Japan and UN Begin Restoring Iraqi Marshlands

Author:  Dennis Wenger
Institution:  University of Alberta
Date:  July 2004

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced today an $11 million project funded by Japan that will restore Iraq's endangered Mesopotamian Marshlands for the benefit of people and wildlife. The UNEP has been anxious to find funding for the project since 2001, when it first reported damming and drainage operations were causing serious damage.

"The project starts today," declared Monique Barbut, Director of UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, though she cautions that "nobody fully knows how much of the Marshlands can be recovered."

By 2001, drainage operations in southern Iraq and more than 30 dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had destroyed 85% of the marshlands, leaving only 500 square miles. However, with the end of the former Iraqi government in mid-2003, residents began breaching embankments and opening floodgates, returning water to a fifth of the marshlands by April of this year.

Actual restoration is the next step, and a ten-member team of experts will direct environmental efforts and develop clean water and sanitation services. They will start field studies and pilot water-purification systems by the end of the year. Water-borne diseases are common for the more than 85 000 residents who get their water directly from the marshlands, so water treatment systems are especially important.

Also slated for restoration are the marshland's reed beds, which serve as both a natural water filtration system and a rich habitat for wildlife species and waterfowl. Forty species of migratory birds that rely on the area are at risk; some mammals and fish are already extinct.

The Japan-United Nations initiative will not only renew Iraq's marshlands, but, as Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director says, "I am sure that the lessons learnt during this project will provide important clues on how to resuscitate other lost and degraded wetlands elsewhere on the globe…."