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BACKGROUND - The Iraqi Marshlands

The Iraqi Marshlands constitute the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, with environmental and socio-cultural significance. Recent assessments of environmental conditions in Iraq, as reported by UNEP and the UN/World Bank Needs Assessment Initiative for the Reconstruction of Iraq, have identified the destruction of the Iraqi Marshlands as one of the major environmental and humanitarian disasters facing Iraq (United Nations and World Bank, 2003). Critical problems and associated priority needs for the Iraqi Marshlands identified by the Iraqi authorities and the UN assessments include, among others, the following:

  • Marshland degradation: While the reflooding of dried areas started in 2003, only 20 to 30 percent of the original area has been re-inundated to date, with varying degrees of ecosystem recovery. Marsh water is contaminated with pesticides, with salt from the dried surface, and from untreated industrial discharge and sewage from upstream. Haphazard breaching of embankments has also resulted in stagnant contaminated water in some areas, impacting vegetative and fish recovery. Water quality and marshland management is an urgent priority to protect human health and livelihood, and to preserve biodiversity and the ecosystems.
  • Lack of drinking water: The 2003 UN inter-agency assessment and a public health survey by US AID found that the provision of safe drinking water is the critical priority for the residents in the Iraqi Marshlands (United Nations, 2003). While some residents are able to purchase tanker water, many, particularly those living within the marshes, currently obtain drinking water directly from the marshes without treatment (US AID, 2004).
  • Lack of sanitation: Assessments found that most settlements lack basic sanitation systems, and wastewater is often drained through open channels to the nearest stream or to the street. The presence of human waste in streets was noted in 50 percent of villages in the region. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases are prevalent. The provision of wastewater treatment services is therefore a critical necessity for public health. In addition, the return of displaced persons to the marshland area continues to place increasing burden on the provision of drinking water and sanitation.

Importance of Iraqi Marshlands:

The Iraqi Marshlands constitute the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia. They are a crucial part of intercontinental flyways for migratory birds, support endangered species, and sustain freshwater fisheries, as well as the marine ecosystem of the Persian Gulf. In addition to their ecological importance, these Marshlands are unique from the global perspective of human heritage. They have been home to indigenous communities for millennia. The destruction of the Iraqi Marshlands, and the consequent displacement of its indigenous Marsh Arab population, is one of the major humanitarian and environmental challenges facing Iraq. The role of the Marshlands as a transboundary water resource and the presence of petroleum reserves have placed the future of the Marshland region among the priorities for Iraq's reconstruction agenda.

Destruction of Marshlands:

In the early 1970s, the Marshlands, consisting of interconnected lakes, mudflats and wetlands in the lower part of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, extended over 20,000 km2 of Iraq and Iran. Subsequent upstream dam construction diminished water flows and eliminated the flood pulses that sustained wetlands in the lower basin, and increased pollution concentrations. By 2000, over 90% of the area had dried out as saltpans with severe ecosystem damage, accelerated by the construction of extensive drainage works. Based on the rapid rate of decline, the marshlands were considered likely to disappear by the mid-2000s (UNEP, 2001 and 2003).

With the collapse of the former regime in mid 2003, local residents opened floodgates and breached embankments to reintroduce water back into the Marshlands. Satellite images analyzed by UNEP in 2003 revealed that some of the formerly dried out areas have been re-inundated, helped by the wetter climatic conditions than usual. By April 2004, approximately 20% of the original Marshland area was re-inundated, compared with 5-7% in 2003. Some donor governments, including the United States and Italy, have been developing master plans for the restoration of the Marshlands, so that re-flooding and subsequent marshland restoration can be carried out effectively. The final size of the restored area and its ecological character remains uncertain.

In addition to the ecological damage that severely curtailed the subsistence lifestyle, the residents of the Marshlands experienced major displacement in a campaign by the former Iraqi government in the 1990s. Assessments carried out in 2003 and 2004 have reported that between 85,000 to 100,000 Marsh Arabs currently reside within and near the remaining Marshlands, with less than 10% leading a traditional subsistence existence. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Marsh Arabs still remain displaced internally within Iraq, and approximately 100,000 are thought to be living as refugees outside Iraq, primarily in Iran. Non-Marsh Arab communities also reside within the Marshland region.