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OUR CHANGING ENVIRONMENT: Mesopotamian marshlands

A typical marsh landscape, with villages built on artificial floating islands that enclose an area of swamp which is then filled with reeds and mud. For flood protection, more layers are added each year to strengthen the platform's foundation

Comprising an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, the marshlands are located at the confluence of the rivers in southern Iraq and into Iran. The desiccation of these vast wetland resources is attributable to two main causes: upstream dams and drainage schemes. An aerial view of the marshlands in 1976 shows them still largely intact. Since then, there has been a 90 per cent decline in marshland area. By the year 2000, only a small section of the Al-Hawizah marsh straddling the Iran-Iraq border remains but even this is rapidly shrinking due to upstream water projects.

The marshlands are a key site for migratory birds. Marshland loss has put an estimated 40 species migrating between Siberia and South Africa at great risk. Several mammals and fish unique to the marshlands are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the Northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have also been affected.

Many of the Marsh Arabs, who have lived on their fragile, near-floating homes in this rare water world for millennia, have now been forced to flee as a result of the collapse of their habitat. A culture has been destroyed and an indigenous people turned into refugees.

In the image over, dense vegetation (mainly Phragmites reeds) appears as dark red patches, while red patches along river banks are date palms. By 2000 most of the Central Marshes appear as olive to greyish-brown patches indicating low vegetation on moist to dry ground.

Compilation: Hassan Partow, UNEP Division of Early Warning and Assessment
Satellite images: USGS/EROS Data Center
Photograph: Nik Wheeler