Sustainable Resource Use Mesopotamian Marshlands
UNEP Study Sounds Alarm about the Disappearance of the Mesopotamian
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
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 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
(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.
document is available in PDF file (1.05 Mb)
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of UNEP/DEWA/GRID-Europe is made.