28 Jun 2016 Story Ecosystems

Crunch time for Iraqi marshlands

World Heritage status would enhance the management of the natural and cultural resources of the Iraqi Marshlands.

Nairobi, 28 June 2016: The Marshlands of Mesopotamia (Al-Ahwar) in southern Iraq, are a rare aquatic landscape in the desert. A biodiversity hotspot for key migratory birds and once the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, the Marshlands provide habitat for the Marsh Arabs and critical populations of wildlife.

Since the 1970s, the Marshlands have been damaged significantly due to upstream dam construction, drainage for agriculture, oil exploration, war, drought, desertification and climate change. By 2003, the Marshlands had been almost entirely destroyed.

The Marshlands were once home to several hundred thousand inhabitants, the Ma’dan. Today’s “Marsh Arabs” live in secluded villages of reed houses. They fish, cultivate rice and raise water buffalo to support their livelihoods.

The population shrank from half a million in the 1950s to about 20,000 following the draining of the marshes in the 1980s and 1990s. But the population has rebounded since 2003, with many Marsh Arabs slowly returning to their ancestral home.

With a steady water flow, limited interference from human activities, and a robust management plan, these natural wetlands may continue to provide a sustainable urban environment for its inhabitants, supplying them with enough food, water, fibre and health materials for generations to come.

“The Iraqi Marshlands are a unique ecosystem regionally and globally where we see the largest river system in the Middle East, a rich biodiversity, historical monuments that date back to 5000 years, as well as a rich a mining ground that accommodates the world’s needs for fossil fuel energy sources,” says UNEP Marshlands expert Diane Klaimi.

“The nomination of Iraqi Marshlands as a world heritage site is in itself a success to securing the survival and sustainability of the Marshlands. It is fundamental to mobilizing global support and addressing the complex environmental climatic and socio-political threats that could be detrimental to this unique natural location in the region.

“UNEP must continue its efforts in supporting the government of Iraq with its various relevant ministries and the Iraqi Marshlands stakeholders to manage this ecosystem coherently to function and provide valuable services to its people and livelihoods.”

Crucial support
UNEP has been supporting the Government of Iraq since 2014 in its efforts to nominate the Iraqi Marshlands as a World Heritage Site. The inscription process, which is based on the Outstanding Universal Values of the Marshlands, will be used as a vehicle to enhance the region’s natural and cultural resources and strengthen the institutional and technical capacity of local communities to manage the ecosystem, conserve its biodiversity and protect its prehistoric relicts and monuments.

The archaeological sites of Ur, Eridu and Uruk as well as the Iraqi marshlands are currently under consideration for UNESCO's World Heritage List. A decision will be made at the World Heritage Committee meeting on 10-20 July in Turkey.

UNEP has been working with partners since 2004 to restore the marshlands to their former glory. It has been able to leverage global support through synergistic programmes, integration and reporting under related Multilateral Environmental Agreements, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention and the World Heritage Centre.

UNEP’s activities include:

  • Supporting the Iraqi Government’s application for the Marshlands to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (a decision is due in July 2016)
  • • Mainstreaming the Marshland’s cultural and natural attributes into a sustainable management plan
    • Facilitating dialogue among relevant ministries and stakeholders to ensure that sound governance structures are rebuilt.
    • Developing the capacity of government officials to implement the Marshland’s management plan
    • Strengthen transboundary cooperation and coordination between upstream riparian countries to sustain water flows.

By September 2015 the project had achieved 70 per cent of its outcomes.
A consolidated and participatory Management Plan integrating cultural and natural components of the World Heritage file in the four governorates (Thi Qar, Missan, Basra and Al-Warkaa) was finalized in June 2015. Partners included the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, UNESCO, the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Challenges with project implementation included:

  • Complexity: the Iraqi Marshlands is a complex site with mixed natural and cultural components. Integrating these into one management plan was complicated by conflicting interests of the water, oil, agriculture, environment, tourism sectors.
  • Drought: In 2015 the Marshlands were heavily affected by extreme drought caused in part by upstream dams on the River Tigris. Local livelihoods were dramatically affected.
  • Security: Although security issues were factored into the risk assessment component of the project, the last phase saw increased risks which affected the capacity building activities leading to the postponement of some activities.
  • Administrative changes within the Iraqi Government leading to disruption and delays in project implementation.

Low oil prices constrained the Government’s ability to provide sufficient funding.

For more information, please contact: Diane Klaimi: [email protected]

Want to learn about the ecosystems approach? An online learning opportunity is coming up in September.