Iraq's 'Garden of Eden' turning to dust

Posted: 24 March 2003

The Marshlands of Mesopotamia, considered by some to be the Biblical location of the Garden of Eden and known as the fertile crescent, are disappearing at an alarming rate and are likely to completely vanish in five years, warns the UN.

Studies disclosed at the 3rd World Water Forum show that of the 10 per cent of the remaining marshlands, one third has disappeared in the past two years, destroying the 5000 year-old ancient culture of the Marsh Arabs, devastating local ecosystems and endangering many species such as the Sacred Ibis and African darter and an estimated 40 species of waterfowl.

Roaming Iraqi Marsh Arab refugees lead their water buffalo herds along the banks of the Karun River. (Iran, February 2002)© UNEP/DEWA/GRID-GenevaTwo years have elapsed since the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) drew the world's attention to the plight of the marshlands and its unique culture. The Marsh Arabs, the 5,000 year-old heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians, represent the modern world's link to the roots of its civilization.

Satellite studies, carried out by UNEP's collaborating GRID-Geneva centre and covering a period from the early 1970s to 2000, showed that 90 per cent of the marshlands, also home to rare and unique species and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had disappeared.

The new studies show that a further 325 square kilometres have dried out since 2000 leaving just seven per cent of the original area. Unless urgent action is taken to reverse the trend and rehabilitate the marshlands, the entire wetland known as the Hawr Al-Hawizeh in Iraq and Hawr Al-Azim in Iran, are likely to have gone in three to five years.

Click here for maps showing the area of Mesopotamian marshlands in 2000 and 2002.

Environmental disaster

Since the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam's army in 1991, the Marshlands have been systematically drained. In part, this was retaliation by Saddam Hussein for the failed uprising of the Marsh Arabs. In part it was a result of irrigation and dam projects aimed at providing water to a growing population and to make military access to the area easier. Whatever the reason the long-term effect has been devastating.

Mesopotamian Marshes, 1976© Nik WheelerThe area of marshland first began to shrink owing to the intensive damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, reducing the flow of water to the marshes. After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's regime embarked on massive drainage schemes decimating the livelihoods of the then 500,000 Marsh Arabs. Its population today comprises only 5 per cent of the three to four million Iraqis who now live in refugee camps in Iran or displaced in Iraq.

Much of the once lush green landscape is now a salt desert. All that remains is a small fringe of marsh on the border with Iran. The United Nations has described the draining of the marshes as "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters" comparable with the drying up of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of the Amazon.

Giant reeds withered through lack of waterIran, February 2002© 2002 UNEP/DEWA/GRID-GenevaKlaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP who attended the Forum in Kyoto, said: "As we mark World Water Day 2003, we are reminded again of the dramatic destruction of the Mesopotamian marshlands and their unique culture and wildlife over the past decade. It is an environmental catastrophe for this region and underscores the huge pressures facing wetlands and freshwater ecosystems across the world".

"We have already lost half of the world's wetlands in the last 100 years, and the continued desiccation of the Mesopotamian marshlands confirms that more decisive and concrete action is needed," he said.

Recovery plan

Mr Topefer said he hoped that the end of hostilities in Iraq and the rehabilitation of the country would include a full assessment and action plan for the restoration of the marshes.

Mr Topefer said such an assessment needed to address all the issues which are potentially impacting on the marshes, including extensive internal drainage programmes and dams upstream including those on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Scientists believe there is still a last window of opportunity to reverse wetland desiccation and achieve at least partial restoration. In the short term, an emergency release of water from reservoir dams in Iran and Iraq to simulate the seasonal flood is needed.

Iran reacted positively with a limited release of water to the wetlands in March and April 2002 flooding the northern core part.

A long-term recovery plan is however needed. This will require a holistic approach to sustain riverine ecology and an equitable share of the rivers' waters by the bordering countries. An integrated catchment plan would also give priority to allocating an adequate amount of water to the wetlands, while water releases from existing dams can be timed to mimic natural flow patterns and bring the marshlands back to life.

The Mesopotamian marshlands are an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, which is shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Source: UN Environment Programme

Related links:

The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem (UNEP Report, 2001)

Tbe 'Eden Again' Project

The AMAR International Charitable Foundation (Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees)