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Political instability and escalating violence continued to dominate the scene in 2004, especially in Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, depriving the region of the stability needed to achieve sustainable development.

In Iraq, wars, sanctions, and limited regional cooperation have left the environment badly damaged. Land, air, and water are contaminated. Poor waste and sanitation infrastructure have led to increasingly polluted soils, rivers and groundwater resources, posing major health risks (Iraqi Ministry of Environment 2004, UNEP 2003a and b).

There is concern over radioactive contamination. Depleted uranium, used in the wars of 1991 and 2003, is a concern for its potential effects on human health (Iraqi Ministry of Environment 2004).

Repeated attacks on oil facilities are depriving Iraq of funding for reconstruction, and at the same time causing degradation of land, air and water resources. Wreckage of some 282 ships in Iraq 's and neighbouring territorial waters also became a problem in 2004. The wrecks block navigation waterways, and raise concerns for tourism, quality of waters used for desalination, and health of fish stocks (UNDP 2004b).

A joint UNEP/Ministry of the Environment team identified more than 300 sites from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) database as contaminated at various levels by a range of pollutants. The team highlighted ten sites of particular concern for assessment and prioritization. Five of these have been chosen as pilot assessment projects (UNEP 2004a).

Environmental problems have intensified in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Infrastructure services such as water, power and sewerage networks are frequently damaged in conflicts (UN-OCHA 2004). Continued restrictions of movement of people and goods, through closures, checkpoints, curfews and so on, are deepening the economic crisis (World Bank 2004b) and affecting the environment. Restricted access to agricultural land has reduced land productivity, while closures have hindered solid waste collection (UNEP 2003c).

Box 2: Re-flooding of the Mesopotamian marshlands

The Mesopotamian marshes, devastated by dams and diversions under the previous regime, saw an encouraging recovery in 2004 as these NASA satellite images reveal. The left image, from 26 March 2000, shows the marshlands devastated by a policy of drainage and diversion. Inundated expanses appear as blueblack. By early 2003, only about seven per cent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands remained (UNEP 2003a). Good rainfall in 2003–04 in the headwaters of the Tigris-Euphrates marked an end to a four-year drought (1999–2002). Following the spring flood in 2004, about 20 per cent of the marshlands were inundated (UNEP 2004b) and at least 40 000 former residents went back to the marsh areas (Eden Again Project 2004). The re-flooding of the marshes, including breaching of dikes and drainage canals, was spearheaded by direct actions of the local population, sanctioned by the Ministry of Water Resources.

The right image, taken on 21 March 2004, captures the on-going reflooding. Preliminary analysis indicates that the area under water has increased by nearly fourfold, from 759 km2 in 2002 to 2 928 km2in early 2004, though it is still only around 20 per cent of the original size of the permanent marshes (UNEP/PCAU 2004). The recovery of vegetation in some re-flooded areas has been remarkable. Many former natural features are returning, including fish stocks, migratory birds, aquatic flora, and water buffaloes. In some areas vegetation has not re-grown, however, indicating serious environmental degradation (Iraqi Ministry of Environment 2004).

The restoration of the marshes remains a major challenge. It requires intensified national and international efforts, in a strategic programme that must integrate social, economic and environmental aspects. It is essential that the local community should be engaged by providing safe drinking water, sanitation, education, job opportunities, energy, and transportation. The water needed to restore and maintain the marshes must also be secured through negotiation among riparian countries of the Tigris and Euphrates (Iraqi Ministry of Environment 2004). A coalition of donors, international organizations and key ministries in Iraq is now developing a comprehensive plan to restore the marshes and to help repatriate marsh dwellers (UNEP 2004c, Eden Again Project 2004, USAID 2004).

Source: UNEP/GRID – Sioux Falls

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