Iraq’s burgeoning environmental policy framework

Listening in as Dr. Ali Lami, Deputy Minister of Environment for Iraq, comments on the NBSAP process and challenges ahead

Listening in as Dr. Ali Lami, Deputy Minister of Environment for Iraq, comments on the NBSAP process and challenges ahead

This summer, I have been lucky enough to observe some significant new steps in the development of Iraq’s national environmental policy.  Over the last 10 years, since the US invasion of Iraq, the country has devoted increasing attention to environmental concerns, starting with the establishment of the Iraqi Ministry of Environment (MoE) in 2003.  Much of the impetus for this has stemmed from the issue of Iraq’s famous wetlands (Al-Ahwar), which I discussed in an earlier post.  During my second week in Jordan, I was lucky enough to participate in a workshop contributing to the Al-Ahwar nomination to UNESCO World Heritage site.

During the first week of July, my colleague Haifaa invited me to attend the UNEP/CBD Secretariat-hosted workshop on developing Iraq’s first National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan, here in Amman.  At the workshop, I met representatives of the MoE, including Dr. Ali Lami, Deputy Minister and CBD Focal Point for Iraq, David Duthie from the CBD Secretariat, and Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, from UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.  I observed the initial stages of NBSAP development, including learning the overall process, identifying key questions in breakout groups, then coming up with goals and potential indicators for assessment.

I found this workshop particularly interesting in light of the course on International Environmental Law I took this past spring.  Often we discussed the relevance of broad, international policies and legal regimes, and I struggled with the tangibility of these and their actual implementation.  The Iraq NBSAP workshop provided me a brief look at how the process plays out on the ground.  It is a long, drawn-out, and sometimes amorphous process, just as the legal texts make it seem.  However, it is reassuring to know that the work does get started, and that the many intelligent and dedicated individuals I met are carrying out this work.  Hopefully, a year from now, we’ll be able to read Iraq’s NBSAP and see the impact of this work on Iraq’s wetlands and other critical ecosystems and species.

Iraq's National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan team - Amman, Jordan - July 2013

Iraq’s National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan team – Amman, Jordan – July 2013

Weeks 6-7: Independent work and impromptu translation

The last two weeks at IUCN have presented numerous new challenges.  First and foremost, with the arrival of Ramadan imminent, the first week of July flew by in a flurry of activity, as everyone in the office rushed to hold their last meetings and make final field visits.  I was invited to attend a workshop in Amman hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat.  This workshop brought a large contingent of stakeholders together, mainly from Iraq’s Ministry of Environment, to learn the process of developing Iraq’s National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan.  More about this workshop in my next post.

With the start of Ramadan last week, I’ve learned that the pace of work slows, as offices shorten their hours to accommodate the vast majority of the population fasting – no food, no water, from before sunrise until after sunset – to remind ourselves of the millions of people around the world without access to food or drinking water.  Besides the challenge of fasting (it’s expected that even those not fasting do not eat or drink in front of fasters, so might as well!), I’ve found that my work has become increasingly independent.  Environmental professionals around the region have had to focus on their own work, and responding to emails or Skype calls from a distant office about one project proposal is low on the priority list when you’re in the office for only five hours a day.  Additionally, as my office does not have a marine officer, and our acting regional director retired on June 30th, my work within the ROWA office remains relatively independent of my colleagues.

During these last two weeks, I also was assigned a new task.  Since I am a native English speaker and decent Arabic speaker, two of my colleagues asked me to provide some rough translation work for them.  This provided me a great opportunity to practice my Arabic, realize how incredibly challenging and exhausting translation can be, and learn more about ROWA’s other programs.  Specifically, I was asked to draft English subtitles for a 20 minute video (here without subtitles yet) on the Regional Water Resources and Drylands (REWARD) program.  This program aims to return conservation to Jordan’s dry lands areas, strengthen land rights, and improve the distribution of ecosystem services to land users.  To do so, IUCN has worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and six local communities to develop a community-based management system that regulates livestock grazing and restores natural medicinal plants for cultivation and sale to benefit the local community.  My colleagues also asked me to translate six documents summarizing the latest updates in the REWARD program from each of the six communities, which include Beni Hashem, Al-Daleel, and Al-Helabat.  Not only has this translation exposed me to more of ROWA’s invaluable efforts in Jordan, but it has shown me the truly incredible effort that the Translation & Interpretation students at MIIS put in (and how far I have to go in Arabic)!

Weeks 3-5 – Drafting the proposal

The last three weeks have been a busy time at IUCN West Asia.  I have spent all three weeks working diligently at my desk in Amman to complete my first two draft project proposals.  This has been a challenging experience for me, and I have appreciated the opportunity to develop new skills in conservation project design.  

