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Cycle 6 (2017 Deadline)

Conservation, restoration and current status of aquatic biodiversity in Southern Iraq

PI: Nadia Al-Mudaffar,, University of Basrah Marine Science Centre
U.S. Partner: Brian Helmuth, Northeastern University Marine Science Center
Project Dates: August 2018 - May 2021

Project Overview:

This research project will document and catalog patterns of biodiversity in the aquatic environments of Southern Iraq and enable scientists at the University of Basrah Marine Science Centre (UBMSC) to adopt new tools for forecasting the effects of extremely rapid environmental change on the region’s biodiversity. The project stems from a partnership established between the UBMSC and Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center (NUMSC), which was formalized as a Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions. With the help of the U.S. State Department’s Iraq Education desk and the Consulate General in Basra, NUMSC scientists have shipped water monitoring sensors and lab equipment to UB faculty, and have developed online training modules. To date this project has received no funding other than a small amount of support from Northeastern University.

Building on this partnership, this PEER-supported effort has four primary goals: (1) creation of methods for surveying patterns of aquatic diversity in Southern Iraq; (2) collection of genetic samples that will be cataloged with the Ocean Genome Legacy, based at the NUMSC (3) training of Iraqi scientists through short courses offered at the NUMSC in Boston; and (4) training in modern physiological methods for measuring environmental stress in culturally, economically, and ecologically important aquatic species. The project will further facilitate collaborative research by incorporating its results into the Group on Earth Observations (GEO-BON).

This proposal explicitly addresses three challenges related to shrinking water reserves in Iraq: (1) response to environmental changes; (2) restoration of threatened biodiversity; and (3) proliferation of invasive aquatic plants. The first phase of the project will be to catalog and map patterns of biodiversity and, by making comparisons against baselines obtained from the literature, to detect any major changes in the aquatic ecosystems. It is noteworthy that much of this information on historic biodiversity is contained in manuscripts in the UB library, so one outcome of this project will be to digitize and translate these manuscripts to facilitate their preservation and dissemination. The project will further involve the collection of genetic samples to be sequenced and stored at the Ocean Genome Legacy. OGL is a “Noah’s Ark” of genetic information, not only is a warehouse for genetic material for threatened and endangered marine species but also a means of freely sharing those genetic materials with the scientific community. The second phase of the project will build on established methods for forecasting the effects of environmental change on biodiversity (the expertise of the NU faculty) to predict which species are at greatest risk. Using a combination of environmental information from field-deployed sensors and satellites, with experimental measurements of physiological tolerances of key marine organisms, it is possible to predict which species are most under threat of extinction to rapid environmental change. The project is expected to have direct practical consequences for the preservation of aquatic biodiversity in Iraq, as UB faculty have been approached by the Iraqi Prime Minster and the Ministry of Health and the Environment to help develop a biodiversity plan after the designation of the Basra Marshes as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Summary of Recent Activities:

In the summer of 2018 Shatt Al-Arab faced a severe shortage of fresh water input which caused the advancement of saline water from the Gulf northwards. This event led to a severe shortage of potable water, leading to about 18,000 water-related sicknesses and hospitalization of the public from Basra which lead to riots and disturbance from the public demanding fresh clean water. This event shows the vulnerability of Shatt Al-Arab and the critical situation not only for people, but the whole ecosystem and the services provided by the ecosystem.

The project team was asked to prepare a report within three months on the advantage of constructing a barrage on the Shatt Al-Arab River to stop the advancement of salt water. An environment impact assessment study was conducted by the team concluding that there is still a large gap in environmental knowledge about the river itself and the hope is that the PEER project will assist in filling some of the ecological knowledge. In the meantime, the report recommended a temporary barrage until an agreement is reached with a specialized consultant for the best solution to the salinization issue. The outcome of the study was presented to the relevant local and national government figures on Dec. 17th, 2018 and relied input from experts from relevant university departments, local government, and NGOs gathered during workshops. Dr. Al-Mudaffar also met with USAID representative AbdulKadir Shakir and expert Dr. Barny Austin who is contracted to work on potable water for north of Basra city to discuss the work and knowledge of the river to enable him to understand the ecosystem.

The team expects to receive the ordered equipment in the first three months of 2019. In preparation for the arrival of the ordered equipment, the team has prepped its laboratory and field trips are planned to select three stations for the installation for the environmental monitoring equipment along the river. The field trips are planned for the week January 13, 2019.

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