UN aims to protect Iraqi wetlands

2019-04-03 06:06:04

By New Scientist staff and Reuters The United Nations has today launched a plan to list the recovering ancient Iraqi wetlands, thought by some to be the Biblical Garden of Eden, as a World Heritage Site. The marshlands in south-east Iraq had been almost completely drained in the 1990s during Saddam Hussein’s rule, nearly destroying the home of many rare species and the Marsh Arabs, who lived in reed houses on artificial islands in the marshes. “It had become an ecological but also a human tragedy”, said Iraqi Environment Minister Nermeen Othman in a statement issued by the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the marshlands are spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to rare bird species like the Sacred Ibis. They also provide a resting spot for thousands of wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa. The Marsh Arabs have lived there for thousands of years, but Saddam accused them of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran and ordered their homeland to be dammed and drained. Wildlife-rich wetlands that covered 9,000 square kilometres in the early 1970s had dwindled to just 760km2 by 2002. After Saddam’s downfall, locals wrecked many of the dams to let the water rush back in and a $14 million UNEP restoration project prompted the return of thousands of birds and fish. The Iraqi government says more than half the original wetlands have now been restored and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says valuable lessons have been learned. “They provide a blueprint for the restoration of the many other damaged, degraded and economically-important wetland ecosystems across the world,” he said in the statement. UNEP said the soonest Iraq could realistically put its case to the World Heritage Committee was 2010. If approved, the marshlands of Mesopotamia could be listed the following year. Endangered species – Learn more about the conservation battle in our comprehensive special report. More on these topics: