l-r: General Edgar Jadwin, Gamel Abdel Nasser, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Saddam Hussein

by Len Bahr, PhD*

As I write this Hosni Mubarak, the 30 year dictator of Egypt, is stepping down, to the universal celebration of 80 million descendants of noble Pharoahs and lowly builders of the Great Pyramids. Mubarak’s presidential predecessor, Gamel Abdel Nasser Hussein, oversaw the modernization of Egypt during the 1950s, including harnessing the Nile River by building the High Aswan Dam…and helping destroy the bountiful Nile delta.

On February 10 George W. Bush’s widely despised Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld released his memoir Known and Unknown. Rumsfeld’s self-serving account of his role in the war in Iraq is being panned by critics, opening old wounds and resurrecting discussion of many sore subjects, including his conviction that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This bogus belief became the boogieman on which the bloody, budget busting and still unresolved Iraq war was primarily justified.

Although Saddam Hussein’s WMDs were pure fantasy, during the early 1990s this dear departed despot had in fact used a real and insidious kind of ecosystem WMD against a particular group of hapless ‘constituents.’ As it turns out he was far from alone. Let me explain.

Very rarely discussed throughout the conflict in Iraq is its location on the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia, the delta complex of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which is believed to mark the 10,000 year old seat of human civilization. A decade before the US invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein purposely drained and destroyed a 6,000 square mile deltaic wetland ecosystem, so as to deprive thousands of ‘Marsh Arabs’ of a way of life.

In terms of this deltaic setting Saddam’s actions in the 90s and the war that began in 2003 is eerily similar to the Vietnam war, which played out its bloody course partly on the Mekong River delta. Last February I posted on the fact that during the early 1970s the US Defense Department, under the direction of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, used Agent Orange and napalm to defoliate the lush mangrove forest ecosystem that dominated the Mekong River delta, so as to deprive Viet Cong guerillas of protective cover against American air strikes.

Much earlier in the twentieth century, following the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, General Edgar Jadwin, Chief Engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers, oversaw the development of a plan to harness the Mississippi River to prevent flooding and enhance navigation. This $11 billion project, still partly incomplete, is known as the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T) which set in motion the decline and possible fall of the largest delta in North America. All of these delta destroying efforts have involved the use of WMDs, weapons of marsh destruction.

Saving the Mississippi River delta and all of south Louisiana and the adjacent gulf coast has become a mission on which 20 years of planning and perhaps $20 billion** has been expended, with so far virtually no slowdown in the progressive inundation of delta landscape.

This record does nothing to engender confidence and few have been more pessimistic than I about the prospects for sustaining through 2050 a significant part of the Mississippi River delta. Among the obstacles in this worthy goal, I believe that political and legal issues are almost as insolvable as geotechnical and financial ones. Convincing state and local pols to support long term, big picture measures rather than short term local interests, is supremely challenging.

Thus I was surprised to see evidence for dramatic success in the restoration of the Tigris-Euphrates delta that, as recently as 2003, seemed even more unlikely than saving south Louisiana.

On November 7, 2010 I caught the end of a truly inspiring PBS telecast on restoring large parts of what had once been a 6,000 square mile deltaic ecosystem halfway around the world from Louisiana’s formerly 10,000 square mile delta.

The broadcast is relevant to delta fans of all stripes, but particularly those of us along the northern gulf coast. The film documents the almost miraculous resurrection of the Marshes of Mesopotamia, fulfilling the lifetime vision of an engineer who grew up on the banks of the Euphrates River in Iraq. I highly recommend investing fifty minutes to see this account about the resurrection of a dying delta against all odds.

*Founding editor

**The vast majority for coastal protection (e.g., levees), not restoration.

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