|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