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BROCHURE RACK

Iraq’s Marshes recovering, but now under threat again.

17/01/2011 11:22:20
birds/2010_jan/iraq_marshes_birdlife

In the Iraq Marshes. Courtesy of Birdlife International.

Marshes on TV

A flim documentary on the regeneration of Iraq's Mesopotamian Marshes, a project led by Azzad Alwash, the CEO of BirdLife Affiliate Nature Iraq, was shown on UK's BBC TV Channel. The documentary may be seen (depending on where and when you are on Iplayer), click BBC2's Natural World series

Miracle in the marshes of Iraq

January 2011. The Mesopotamian marshlands are one of the most extensive wetland ecosystems in western Eurasia, and are home to a rich diversity of life, including a number of endemic and threatened bird species.

But in the 1990s Saddam Hussein drained the Mesopotamian Marshes to punish the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen against him after the first Gulf War. Within months, the marshes, which had covered 15,000 square kilometres, were reduced to less than 10% of their original size.

Marshes destroyed by Saddam Hussein
The effects were devastating. The marshes had been of crucial importance to wildlife and people in the region. Surrounded by deserts, they were a vital source of fresh water, and provided a much-needed rest and feeding area for migratory birds making the journey between Eurasia and Africa. With the marshes virtually destroyed, the wildlife populations collapsed.

Azzam Alwash used to accompany his father, a government water engineer, on trips into the marshes, trips which infused him with a love of this "magical waterworld". After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Azzam returned to Iraq to help restore the marshes. To that end he established Nature Iraq, an organisation dedicated to the protection and restoration of Iraq's natural heritage.

Large scale restoration
Now large sections of the marshes have been restored, and in places the reed beds once again stretch as far as the eye can see. Among the highlights of Miracle in the marshes of Iraq is a sighting of a large flock of globally Vulnerable Marbled Teal in an area where they have not been seen for 20 years. In winter 2010, Nature Iraq counted 46,000 Marbled Teal in the marshes, around twice the previous estimate of the entire global population. As Azzad Alwash says in the film, "when we tell this to Birdlife International, I think they're going to be uncorking champagne!"

Nature Iraq has undertaken six winter and six summer surveys of the Southern Marshes since 2005 - the most comprehensive survey of any wetland in the Middle East. The surveys have shown that no species of breeding bird has become extinct in the marshes, and that many are increasing as the marshes respond to re-flooding.

Globally Endangered Basra Reed Warbler has
increased in numbers since the re-flooding
of the marshes.
Credit Omar Fadil Nature Iraq.

Basra reed warbler, Iraq babbler, Imperial and Greater spotted eagles
For example, the surveys show that the endemic and globally Endangered Basra Reed Warbler has increased in numbers since the re-flooding of the marshes, and that the endemic Iraq Babbler is increasing its range in the marshes and along the Tigris and Euphrates, and spreading into neighbouring countries.

The surveys have shown that the marshes are also very important for migrant Black-tailed Godwits, breeding Ferruginous Ducks and wintering Eastern Imperial Eagles and Greater Spotted Eagles - all globally threatened species.

Dams threatening the marshes again
But the marshes are once again in jeopardy. Upstream dams have disrupted the traditional water cycle, and the spring floods that used to flush out accumulated salt deposits and replenish the marshes with fresh minerals no longer occur. As a result the marshes are becoming more saline, affecting the ecology of the area. By 2007 over 50% of the marshes had been restored, but now the proportion of restored marshland has dropped to nearer 30%. The wildlife resurgence is under threat, and the Marsh Arabs who have returned face the prospect of having to leave again.

Azzam and Nature Iraq are masterminding steps to address this second drying. A large embankment across the Euphrates is being built to raise the level of the river, to flood a large area of the Central Marshes. This is just a stop-gap measure while work progresses on a long-term solution that will shut down one of Saddam's drainage canals, redistributing water using a network of regulators to ensure a ready supply of water to the Central Marshes.

Azzam says, "if we can restore the marshes, then we can restore Iraq". He adds: "What we've learned is that the people and the environment are interconnected here. What's good for the environment is good for the people, what's good for the people is good for the environment, so they are not separate."

Courtesy of BirdLife International   

Read the comments about this article and leave your own comment

iraqi marshes

Without the marshes's southern iraq nothing. very important to the entire marsh is back

Posted by: sleman | 12 Apr 2011 00:36:42

The Nobel Azzam Alwash

This was an astonishing documentary which contained every element of drama, courage, politics, human emotion and fantastic wildlife. I hope the vision of an eco-tourist Eden on such a scale is one day realised.

However it will need massive political will and of course education. This should be a project that the UN and international governments support as a genuine contribution to some sort of peace in the country. It is at the heart of producing something Iraq can be proud of. Azzam is truly an inspirational, visionary figure and a genuine force to be reckoned with for conservation. The film-makers deserve every award going for their dedication and courage to bring this project to our attention.

Posted by: Andrew South | 19 Jan 2011 12:06:39

Nobel Peace Prize for Azzam Alwash?

Last night's BBCtv documentary Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq was inspirational. Saddam Hussein's heinous desertification of the Mesopotamian marshlands in the 1990s was a crime against humanity and a crime against nature - ecological terrorism on a par with the destruction of primeval forests around the world by loggers and farmers and palm oil producers. It almost helps to justify the Allied invasion and occupation of Iraq with their appalling consequences in terms of lives lost, infrastructure wrecked and the impoverishment of a nation.

Bravo to David Johnson and his cameraman who risked their lives in a war zone to bring us these images of a stunning environment with its 'biblical' history, a corner of Paradise almost lost and now slowly being regained. And huge hurrahs to the Iraqi engineer Azzam Alwash for his visionary projects to re-create the marshlands and restore this 'Garden of Eden' to its people and its wildlife. Surely Alwash deserves to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Posted by: davidgee | 19 Jan 2011 11:32:59

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