My approach has consisted of several components.  In my first week at the office, I spent the vast majority of my time organizing myself and my materials to plan for the summer.  This included collecting as many names of what I call “key informants” as possible.  These key informants represent all of the scientific, environmental, policy, and community experts and representatives with some connection to the region and issue I am researching.  I created a spreadsheet of my key  informants with all of their contact information, and very quickly began reaching out.  And in that step, I came across my first challenge.  In this region in particular, and generally across the world, professionals in all fields are inundated with emails on a daily and hourly basis.  Not only that, but in a region like West Asia, internet connections might not be 100% reliable at all times.  Additionally, the nature of conservation in the development context requires regular community involvement and field visits.  As a result of these factors, emails have to be pithy AND timely to garner a response.

In the three weeks following my trip to Bahrain, I’ve since spoken with some of these key informants via email, and a number of others via Skype and landline.  However, obtaining accurate, up-to-date information regarding management plans, invasive species projects, and other related activities from my desk in Amman remains challenging.  Thankfully, I have managed to complete two drafts of the project proposal.  These drafts include a lengthy “Background & Rationale” section on the marine invasive species issue both globally and regionally, including pathways of introduction, threats posed by invasives, and a summary of existing regulations.

Additionally, this initial section describes the three selected pilot project sites for the project (including regulation/policies, current action, status of the threat, etc).  After lengthy review of the marine invasive species literature produced by IUCN and others and discussions with my colleagues here at IUCN West Asia, I have decided that the project will consist of three components: 1) building capacity for implementation of ballast water management regulations (local level), 2) building capacity for marine invasive species identification and eradication (local level), and 3) improving coordination between regional seas organizations and others working on the issue (regional level).  Therefore, I have been working to identify the three best locations (one each in the Mediterranean, Red Sea / Gulf of Aden, and Arabian Gulf) for implementation of the local components.

The drafts also include, of course, objectives, activities, and expected outputs, along with regional and local partners, a Gantt chart (timeline for implementation), and a Results Chain.  Coming back to the communication challenges, the project proposal still needs work with respect to the implementation strategy.  More specifically, with whom will IUCN work on the ground in each location, what role will each organization play, and how do these organizations contribute to the sustainability of the project?  Hammering out the details of the on-the-ground coordination has proven difficult…

Any suggestions out there for how to tackle this problem, without making visits to Lebanon, Yemen, or others?

Week 2 – Bahrain for Red List training and interviews with regional experts


I have just returned to Amman after spending five days in the Gulf – the small island country of Bahrain to be exact.  My colleague Haifaa Abdul Halim and I headed to Bahrain last Sunday, along with an independent IUCN contractor Laith El Moghrabi, to conduct a workshop on the IUCN Red List.  The IUCN Red List (RL) is a classification system for the world’s biodiversity, ranking species according to the level of concern their population status merits.  The list ranges from Least Concern (House Sparrow) to Critically Endangered (Mediterranean Monk Seal), with options also including Vulnerable, Extinct, Regionally Extinct, and others.

Species are analyzed either at a Global level, or a Regional level, with Regional referring to any area of analysis smaller than the whole world.  Classifying species according to the RL requires following a specific procedure, with precise criteria that must be achieved in order to reach each classification.  The workshop in Bahrain aimed to train four scientists from Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment and one representative of the NGO Nature Iraq on the RL classification process and begin a regional assessment for the Iraqi Marshlands.

The Iraqi Marshlands are globally significant wetlands located in southwestern Iraq near Basrah and bordering Iran.  They suffered during Saddam Hussein’s rule, with Hussein ordering the wetlands be drained and dredged substantially to weaken the minority populations that relied on their ecosystem services.  Over the last ten years, the wetlands have seen renewed efforts to restore them, and they are on the path to recovery.

Since this workshop was not directly tied to my research, I joined in as a participant to learn from Laith, who facilitated the training, about how to implement the RL.  I also had the opportunity to learn from the Iraqi scientists, both in matters regarding the Iraqi wetlands and environmental policy in Iraq post-occupation.  And of course, I spent plenty of time listening to highly technical discussions in Arabic – these are actually easier for me than day-to-day rapid conversation and cultural references, because all we study in class is high-level vocabulary!  And many of the scientific terms are used in English intermittently, since the words in Arabic don’t necessarily correspond exactly.

Finally, I also made the most of my time in Bahrain by meeting with several experts in marine policy – Sheikh Khalifa Al Khalifa (of the royal family), who works at the Arab Regional Center for World Heritage and formerly worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a marine expert; Abdulqader Khamis, head of the biodiversity branch of the newly established Supreme Council for the Environment; and Dr. Saeed Al Khuzai of the NGO Al Reem Environment Consultation and Ecotourism.  I interviewed these three to get a sense of marine policy in Bahrain and in the Gulf (one oyster reef MPA and two other paper park MPAs exist), the extent to which marine biodiversity is prioritized (it’s not, coastal development continues unchecked, with sand being extracted from one coastal marine area and used to reclaim other areas to expand the island – a double whammy of sorts), and any information they had regarding invasive species in the region (generally speaking, not available).

