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West Asia

The impact of war
Sandstorms, floods, heatwaves, forest fire: signs of environmental change?
Coastal degradation
Challenges for the future

In 2003, the war in Iraq and increased tension in the Israeli-Arab conflict were the major developments of concern in West Asia. Although the governments of the region, the public and the international community were concerned over the environmental consequences of armed conflict, policymakers gave political developments and security issues highest priority

One of the main highlights related to freshwater resources in 2003 were signs evident from satellite imagery of a reversal of recent degradation trends in the Mesopotamian marshlands in Iraq (Box 1). There were also some positive policy developments in the area of air pollution (Box 2), institutional reforms, and public participation.

Key Facts
  • The total population of West Asia has increased from about 34.8 million in 1970 to 106.4 million people in 2002, and isnprojected to increase to about 130 million in 2010.
  • Rapid population growth has induced growth and expansion of urban centres. For example, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the average percentage of the urban
    population increased from 66 per cent in 1980 to 87 per cent in 2000, and is projected to be 89 per cent by 2005.
  • About 60 per cent of surface water resources in West Asia originate from outside the region, which causes tension regarding their use.
  • Six GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – produce about half the world’s desalinated water.
  • Agriculture remains the largest water user in West Asia (91 per cent of the total water used) compared to 6 per cent and 3 per cent for domestic and industrial uses respectively.
  • Forest wildfires are a recurring phenomenon in the Eastern Mediterranean forest vegetation, with 90 per cent caused by human activity. In 2003, they occurred in Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
  • Since 1991, Iraq’s rank on the United Nations Human Development Index has fallen from 96 to 127. No other country has fallen so far, so fast. Over 60 per cent of the population – 16 million people – depended for survival on a comprehensive government food rationing system.


Sources: Alyaum 2003, CESR 2003, FAO 2003, Roufail 2003, UNEP 2003a,
UNEP 2003b, UNPD 2002

Box 1: Mesopotamian marshlands 2003

This image shows the main areas that were
re-flooded following the spring snowmelt and
removal of drainage and hydraulic structures by
local communities in May 2003. Flood swollen rivers, canals, and re-inundated enclaves appear as dark blue patches.
Source: UNEP/GRID-Geneva 2003

The Mesopotamian marshlands, the largest wetland ecosystem in West Asia, now cover only seven per

cent of their original area due to mismanagement over the past three decades.
The marshlands, which are reputed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, are an important sanctuary for
migratory birds, sustain freshwater fisheries and are an essential nutrient source for fisheries in the Sea
Area of the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME).

In the early 1970s, the marshlands covered more than 20 000 km2 but by 2000, over 90 per cent had dried out, largely transformed into a vast and barren landscape of desert and salt flats. A third of the remaining 1 084 km2 of marshland, the transboundary Al-Hawizeh/Al-Azim marsh, which straddles the Iran-Iraq border, dried out between 2000 and early 2003.

However, signs of an environmental turnaround in the marshlands started to emerge almost immediately after the end of the war in May 2003, as the arid land was re-flooded for the first time in a decade. Satellite images taken in May 2003 show these changes. Formerly dry areas have been inundated as floodgates were opened, embankments and dykes breached, and dams emptied upstream, assisted by the heavy rainfall.

Sustained and coordinated efforts will be needed if the marshes are to recover.


Sources: UNEP 2003c, UNEP/GRID-Geneva 2003

Box 2: Energy and transport – the development of a regional strategy

Per capita energy consumption in some West Asian countries is among the highest in the world, generating high emissions of greenhouse gases and traditional air pollutants. Countries are now developing a regional
strategy to improve energy efficiency.
The strategy is being developed within the framework of the Water, Energy, Health,
Agriculture, and Biodiversity (WEHAB) initiative, which advocates energy efficiency and alternative fuels, as well as cleaner fuels and technologies. These were reflected in the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Environment and Energy,issued jointly by the Arab Ministers of Energy, Oil and Environment during the Environment and Energy 2003 Conference and Exhibition convened in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in February.
Policy approaches in the region have focused mainly on switching to less polluting fuel types, such as unleaded motor vehicle fuel and natural gas. All the GCC countries and some other Arab States phased out leaded petrol in 2003. Among other initiatives, Lebanon, for example, has banned all old diesel vehicles from entering major urban areas, and legislated their replacement with newer petrol-powered engines. Efforts are also being made to introduce more sustainable fuels for power generation.

Sources: ERWDA 2003, UNDP 2003, UNEP 2003a


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