The Iraqi Marshlands, one of the world’s largest wetland ecosystems, is on its way back from the brink of obliteration. Nearly destroyed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, there has been a rapid increase in water and vegetation cover over the last two years, new satellite images and analysis from the UNEP show. The Marshlands have now recovered almost 40 percent of their extent prior to 1970, and UNEP scientists believe the findings are a positive signal that the Iraqi marshlands are on the road to ecological health.
The new data on the extent of recovery of the marshes was announced this week at an international meeting on the UNEP marshlands project in Tokyo, which included representatives of the governments of Iraq and Japan as well as senior officials from the UN, scientists, and local community leaders from the marshlands. The findings come from the newly launched Iraqi Marshlands Observation System (IMOS), the latest component of UNEP’s multi-million dollar marshlands project. The project, launched a year ago with funding from the government of Japan, is helping Iraq restore the environment and provide clean drinking water for up to 100,000 people living in or near the Marshlands.
In 2001, UNEP alerted the world to the destruction when it released satellite images showing that 90 percent of these wetlands, home to rare and unique species like the sacred ibis, and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had been lost. Totalling almost 9,000 square kilometers (3,474 square miles) of permanent wetlands, the Iraqi marshlands had dwindled to just 760 square kilometers (293 square miles) in 2002. Experts feared that the entire wetlands, home to a 5,000 year old civilization descended from the Babylonians and Sumerians, could disappear entirely by 2008.
With the collapse of the former Iraqi regime, local residents began opening floodgates and breaching embankments to bring water back into the marshlands. As of August 2005, IMOS shows the marshes covering almost 3,500 square kilometers (1,351 square miles), approximately 37 percent of the former 1970s extent.