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Habitat degradation and loss

Numbers of threatened vertebrates: West Asia

Note: critically endangered (extremely high risk of extinction in immediate future); endangered (very high risk of extinction in near future); vulnerable (high risk of extinction in medium-term future)

The data include all globally threatened vertebrate species with country records in the UNEP-WCMC database (UNEPWCMC 2001a). Marine species recorded by ocean area are not included

Rapid population increases and changes in lifestyle have contributed to the degradation of wetland ecosystems due to increased exploitation of surface and groundwater. In Jordan, groundwater extraction for urban needs increased from around 2 million m3 in 1979 to around 25 million m3 in 1993 (Fariz and Hatough-Bouran 1998) while an additional 25 million m3 per year was used for irrigated agriculture. As well as water extraction, pollution and impacts from refugee camps in the area have led to the deterioration and drying up of the Azraq wetlands natural reserve (Fariz and Hatough-Bouran 1998). As a consequence tourism in Azraq has declined. In the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, many of the date palm oases and natural freshwater springs have been lost in the past two decades (Bundy, Connor and Harrison 1989).

By far the most serious wetland change in West Asia over the past three decades has occurred in the lower Mesopotamian marshlands, where serial satellite images confirm a loss of around 90 per cent of the area of lake and marshlands (UNEP 2001). This loss may be attributable in part to the large number of dams now present on upstream parts of the Tigris- Euphrates system, but appears to be primarily a result of major hydrological engineering works in southern Iraq, notably the completion of the Major Outfall Drain (or 'Third River') which diverts water to the head of the Gulf. However, despite some negative impacts of damming on indigenous biodiversity, the loss of some habitats such as wetlands has been offset by the creation of large artificial habitats elsewhere in the region. For example, the 630 km2 Assad Lake in Syria on the Euphrates River is considered an important site for migratory and wintering birds in West Asia.

Protected areas: West Asia

Note: number of protected areas includes those in IUCN categories I-VI

Source: compiled from UNEP-WCMC 2001b

The rapid decline of the lower Mesopotamian marshlands represents one of the most significant environmental events to have occurred globally during the past 30 years. Loss of such an important habitat illustrates the pressures on wetlands in the region, which are likely to intensify in future as demand for water continues to increase.

Food self-sufficiency policies in the region have resulted in the cultivation of marginal lands for irrigated intensive agriculture. This has strained water resources and caused salinization, with negative effects on freshwater biodiversity. The breakdown of traditional systems of resource management has also had a major impact on biodiversity. For example, the traditional Al-Hema system, which facilitated the sustainable use of rangelands and other natural resources by setting aside large reserves during times of stress (Abu-Zinada and Child 1991, Daraz 1985) was abandoned in the 1960s in the Arabian Peninsula and Mashriq countries. While about 3 000 hema reserves existed in Saudi Arabia in 1969, only 71 were still in existence under various degrees of protection in 1984 and only nine were on the 1997 Protected Areas list (WCPA 2000).

Coastal and marine biodiversity is threatened by several human activities including pollution (oil spills, industrial and domestic discharges into the sea), physical alteration of habitats (sand dredging and landfills), climate variability and alien species introduced by ballast water (ROPME 1999, UNEP/MAP 1999). The extent of mangroves has been decreasing along the shores of the Gulf over the past 30 years due to unplanned coastal development to the extent that only 125-130 km2 of mangrove patches remain. In Saudi Arabia, more than 40 per cent of the Gulf coastline has been reclaimed and almost 50 per cent of the mangroves lost (Sheppard, Price and Roberts 1992). In the Arabian Peninsula seas, about 20 000 km2 of coral reefs or 7.9 per cent of the total area of world corals have been exposed to bleaching due to increases in sea water temperature caused by El Niņo (UNDP, UNEP, World Bank and WRI 2000). It is feared that global warming will intensify this phenomenon. In the Mashriq sub-region many marine species, including Mediterranean monk seals, marine turtles and marine sponges, are threatened by the continuous deterioration of coastal water quality due to sedimentation, nutrient discharge and eutrophication (Lakkis 1996, Tohme 1996).