The problem of the Iraqi marshes
The famous Mesopotamian Marshlands in the lower floodplains of the Euphrates and the Tigris, often referred to as the ‘Garden of Eden’, were once the largest wetlands in the Middle East. However, the marshes, the people living in them and their biodiversity have suffered from massive changes: large scale drainage, mostly by the Saddam Hussein regime, led to their demise. By the year 2000 up to 90% of the marshes were destroyed. After the fall of the regime around 30% of the marshes were reflooded again.
Furthermore, water allocation has been decreasing through developments in the international catchment of the Euphrates and Tigris. Agricultural schemes in Iraq and large dams in neighbouring countries have reduced the flood pulse, quantity and quality of the inflow water for the marshes. Compounding this disaster is the fact that in the last few decades the region has been the scene of several wars. Extensive areas are still littered with one of the highest densities in the world of mines and unexploded ordinance.
Through all of this, a small part of the marsh on the border with Iran has remained and is the only Ramsar wetland of international importance in Iraq: the Hawizeh Marsh. These wetlands are at the core of past and future marsh restoration efforts, but also face serious threats due to the reduced water availability.
Oil and gas development in Southern Iraq
Some of the largest oilfields in the world are situated right under the marshes. Shell (Shell Iraq Petroleum Development – SIPD) is developing a very large project in the Majnoon Oil Field, overlapping with the Hawizeh Marshes Ramsar Site.
Apart from the direct risks from oil development in the marshlands, water competition is a potential threat. Water availability is a major constraint for oil development, as enormous quantities are needed for production. Solutions need to be found so that the oil industry does not use the precious river water that is needed for the marshes, drinking water and agriculture. (View larger pdf map of the marshes)
Under our collaborative partnership, we are assisting Shell to make sure that the oil field developments are taking place with minimal negative impacts on the biodiversity and ecosystem values of the marshes and the services they provide. Importantly, we are seeking to make these developments contribute to the restoration of the marshes: turning a threat into an opportunity.
Here is what we’ve achieved from the very beginning of the project:
- Identification of environmental issues and stakeholders;
- In 2012 we contributed to the development and review of a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), working with Shell, contractor Mott MacDonald and local partner Nature Iraq on baseline surveys for biodiversity and the socio-economic and ecosystem services of the area;
- Contributing to an on-going dialogue on the planning and design of all installations and activities so that they do not affect the marshes, thereby ensuring that future restoration opportunities will not be hampered;
- Demonstrated that the unusually high availability of water – from winter precipitation in 2013 that revitalised biodiversity and benefited local communities – provides evidence that re-flooding of currently dried out land needs to be taken into consideration for concept selection and design decisions, both in terms of marsh restoration and operational risk and hazard reduction.
- Identified further opportunities for marshland restoration, capacity building and advocacy for SIPD staff, local communities and authorities.
Related activity: comparative analysis for world heritage nomination
The Mesopotamian Marshlands were registered on UNESCO’s Tentative List in 2003 in preparation for nomination as a World Heritage site. The nomination is currently being prepared and assisted by Iraq, the UNESCO Iraq Office, the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) and IUCN. We are carrying out a global comparative analysis of the Iraqi Marshlands for biological diversity and institutional management as part of the nomination.
Watch and learn more
The following video provides an overview of the many challenges facing the marshes. In addition, the growth of the oil and gas industry will pose huge additional water pressures – there simply is not enough water to make this possible at the scale being proposed. Innovative solutions will be needed to protect and restore the marshes.