World Heritage Push for Garden of Eden
Kyoto/Nairobi, 5 September 2008 - An initiative was unveiled today to list the Fertile Crescent, thought by some to be the location of the Biblical ‘Garden of Eden’, as a World Heritage Site.
Supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with funding from the Government of Italy, the proposed listing aims to further the conservation of a wetland of global, cultural, natural and environmental significance.
The Marshlands of the Tigris and Euphrates delta, spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to wide variety of bird species, were almost totally drained and destroyed by the former regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during the 1990s and early 21st century.
Dams upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which feed the fabled area, had also aggravated the decline. By 2002 the 9,000 square km of permanent wetlands had dwindled to just 760 square km.
UNEP estimated then that these wetlands would be completely lost within three to five years unless urgent action was taken.
The World Heritage management support plan, announced at the end of a meeting in Kyoto, follows a four-year, $14 million UNEP project to restore the ecological viability of the site and sustainable livelihoods to the Marsh Arabs.
Heirs to the ancient Babylonian and the Sumerian civilizations, the Marsh Arabs and their wetland home had been targeted by the former Iraqi government, forcing an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people into exile or camps in and outside Iraq.
With the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government in mid-2003, local residents began breaking the drainage embankments and opening the floodgates to bring water back into the Marshlands.
The UNEP Marshland management project, which commenced in 2004 with funding from the UN Iraq Trust Fund, the Government of Japan and the Government of Italy, has been working with the Iraqi environment ministry and local communities to accelerate improvements.
These include environmentally-friendly methods of providing safe drinking water for up to 22,000 people, the planting of reed banks and beds as natural pollution and sewage filters and the introduction of renewable energies such as solar.
A Marshland Information Network has been established. Training in satellite and field monitoring and wetland restoration and management has also been part of the project which today completed its final evaluation phase at the Kyoto meeting.
Narmin Othman, the Iraqi Environment Minister who is in Japan for the event, said: "I am very happy that we are now going to work towards making the Marshlands a National Park and a globally important World Heritage Site.”
“Because of what Saddam Hussein did, the Marshlands were in danger of completely disappearing, as was the centuries-old culture of the Marsh Arabs. It had become an ecological but also a human tragedy,” she said.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “I would like to thank the Governments of Japan and Italy for their support and congratulate the Iraqi people on these extraordinary achievements.”
Mr Steiner said he looked forward to working with the Iraqi government and cooperating with UNESCO on developing a comprehensive management plan en route to securing a World Heritage Site listing and thanked the government of Italy for its invaluable support.