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changing sea lanes
basra wrecks pose ecological and political risks

Murtada Taleb
One of Iraq’s most important waterways is littered with sunken wrecks and the debris of past conflicts. Some, like wrecked oil tankers, threaten serious environmental damage. Others are a political danger as…
20.02.2014  |  Basra

Since 1991 the tanker Amuriya has posed a serious threat to the Iraqi coastline. It was sunk during the second Gulf War, when the US led forces against Iraq, following Iraq’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait. And the tanker still lies a short distance offshore from Iraq’s important port of Basra, loaded with over 100 tons of crude oil. For years, experts have warned that the tanker is in danger of splitting open and spilling its toxic cargo into the sea here, causing an environmental disaster that would have far reaching consequences in the area.

A lot of international firms have bid to undertake the salvage of the Amuriya. And it is clear that international expertise and equipment will be needed. But according to some observers, the Iraqi government has not responded.

The General Company of Ports of Iraq, or GCPI, has limited means to do this themselves, the organisation’s spokesperson, Anmar al-Safi told NIQASH.

“We have already cleaned up 25 sunken tankers with the equipment available to us but we cannot do much more,” al-Safi said. “We are continuously asking the Iraqi government, its Ministry of Transport, and donor companies to support us in this.”

And the tanker Amuriya is not the only one. The GCPI has surveyed the area and estimates suggest that there are around 36 sunken vessels in the Shatt al-Arab estuary. Then there are around the same amount again in the nearby Khor Abdullah waterway and the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair. Some sank during war, others fell victim to mined waterways and some sank because of collisions in times of peace. The vessels stuck on the ocean floor here are of many different shapes and sizes, with some in the Shatt al-Arab weighing in at 14,000 tons. Spillage of oil and other chemicals from the vessels has had an ongoing and detrimental effect on the surrounding environment.

In fact, recently Iraqi authorities announced they had managed to retrieve a 500 kilogram missile from out of the sea here.

And the wrecks also hinder the development of shipping lanes, al-Safi said. “Sunken tankers are in three major channels in Shatt al-Arab, Khor al-Zubair and Khor Abdullah. Their presence means the ports get less traffic than they should.”

It also means that the shipping channels have not been able to be dredged and deepened. Although the GCPI is expecting to take delivery of a Chinese-made crane with suitable capacity to help salvage some of the heavier tankers, the process is a long and slow one. And GCPI has lost a lot of revenue as a result, al-Safi notes.

And there are other issues too. The flow of water in the Shatt al-Arab is changing because of all the wrecks in the waterway that catch sediment. As a result, the shoreline on the Iraqi side is eroding downstream and the shoreline on the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab is growing. Additionally small islands are also forming in the waterway.

As a recent study, published in the ARPN Journal of Science and Technology, found “all of these factors act together to change the geomorphologic appearance of the channel”. The width of Shatt al-Arab river has decreased by as much as 300 meters in some areas and the islands are narrowing the shipping lanes. “Any change to the gross morphology of the island group can pose a distinct navigational hazard and/or have profound economic consequences,” the Basra-based researchers wrote.

This is causing political problems too. “The deviation of the Shatt al-Arab water flow has seen some islands formed in Iran’s direction,” Basra provincial council member, Amin Wahab, said. “Those islands are under Iran’s governance. This is something that touches on issues of Iraqi sovereignty and as a council, we believe swift action is needed. A new island has been formed in Ras al-Bayshah and that’s already led to a change in shipping routes.”

“What’s happening in the Shatt al-Arab waterway is now decreasing Iraq’s land,” Wahab continued. “There has also been a change in the Taluk line, which divides the two countries, especially at the Faw entrance.”

The Taluk line is an imaginary line that splits the Shatt al-Arab waterway and both Iraq and Iran agreed to it, according to the Algiers Agreement in 1975. Iraq says it has no idea what lies on the ocean floor on the Iranian side and whether any of that is dangerous or causing further erosion; the Iranians have not offered any information nor have they offered to help in any clean up either.

There are five ports around Basra and although they don’t have deep water access, these are Iraq’s only access to the world’s oceans. Many locals say the sunken tankers and the changing shape of the Shatt al-Arab waterway are only part of the problem. Local sailors complain that precautions on the waterways, such as lighted buoys, are non-existent here, that any kind of unlicensed ship can enter the port because there is no effective oversight authority. They also say that the graduates from Basra’s prestigious maritime academy all work elsewhere and insurance companies regularly charge more for any vessels headed into Basra.

Meanwhile the Iraqi government regularly boasts that it is exporting more oil from its ports - many say their figures must be exaggerated because the ports simply don’t have this capacity.

“Nobody is doing anything about this,” complains Mukhles Abdul-Rida al-Khazaei, a captain in the local coastguard, bitterly. “Iraq’s maritime heritage is at an end.”

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