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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK
Mesopotamia's marshes 'set to vanish'
Map BBC
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A stark metaphor of accelerating environmental change, the marshlands of Iran and Iraq are nearing final collapse.

The largest wetland in the Middle East, they have shrunk by about 90% since 1970.

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) says the impacts on humans and wildlife are "devastating".


Once-extensive marshlands have dried up and regressed into desert, with vast stretches covered by crusts of salt

UN report
It compares what is happening to "the drying of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of Amazonia".

Unep has documented the marshes' precipitous decline by analysing Landsat satellite imagery.

The analysis, it says, "graphically documents the stunning scale and speed at which the wetlands have disappeared, confirming the most pessimistic scenarios".

By May 2000 most of the marshland was barren, with only a small and rapidly shrinking section remaining, part of the Al-Hawizeh marsh which straddles the Iran-Iraq border.

Desert

Landsat
Satellite imagery from 1973 illustrates how extensive the marshes once were...
Unep has produced a report, Demise of an Ecosystem: Disappearance of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, which is to be released later this year.

It says the drying out of the marshes, which used to cover 15,000-20,000 square kilometres where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet in southern Iraq, has two main causes: dam building upstream, and drainage schemes.

Landsat
...and how, in this image from last year, they have rapidly receded
The report says: "The Tigris and the Euphrates are amongst the most intensively dammed rivers in the world.

"In the past 40 years they have been fragmented by the construction of more than 30 large dams, whose storage capacity is several times greater than the volume of both rivers.

"The immediate cause of marshland dewatering, however, has been the massive drainage works implemented in southern Iraq in the early 1990s, following the second Gulf war.

"Recent satellite images provide hard evidence that the once-extensive marshlands have dried up and regressed into desert, with vast stretches covered by crusts of salt."

The report says about a fifth of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs are now living in refugee camps in Iran, with the rest displaced in Iraq.

Cultural threat

Describing the Marsh Arabs as "a distinct indigenous people", Unep says: "A 5,000-year-old culture, heir to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, is in serious jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end."

The report says the destruction of the marshes is having devastating effects on wildlife, "with significant implications to global biodiversity from Siberia to southern Africa".

It says: "Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have also experienced a sharp decline."

One otter sub-species and the bandicoot rat are believed to have become globally extinct.


The situation is obviously bleak, but there are examples around the world of marshlands that have been revived

Hassan Partow, Unep
But Unep has not abandoned all hope. The author of the report, Hassan Partow, told BBC News Online: "The situation is obviously bleak, but there are examples around the world of marshlands that have been revived.

"It's happened in Cameroon and the US, for instance. The immediate need is to conserve what's left on the Iraq-Iran border, and then to reconsider the engineering works, especially those built as flood defences in the 1950s.

"They're now largely redundant, and that opens up the possibility of reflooding the marshes.

"All the same, it's easy to destroy and much harder to create. And the marshes represent thousands of years of evolution."

Jerome Le Roy is director of the Amar Foundation, a humanitarian agency working with the Marsh Arabs.

He told BBC News Online: "The main responsibility for what's happened lies with the Iraqi Government.

"We know it's technically possible to reverse the situation. But you also need goodwill downstream, to stop building dikes and damming the marshes. And we have recent evidence that the Iraqis are still continuing the destruction."

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See also:

04 Jan 01 | Middle East
Saddam Hussein profile
24 Jan 99 | Middle East
Saddam Hussein: His rise to power
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