The workshop was an exciting and exhausting trip – I was immersed in Arabic, traveling in the Arabian Gulf, and learning a great deal.  Now it’s back to Amman and the next step towards my project proposal: arranging more interviews with key informants and determining where the project will focus its interventions.

Corals were included in the walls of this historic Portuguese fort on Bahrain's coast

Corals were included in the walls of this historic Portuguese fort on Bahrain’s coast

Week 1 – diving right in


The beautiful Regional Office for West Asia, located in Amman.  I work on the second floor, sharing a corner office

The beautiful Regional Office for West Asia, located in Amman. I work on the second floor, sharing a corner office

My first week at IUCN ROWA passed quickly. in Jordan, offices are generally open Sunday through Thursday, with Friday and Saturday as weekends. However, last Saturday was was Jordan’s Independence Day, so IUCN was closed on Sunday. I began on Monday, when I my colleagues for the summer, including my office-mates Amer,  and Haifaa, the UNESCO World Heritage Regional Focal Point for Arab States and West Asia.  Haifaa is acting as my direct supervisor for the summer, and she graciously agreed to speak with me only in Arabic so that I may continue to improve my language skills. I have consequently dived right in to an exclusively Arabic-speaking work environment – a challenging and sometimes exhausting (and of course, occasionally confusing) experience.

I have studied Arabic in the U.S. intermittently since 2007, and I am considered to be an “advanced” student.  However, even beyond the fact that Arabic is a challenging language in general, there exists another factor that complicates matters.  Of the 27 country where Arabic is spoken, not one uses the language primarily studied by speakers of other languages.  This is known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) – it is the formal language, a modern version of Qur’anic Arabic, and used only in writing and formal discussions such as news and conferences.  Instead of using MSA, each country has its own colloquial version which can range from quite similar to MSA (Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to an extent) to almost impossible to understand even for other native speakers (Moroccan).  Thankfully, MSA is understood by almost all native Arabic speakers.  Additionally, the Jordanian dialect is relatively close to MSA.  Still, this has provided an additional challenge to my work at IUCN ROWA; one that I am excited to take on.  I already feel that I have progressed significantly in my understanding of Jordanian Arabic, and I have a basic ability to reproduce it.  Beyond this, it has been a great opportunity in my first week with ROWA to begin learning the technical terms relevant to environmental policy, conservation, and my project on invasive species (al-anwa3 al-gaazia).

And speaking of diving in, I am currently in Bahrain attending a small workshop, conducted entirely in Arabic, on implementing the IUCN Red List.  An independent consultant from Jordan and a representative of Nature Iraq are providing the training for members of Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment so that they may return to Iraq and classify various species located in the Iraqi Marshlands (vast freshwater wetlands) according to IUCN criteria (e.g. endangered, vulnerable, etc).  More on that next time!

After weeks of difficult decision making, I finally decided to spend my summer working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Regional Office for West Asia (ROWA) based in Amman, Jordan. As the sole CBE fellow studying Arabic, I thought I would best apply my skills in an atmosphere that allowed me to discuss marine policy in an international context, including in multiple languages, and with individuals in myriad sectors.  Marine policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region does not receive substantial attention from local experts.  Rapid population growth and economic development, along with the global demand for oil, expose MENA’s coasts and regional seas to serious pressures in what is also a complex political arena.  During my time here, I plan to develop on-the-ground familiarity with regional environmental policy issues, in addition to widely relevant international project planning and management skills.

My project at the IUCN consists of researching marine invasive alien species (IAS) in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) seas, which include the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman. Globalization, expansion of the oil trade from the Gulf countries to the rest of the world, the opening of the Suez Canal, and population boom have all contributed to pollution problems in the region’s waters. More specifically, the issue of marine IAS  grew rapidly when cargo ships stopped using solid ballast and adopted liquid ballast in its stead.  Sea-borne trade, and the associated transport of ballast water from one port to another, represents the primary pathway for the introduction of marine IAS.  My specific project will research the extent of the marine IAS problem in the region, document national and regional legal obligations to manage marine IAS, and subsequently complete a project proposal, including a log frame and budget, for the IUCN to submit for funding in the upcoming years.

As IUCN ROWA currently does not have a marine and coastal program officer, I may also contribute to other projects while here, and I look forward to learning as much as possible about the various programs that ROWA operates in the region.  On that note, I’ll sign off, as I prepare to head to Bahrain next week to meet regional experts for interviews and participate in a related workshop on implementing the IUCN Red List in Iraq’s globally significant wetlands.

The moon setting over Jordan's capital

The moon setting over Jordan’s capital