Mesopotamia Wetlands: Victim of War

“War is never an isolated act.”

(Clausewitz, 1831)

The effects of war are far more widespread than the average person considers.


Eden in the Line of Fire

By María Amparo Lasso *

Ninety-three percent of the wetlands have disappeared in Mesopotamia, the great oasis of the Middle East. Now, war threatens to destroy what little remains.

A recurring nightmare is troubling environmentalists worldwide: the firepower being used in the second Gulf War devastates what little is left of the wetlands of Mesopotamia, a place that many believe was the setting of the Bible’s Garden of Eden.

War is not a simple concept. War not only kills people, it is having devastating effects on our earth. The immediate death and destruction resulting from war often becomes forgotten as cities and territories are rebuilt. But the longterm consequences are even more frightening.


Home to millions of birds, the marshes of what is modern-day Iraq are among the most important in the Middle East. As a regional oasis, these marshlands for centuries provided fertile land and clean water for millions of people.

“I hope the images of the environmental catastrophe of the first Gulf War are not repeated in 2003,” ornithologist Mike Evans told Tierramérica, recalling how he saw thousands of aquatic birds die after Iraqi troops set fire to more than 600 oil wells as they withdrew from Kuwait in 1991.

A photo of a little grebe bird blackened by petroleum was seen by people around the world at the time, and became a symbol of the worst oil spill in history.

Such oil disasters might not happen this time around, but it is still relatively early in the war.

The marshlands of Mesopotamia (Al Ahwar, in Arabic), where civilizations of the Babylonians and Sumerians flourished, are today extremely fragile — and they are in the line of fire (see infograph).

The ecosystem forms part of the Tigris and Euphrates river basin, which gives sustenance to Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.

But the heart of the wetlands lies in southern Iraq, along the border with Iran and near big cities like Basra, which is currently suffering a profound humanitarian crisis, following the overwhelming attack launched by the United States and Great Britain Mar 20.

There, too, the first oil well fires of this war burned. Around a dozen total, but now apparently they have been brought under control.

The more than 1,600 oil wells in Iraq represent a time bomb for the marshes, as well as the potential contamination of the ecosystem by the use of conventional weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction, the passage of hundreds of war vehicles through the surrounding desert and the mass mobilization of refugees.

But the bulk of the damage has already been done. Thrashed by the impact of human activities over the years, just seven percent of the original extension of the marshlands remain, around 20,000 square km.

When Hassan Partow visited the area in 2002, along the Iran-Iraq border, he was heartbroken. Where recently one of the most impressive natural spectacles had been recorded — millions of exotic migratory birds filling the skies — he found a desert landscape, one that had been depopulated and was now highly militarized.

Partow is a member of a team of specialists from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) which in the days after the beginning of the U.S.-led attacks issued a new alert about the tragic disappearance of 93 percent of Mesopotamia’s wetlands since 1970.

“It is incredible to think that an ecosystem that took millennia to be formed could be destroyed in so few years,” Partow told Tierramérica.

This fast pace of destruction has one main cause: the ambitious ongoing water and drainage projects of Iraq and its neighbors that share the river basin, particularly Turkey, which has built 30 dams.

But the series of armed conflicts in the area (the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and the 1991 Gulf War) also played a part. Explosive mines were placed throughout the watershed, which sustains a half-million Ma’dan, the original inhabitants of the marshlands, and the habitat of numerous plant and animal species, particularly birds, some of which have already become extinct.

UNEP says that if urgent action is not taken, the wetlands of Mesopotamia could disappear completely within five years.

“Water is more important than oil.”

Wetlands destruction “is the most serious environmental problem in the area today, both in terms of biology and in the population’s access to safe water. In the Middle East, water is more important than oil,” Jonathan Lash, president of the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Until recently, the marshes sustained the region’s multi-million-dollar freshwater shellfish industry and supplied 60 percent of the Iraqi freshwater fish market.

The thousands of ducks and geese that filled local markets — a crucial source of protein for Iraqis since the post-Gulf War embargo began — also came from those marshlands.

The wetlands also purified the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, which flow into the Persian Gulf, a body of water that is renewed by currents from the Indian Ocean only every three to five years.

The destruction of the marshes, say experts, may also affect the region’s climate, with grave consequences for the habitat of nearly 400 bird species.

Although no species has been declared globally extinct, at least three of incomparable beauty, have disappeared from Iraq: the sacred ibis, the African anhinga and the goliath heron.

Ornithologist Evans, of the Britain-based non-governmental BirdLife International, says experts are worried about several species, particularly the aquatic birds, “because they are more vulnerable to chemical and oil spills than land birds.”

At least eight percent of Iraq should be declared a protected area for birds, says BirdLife International.

Wetlands devastation has also hurt the arable lands of southern Iraq. The idyllic oasis inhabited by the Ma’dan during the past 5,000 years has collapsed. Left landless and caught in the crossfire, the descendants of the Sumerians have had to move elsewhere. Of the 95,000 refugees displaced from their homes from 1991 to 1993, 40,000 were Ma’dan.

Today, many live in misery in encampments in Iran or in Iraq’s cities.

With or without the direct effects of the current war, a flow of water from reservoirs in Iran and Iraq would be needed in the short term to restore the wetlands, says UNEP’s Partow.

However, only an integrated management plan that involves Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria could prevent the extinction of the area’s marshes, he adds.

Efforts of the past decades were in vain. Iraq has failed to sign important international agreements like the 1971 Convention on Wetlands (signed in Ramsar, Iran) and the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. Baghdad has also refused field studies of the area, meaning that the existing research is based largely on satellite images.

“In 1994, when we drew up f the first report on wetlands, we tried to involve Iraqi scientists, but it was not possible. We must re-establish dialogue to achieve the equitable use of the river basin,” Jean-Yves Pirot, head of the wetlands and water resources division of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, told Tierramérica.

UNEP will head up environmental assessments in post-war Iraq. But nobody dares hope that the environmental question will be at the center of the post-war debate.

“I know people at USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and the State Department who are concerned about these issues, but whether they will be given top priority, that is something I can’t predict,” said WRI president Lash.

* María Amparo Lasso is editorial director of Tierramérica.

You can view a satellite image of these wetlands through the Visible Earth Project of NASA.


One thought on “Mesopotamia Wetlands: Victim of War

  1. The Marshes are reviving
    Though dire predictions were made in 2003 about the fate of the Mesopotamian marshes (with good reason). The revival of the marshes has been a dramatic success story in Iraq. As soon as American troops moved through, local people including displaced Marsh Arabs turned off pumping stations, broke down dikes and reflooded large areas of former marsh. Dormant seeds started to grow and some of the wildlife started to return. Luckily a small area of marsh on the Iranian border was dependent on Iranian instead of Iraqi rivers and may have acted as a refugium for some marsh dependent species.
    Since March of 2003 the marshlands have gone from 7% of their 1970’s size to over 50%. My friend Mudhafar Salim, an Iraqi ornithologist has documented both Sacred Ibis and African Darters breeding in the revived marshes.
    The UN has used remote imagery to document the reflooding and regrowth of the marshes. To be sure there will be challenges ahead with competition for water resources, but today the marshes are healthier than they have been in over 20 years.
    Here’s a link to the UNEP Iraqi Marshland Monitoring Program with a more recent look at the conditions of the marshes.
    Jonathan Trouern-Trend


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