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Iraq: UN Study Shows Ecological Catastrophe (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

A recent UN study has focused new attention on the destruction of southern Iraq's vast marshlands at the heart of the Fertile Crescent. The study calls the loss of the wetlands an ecological catastrophe comparable to the deforestation of the Amazon and the shrinking of the Aral Sea. The drainage of the marshlands is part of a deliberate policy by Baghdad since 1991 to remove cover for anti-government rebels, and it has effectively eliminated the "marsh Arabs" who since ancient times had inhabited the region. In this first of a two-part series on the loss of the Mesopotamian wetlands, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the environmental cost of Iraq's policy.

Prague, 15 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty years ago, some half a million people lived in the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet to empty into the Gulf.

Today, 90 percent of the marshlands -- once among the largest in the world -- are dry land and much of the land is now salt-encrusted and without vegetation. As for the population -- the "marsh Arabs," who have lived in the wetlands since time immemorial -- only 30,000 remain in the region. The rest have fled to Iran or moved elsewhere in Iraq to subsist as best they can, their way of life destroyed.

The desiccation of Iraq's marshlands had been reported intermittently for many years, but until recently the full scale of the destruction was largely unknown. Now a complete picture has emerged, thanks to a months-long analysis of satellite imagery by the United Nations Environmental Program, or UNEP. The preliminary results of the study were made public last month.

The images show an environmental catastrophe that UNEP researchers say is on the same scale as the rapid deforestation of the Amazon basin and the drying up of the Aral Sea. They say that the loss of the wetlands -- like the other ecological disasters -- has not only come at a high cost for the local population. It also will do severe damage to the region's economy and its migratory wildlife, and is almost sure to bring unfavorable climate changes.

The full report, known as the "Demise of an Ecosystem: The Disappearance of the Mesopotamian Marshlands," is due to be completed late next month. It will be available on the Internet at the UNEP website soon afterward.

The drying of the marshes began in the late 1980s, initially as part of a limited effort to drain some of the land for cultivation. But after 1991 -- when Baghdad crushed a Shiite Iraqi rebellion in southern Iraq following the Gulf War -- that limited drainage turned into a systematic government effort to dry up all of the wetlands. Since then, the government has dammed the waterways which feed the wetlands, reducing or eliminating the once-thick vegetation to ensure it cannot be used for cover by opposition guerrillas.

RFE/RL spoke this week with Hassan Partow, one of the UNEP researchers who produced the report. Speaking by telephone from Geneva, he told our correspondent that the drainage projects now have all but destroyed the once-rich ecosystem.

"The local drainage projects which have been implemented in southern Iraq since the end of the 1980s and up to the mid-1990s have had the immediate effect [of] draining this vast ecosystem that covered an area of some 15[,000] to 20,000 square kilometers, and as such made it one of the most outstanding wetlands in the world."

The UN report provides a detailed picture of the damage to the three major marshlands of the area. Partow summarizes the results as follows:

"There is the Al-Hammar marshlands, which was in the order of something like 4,000 square kilometers, and this has now dried up and only six and a half percent remains -- and even what remains is not really [a] functioning ecological unit."

He continues: "As for the central marshes, which lie in the triangle between Al-Nasiriyah, Al Basra, and Qal'at Salih, this area has been reduced by 97 percent and now is barren land and salt-encrusted. And images show that they have been partitioned [with dikes] into parcels to allow rapid desiccation."

And Partow concludes: "The only remaining area now is the Al-Hawizeh marshes, which straddle the Iran-Iraq border, but even this area has been dwindling. Only a third remains of that particular marsh, which is also under increasing pressure because there are still more water projects being implemented in both Iraq and Iran on the Karkheh River, which is the other source of water nourishing these wetlands."

The researcher says that with the drainage of the marshlands, the tall reed beds that once thrived in the area -- supporting its wildlife as well as its human population -- have disappeared. Where satellite images from 1993 show dense vegetation, those taken last year show only barren ground.

Ecologists say that the loss of vegetation has brought about a rapid diminution in the population of waterfowl that traditionally have used the wetlands as a major feeding station during their annual migrations. The migratory route between western Siberia and the Nile Basin is one of the world's major flyways, enabling the birds to survive by summering in northern Eurasia but wintering in Africa.

At the same time, the loss of the marshes is depriving Iraq of its major source of river fish and the northern Gulf of its chief spawning ground for shrimp. Partow says:

"[This] will also impact [on] the coastal fisheries in the northern gulf and also on Iraq's fish catch, because 60 percent of Iraq's fish catch was estimated to be coming from the marshlands. And the marshlands acted as the spawning ground for shrimp, which were an important source for coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf. And we have seen a report of the 40 percent decline in the shrimp catch in Kuwait."

Researchers say that the drying of the wetlands is also likely to reduce regional humidity and change precipitation patterns. Winds carrying salt from the dried marshlands into populated areas will also contribute to health problems.

The UNEP report presents a tragic picture, but it does hold out the hope that if action is taken now part of the wetlands can still be saved. Doing so, however, requires solving some difficult ecological and political problems.

Of these, the environmental problems are the easier ones. Partow says that over the course of millennia, the delta lands have shifted between desert and marsh as the rivers that feed them have changed courses. That means that if large amounts of water flood into the area again, some of its could recover.

But the political problem in obtaining such large amounts of water is much tougher. Iraq first would have to reverse its policy of drying the marshes, and then all the neighboring river-basin states would have to agree to ensure an adequate water supply again reaches the delta. Partrow puts the challenge this way:

"The marshland ecosystem is in itself quite dynamic because this region constantly shifted between desert and marsh as the river changed its course and meandered. So, the essential point for the restoration of the marshlands is that there is a need for a basin-wide plan which will involve not only Iraq but all the other riparian countries -- notably Syria, Turkey, and Iran -- to reinstate some kind of managed flooding that will be able to wash out the salt and restore some of the wetlands."

At the moment, the prospects for such a political solution are dim.

In Iraq, Baghdad continues to pursue its draining of what little still remains of the marshes on the Iran border. That effort is intended to help seal off the frontier against the movements of Iraq's main armed Shiite opposition group, the Iran-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Beyond that, the countries along the Tigris and Euphrates are locked in dispute as each demands a greater share of the rivers' water for its own irrigation plans. Iraq and Syria accuse Turkey of diverting too much of the rivers' waters for its GAP project to irrigate its parched southeast. Turkey, in turn, accuses the two down-river states of exaggerating how much of the water they need. Their quarrels suggest that none of the three neighboring states is anywhere near ready to free up enough water to reflood the Mesopotamian wetlands.

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