Iraqi Marshlands: On the road to recovery

UNEP releases new findings showing rapid revival of Garden of Eden but stresses need for long-term investment in marshlands

Tokyo/Nairobi, 24 August 2005 – After a decade of decline in which the fabled Marshlands of Mesopotamia all but vanished almost 40 per cent have now recovered to their former 1970s extent.

This phenomenal rate of recovery of the marshlands in southern Iraq, considered by some as the original biblical “Garden of Eden” and a key natural habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries, is revealed in new satellite images and preliminary analysis from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The new satellite imagery shows a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years, and while more detailed field analysis of soil and water quality is needed to gauge the exact state of rehabilitation, UNEP scientists believe the findings are a positive signal that the Iraqi marshlands are well on the road to recovery.

“The near total destruction of the Iraqi marshlands under the regime of Saddam Hussein was a major ecological and human disaster, robbing the Marsh Arabs of a centuries-old culture and way of life as well as food in the form of fish and that most crucial of natural resources, drinking water," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director. “The evidence of their rapid revival is a positive signal, not only for the environment and the local communities who live there, but must be seen as a contribution to wider peace and security for the Iraqi people and the region as a whole.”

Toepfer continued, “While the re-flooding bodes well for the Iraqi marshes their recovery will take many years. We must continue to monitor the situation carefully and make the necessary long term investment in marshlands management.”

"Furthermore, I hope the lessons learnt to date in restoring this vital ecosystem and its economically important natural services can help in the restoration of other damaged and degraded ecosystems elsewhere and in doing so assist in meeting the Millennium Development Goals whose status will be reviewed by heads of state in New York in mid-September,” he said.

The new findings on the growing extent of the marshes come from the recently launched Iraqi Marshlands Observation System (IMOS), the latest component of UNEP’s multi-million dollar marshlands project.

The project, launched a year ago with funding from the Government of Japan, is helping Iraq restore the environment and provide clean drinking water for up to 100,000 people living in or near the Marshlands.

It is achieving this via a variety of activities ranging from the dissemination of appropriate “environmentally sound technologies” (ESTs) to the establishment of an internet-based marshlands information network and technical training (see below).

“The IMOS work is a key component in UNEP’s marshlands project as it monitors the extent and distribution of re-flooding developments and the associated vegetation cover,” said Monique Barbut, Director of UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE). “The systematic monitoring and bi-weekly reports are building an important knowledge base for Iraq. Such information is essential for reliable decision-making in all aspects of marshlands management,” she said.

Totalling almost 9,000 square kilometres of permanent wetlands, the Iraqi marshlands dwindled to just 760 square kilometres in 2002. As of August 2005, IMOS shows them covering almost 3,500 square kilometres, approximately 37 per cent of the former 1970s extent. In spring 2005 the figure was nearer to 50 per cent, shrinking with the high summer evaporation rates.

The different figures reflect the strong seasonal fluctuation in the marshlands ecosystem with extent of water cover reaching a maximum in March, following winter rains and spring snow melt in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The new data on the extent of recovery of the marshes was announced today at an international meeting on the UNEP marshlands project in Tokyo, which included representatives of the governments of Iraq and Japan as well as senior officials from the UN, scientists, and local community leaders from the marshlands themselves.

Working in close collaboration with the Government of Iraq and local people, the UNEP marshlands project is carrying out a wide range of activities.

At six pilot project sites in Thi-Qar, Basrah, and Missan governorates, different ESTs are being tested to see how they perform in bringing drinking water, sanitation systems and wetland management skills to local people and communities. The “low tech” less polluting ESTs include restoration of reed beds and others marshland habitats that act as natural, water-filtration systems.

A Marshland Information Network, an Internet-based system that lets those with an interest in the region share their ideas and strategies, is up and running. An Arabic version of UNEP’s Environmentally Sound Technology Information System, which serves as the basis for MIN is operational in Iraq and in use by the Environment Ministry.

The project is also helping to train the Iraqi authorities, both at national government and local levels. About 250 Iraqis have been trained in wetland management and restoration, remote sensing and community-based resource management.

The UNEP project, “Support for Environmental Management of the Iraqi Marshlands”, is implemented through DTIE’s office in Japan, the International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC). The IMOS component has been designed and implemented by UNEP's Post Conflict Assessment Branch (PCoB) in collaboration with the Division of Early Warning and Assessment/GRID-Europe.

NOTE. More information about the UNEP Marshlands project including copies of latest satellite imagery and photographs is available at:http://marshlands.unep.or.jp/

A Video News Release is available. Please contact TVE Japan on +81 3 3353 7531 or TVE International (London) on Tel + 44 (0)20 7901 8855

The IMOS is accessible at: http://imos.grid.unep.ch/. For archive images/maps go to: http://www.grid.unep.ch/activities/sustainable/tigris/index.php. Also see www.unep.org

For more information contact: Robert Bisset, UNEP Press Officer (in Japan until 26/8) on tel: +81(0)90-9879-7792 or after on +33(0)6 22725842, email: robert.bisset@unep.fr

In Nairobi, contact: Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, on Tel: +254 20 62 3084; Mobile: +254 733 632 755, email: nick.nuttall@unep.org

If there is no prompt response, contact Elisabeth Waechter, UNEP Associate Media Officer, on +254 20623088, Mob: +254 720173968, email: elisabeth.waechter@unep.org

Note to Editors

The Iraqi Marshlands are one of the world’s largest wetland ecosystems. By the time the former Iraqi regime collapsed in 2003, these Marshlands – with their rich biodiversity and unique cultural heritage – had been almost completely destroyed.

In 2001, UNEP alerted the world to their plight when it released satellite images showing that 90 per cent of these fabled wetlands, home to rare and unique species like the Sacred Ibis, and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had been lost.

In early 2003, UNEP revealed that the situation was getting worse. Experts feared that the entire wetlands, home to a 5,000 year-old civilisation who are the heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians, would disappear entirely unless urgent action was taken.

With the collapse of the former Iraqi regime in mid-2003, local residents began opening floodgates and breaching embankments in order to bring water back into the marshlands.

UNEP News Release 2005


 

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