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 May 2003: Water Returns to the Desiccated Mesopotamian Marshlands
 28 May 2003: Press Release
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 22 March 2003: “Garden of Eden” in Southern Iraq Likely to Disappear Completely in Five Years Unless Urgent Action Taken
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 13 August 2001: Press Release
 18 May 2001: UNEP Study Sounds Alarm About the Disappearance of the Mesopotamian Marshlands
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UNEP Study Sounds Alarm about the Disappearance of the Mesopotamian Marshlands

Around 85% per cent of the Mesopotamian marshlands, the largest wetland in the Middle East and one of the most outstanding freshwater ecosystems in the world, have been lost mainly as a result of drainage and damming. Drawing on historical and new satellite imagery, the UNEP study graphically documents the scale and speed of their disappearance.

Despite intermittent warnings against the imminent decline of the Mesopotamian marshlands, there has been little immediate action to avoid such a fate. Iraq's difficult situation in the past decade has limited access to and hindered monitoring of events in the marshlands. As a result, this major ecological disaster, broadly comparable in extent and rapidity to the drying of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of Amazonia, has gone virtually unreported until now.

Comprising an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, the marshlands are located at the confluence of the two rivers in southern Iraq, and partially extend into Iran. The study shows that these vast wetlands which once covered between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometres now cover less than 1,300 square kilometres.

The cause of the decline is mainly as a result of damming upstream as well as drainage schemes since the 1970s. The Tigris and the Euphrates are amongst the most intensively dammed rivers in the world. In the past 40 years, the two rivers have been fragmented by the construction of more than 30 large dams, whose storage capacity is several times greater than the volume of both rivers. By turning off the tap, dams have substantially reduced the water available for downstream ecosystems and eliminated the floodwaters that nourished the marshlands.

The immediate cause of marshland loss, however, has been the massive drainage works implemented in southern Iraq in the early 1990s, following the second Gulf War. Although some of these engineering works were meant to deal with chronic salinisation in the inter-fluvial region, historically Mesopotamia's main environmental problem, they were expanded into a full-fledged scheme to drain the marshlands.
Recent satellite images provide hard evidence that the once extensive marshlands have dried-up and regressed into desert, with vast stretches salt encrusted. Furthermore, satellite imagery shows only a limited area of the marshlands having been reclaimed for agricultural purposes.

A small northern fringe of the Al-Hawizeh marsh, straddling the Iran-Iraq border (known as Hawr Al-Azim in Iran), is all that remains.. Even this last vestige is rapidly dwindling as its water supply is impounded by new dams and diverted for irrigation purposes.

The collapse of Marsh Arab society, a distinct indigenous people that has inhabited the marshlands for millennia, adds a human dimension to this environmental disaster. Around 40,000 of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs are now living in refugee camps in Iran, while the rest are internally displaced within Iraq. A 5,000-year-old culture, heir to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, is in serious jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end.

The impact of marshland desiccation on the area's teeming wildlife has been equally devastating, with significant implications to global biodiversity from Siberia to southern Africa. A key site for migratory bird species, the marshlands' disappearance has placed an estimated 40 species of waterfowl at risk and caused serious reductions in their numbers. Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the northern Persian Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for nursery and spawning grounds, have also experienced a sharp decline.

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The Mesopotamian marshlands in 1973-76

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The Mesopotamian marshlands in 2000
Hard facts: Analysis of Landsat satellite imagery reveal a sweeping ~ 85% decline of marshland area. With most of the marshland now barren, only a small section of the Al-Hawizeh marsh straddling the Iran-Iraq border remains, but which is itself rapidly shrinking due to upstream water projects.
(Maps Copyright © 2001 UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Europe.)

Despite this tragic human and environmental catastrophe, UNEP believes that there is hope. Bold measures need to be taken by the custodians of this natural treasure for the conservation of the remaining transboundary Al-Hawizeh/Al-Azim marshes before it is too late. UNEP also calls on Iraq and other riparian countries, and international donors to give the Mesopotamian marshlands a new lease on life by re-evaluating the role of water engineering works and modifying them where necessary, with a long-term view to reinstating managed flooding.

Finally, UNEP proposes an integrated river basin approach involving the three main riparian countries (Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well as Iran for the Tigris tributaries) to manage decreasing water resources sustainably and reverse negative environmental trends in the region. To continue in present ways would spell the wholesale ecological demise of lower Mesopotamia, and ultimately undermine the foundation of life for future generations.

UNEP therefore urges riparian countries to re-initiate dialogue and adopt an international agreement on sharing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for the benefit of people and nature, and to ensure an adequate water supply to the marshes. To help stimulate and better advise this process, UNEP in collaboration with regional organisations is carrying out a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which should provide the scientific underpinnings for the improved management of the twin rivers.

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Landsat image of the Mesopotamian marshlands in 1973-76

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Landsat image of the Mesopotamian marshlands in 2000

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Copyright © UNEP/DEWA~Europe/GRID-Europe
The information and images may be reproduced provided that acknowledgement of UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Europe is made.