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The Fertile Crescent, One Of The World's Most Important Wetlands, Devastated By Drainage

Iraqis in the country's swamp lands stand on their boats 12 June 1999. Iraq's Marsh Arabs, who live in the marshes of the extreme south, spend most of their lives aboard boats and rafts. AFP photo by Karim Sahib
Nairobi - 18 May 2001
Around 90 per cent of the Mesopotamian marshlands, known since time immemorial as the fertile crescent, have been lost mainly as a result of drainage and damming.

A study by scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), drawing on historical and new satellite images, has collected the first hard evidence detailing the true extent of damage to this important habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries.

The news, which highlights the mounting pressure facing freshwater areas across the globe, was unveiled today as the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), gave UNEP a unique set of satellite images taken in 1992, the year of the Earth Summit, and the year 2000.

The images, well over half of which have never been seen or analyzed before by the scientific community, are valued at US dollars 20 million.

Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, said: "These findings on Mesopotamia have only been made possible by 'eyes-in-the sky'. Iraq's difficult situation in the past decade has limited access to and hindered monitoring of events in the area. As a result, this major ecological disaster, comparable to the drying up of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of Amazonia, has gone virtually unreported until now".

UNEP is urging Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey which are those countries responsible for the marshlands and the Tigris and Euphrates, rivers that feed them, to agree to a recovery plan (see Notes To Editors). A scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin is being carried out by UNEP in collaboration with regional organizations to help demonstrate how improvements can be made.

Commenting on the gift of an estimated 16,000 images by the United States Government and NASA to UNEP, he added:" With these new data sets we hope to learn much more about the true level of environmental damage happening on Earth, from the real extent of illegal logging in South East Asia and urban sprawl in the United States, to habitat loss in sub-Saharan Africa".

Tim Foresman, Director of UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment, said: "One of UNEP's key roles is to monitor the state of the world's environment. For this we need hard facts. Satellites, some of which have been in orbit for decades, have documented the rapid shrinking of Lake Chad and the Aral Sea, the growth of the Sahara, the deadly effects of oil spills and other major environmental changes. And today they are helping us in disclosing the true extent of damage to the Mesopotamian wetlands. Their importance cannot be underestimated".

He adds that the data will also be used to pin point areas of the globe at particular risk from the effects of natural disasters and speed up UNEP's push to create an index of vulnerable locations.

"The way we misuse land plays a significant role in aggravating the impact of cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms and other natural disasters on peoples' lives, livelihoods and property. Deforestation increases the risks of landslides, and badly planned development, from the shanty towns of the world's growing cities to sprawling settlements along the coasts, and exacerbates the harm caused by severe floods and storms," said Mr. Foresman.

"More precise information on the extent of environmental degradation, urban sprawl and the effects of phenomena such as El Nino and global warming should allow us to better predict areas of the world at greatest risk from natural calamities. In turn this should help local, regional and national governments to act before it is too late," he said.

The decision to give UNEP the first complete set of detailed, up-to-date, satellite images was announced by the United States government last year. Over the past six months NASA, working with other US agencies, has been assembling the images taken by its Landsat craft including the Landsat-7 satellite.

Mesopotamia and The Fertile Crescent

There have been intermittent warnings in the past few years that the Mesopotamian marshlands have been disappearing. The UNEP study graphically documents, with satellite images, the scale and speed of their disappearance.

Comprising an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, the marshlands are located at the confluence of these two rivers in southern Iraq, partially extending into Iran. The study, due to be published later in the year, shows that these vast wetlands which once covered between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometres now cover less than 1,500 to 2,000 square kilometres.

The cause of the decline is mainly as a result of damming upstream as well as drainage schemes since the 1970s. The Tigris and the Euphrates are amongst the most intensively dammed rivers in the world. In the past 40 years, the two rivers have been fragmented by the construction of more than 30 large dams, whose storage capacity is several times greater than the volume of both rivers. By turning off the tap, dams have substantially reduced the water available for downstream ecosystems and eliminated the floodwaters that nourished the marshlands.

The immediate cause of loss of marshland is, however, the massive drainage works implemented in southern Iraq in the early 1990s following the second Gulf War.

The satellite images provide hard evidence that the once extensive marshlands have dried-up and become desert with vast stretches salt encrusted. A small northern fringe of the Al-Hawizeh marsh, straddling the Iran-Iran border (known as the Hawr Al-Azim in Iran), is all that remains.

Even this last vestige is rapidly disappearing as its water supply is impounded by new dams and diverted for irrigation. The collapse of Marsh Arab society, a distinct indigenous people that has inhabited the marshlands for millennia, adds a human dimension to this environmental disaster.

Around one fifth of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs are now living in refugee camps in Iran with the rest internally displaced within Iraq. A 5,000 year-old culture, heir to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, is seriously in jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end.

The impact of marshland loss on the area's teeming wildlife is probably equally devastating with significant implications for global biodiversity, including migratory birds, from Siberia to southern Africa. The marshlands disappearance has placed an estimated forty species of waterfowl at risk. Mammals, such as the smooth coated otter, that exist only in the marshlands are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, which depend on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have also experienced a sharp decline.

Despite this tragic human and environmental catastrophe, UNEP believes that there is hope. Bold measures need to be taken by the custodians of this natural treasure for the conservation of the remaining transboundary Al-Hawizeh/Al-Azim marshes before it is too late. UNEP also calls on Iraq and other riparian countries, and international donors to give the Mesopotamian marshlands a new lease on life by re-evaluating the role of water engineering works and modifying them where necessary, with a long-term view to reinstating managed flooding.

Finally, UNEP proposes an integrated river basin approach involving the three main riparian countries (Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well as Iran for the Tigris tributaries) to manage decreasing water resources sustainably and reverse negative environmental trends in the region. To continue in present ways would spell the wholesale ecological demise of lower Mesopotamia, and ultimately undermine the foundation of life for future generations.

UNEP therefore urges riparian countries to re-initiate dialogue and adopt an international agreement on sharing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for the benefit of people and nature, and to ensure an adequate water supply to the marshes. To help stimulate and better advise this process, UNEP in collaboration with regional organizations is carrying out a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which should provide the scientific underpinnings for the improved management of the twin rivers.

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Lake Titicaca Study Sheds New Light On Global Climate Change
Stanford - Jan. 25, 2001
Tropical South America has endured alternating periods of heavy rainfall and severe drought during the last 25,000 years, according a new study in the journal Science. The report -- based on geological evidence from one of South America's largest lakes -- demonstrates how nature can produce sudden, unexpected climate changes that affect the entire planet.


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