Earth Day Focus: Iraqi Marshlands

[Today, of course, is the 40th celebration of Earth Day, first observed on April 22, 1970. For our Earth Day feature, we focus on the travails of the Mesopotamian marshlands, their destruction, and the heroic attempts to effectuate their restoration.]

Iraqi Marshes 1976 (Upper) and 2000 (Lower) (Landsat)

Iraqi Marshes 1976 (Upper) and 2000 (Lower) (Landsat)

In what was arguably the greatest crime of intentionally wrought environmental mass destruction in the history of mankind, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein destroyed nearly 95 percent of the vast Mesopotamian marshlands. These marshes, critical habitat for hundreds of species of birds and fish as well as aquatic plant life, once covered nearly 13,000 square miles of lower Iraq at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Hussein and his Baathists drained them to punish the rebellious Marsh Arabs in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Through deliberate diversion of water and the destruction of 5,000 year old banks and islands, they succeeded in damaging, perhaps irreparably, the ecology of all southern Iraq, and of the Persian Gulf.

Hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs witnessed the wholesale destruction of their way of life. By 2004 a quarter of a million of them populated huge refugee camps or crowded into Iraq’s crumbling cities.

Since the toppling of the Hussein dictatorship in 2003, Iraqis and scientists from around the world have sought to regenerate the marshland, initially through destruction of floodgates and dikes. By mid-2004, the UN Environmental Program estimated that perhaps 20 percent of the area had been reflooded, but much of it with contaminated water. By 2006, one study concluded that perhaps 75 percent of the original marshland (or at least as much of it as had existed in 1973) could ultimately be restored, and later that year some estimates concluded that more than 60 percent of the land had already been reflooded.

Since that time, however, the marshland has again shrunk to less than 40 percent of its former extent. Drought and wholesale construction of dams and reservoirs, particularly in southeastern Turkey, have continued to wreak havoc on the ravaged landscape.

To learn more about the Iraqi marshlands and the chances for their restoration, see Earth Magazine’s feature Lack of Water Threatens ‘Garden of Eden’. Also of interest is the UN Environment Programme’s Iraqi Marshlands project website, USAID’s quick summary of efforts and accomplishments, this item from International Rivers, and this feature from BBC News.

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Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] our Earth day focus earlier this year, we looked at the effort to revivify the desiccated Iraqi marshlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow into the Persian […]


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