Monday, June 9, 2008

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Shatt al-Arab

Iraq, Iran (Islamic Republic of)
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Lining the 193-km-long (120-mile-long) Shatt al-Arab estuary, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is the largest date palm forest in the world. Stretching back from the riverbanks towards the desert, date plantations extend for distances varying from a few hundred metres to almost six kilometres (4 miles). In the mid-1970s, the region counted some 17-18 million date palms or a fifth of the world's 90 million palm trees. By 2002, more than 14 million, or 80 per cent, of the palms were wiped out.

Salinisation in the Shatt al-Arab region began emerging in the late 1960s. The situation rapidly deteriorated as dam construction intensified throughout the Tigris-Euphrates basin, considerably reducing freshwater flows and eliminating periodic flooding of the Shatt al-Arab that formerly washed out accumulated salts. In addition, with the outbreak of the Iran - Iraq war in 1980 the palm forest was unavoidably caught in the prolonged and intense crossfire. The destructive power unleashed by modern weapons in ground battles and aerial bombardments as well as deliberate felling reduced the palm forest to an emaciated shadow of what it was in its lustrous past.

The date palms, whose botanical name is Phoenix dactylifera L., are named for the mythical Phoenix bird that sprang from the ashes; date palms are also able to regenerate from fire damage. Biotechnology may be the modern Phoenix that will help replace the millions of palms that have been destroyed along the Shatt al-Arab. Iran is using a new cloning technique to accelerate mass date production, as dates are naturally slow to propagate. Already, thousands of palm plantlets have been introduced. Bio-safety regulations, however, will need to be observed to ensure that the Iran-Iraq treasure grove of 800 plus date varieties, representing more than a quarter of world date diversity, is not jeopardized by a broad dissemination of cloned palms.
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