Marshlands of Mesopotamia and the rivers which feed them
The Mesopotamian marshlands have great environmental and cultural significance for the region and the world. This important wetland once covered 20,000 square kilometers and was the largest in the Middle-East. The near total destruction (90-95% desiccation) of the marshlands during the 1990s caused irreparable damage to the environment, culture and people of southern Iraq, with its consequences being felt well beyond the country's borders. Following the 2003 implementation of regime change in Iraq (where 90% of these wetlands are located) the rehabilitation and restoration of this devastated ecosystem was placed firmly on the new political agenda. Scientists and advisors in the field have come to the conclusion that at least a partial rejuvenation of the marshes is possible given the right set of environmental, political and economic circumstances. However the destruction has such a scale and magnitude that it cannot be reversed by the efforts of Iraq alone, and international cooperation is essential to ensure any success. The restoration programs so far have been largely organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and implemented with financial, material and scientific contributions from many governments as well as many non government organizations. Despite the international support, most of the re-flooding that has taken place thus far has been as a direct result of local peoples taking the initiative into their own hands and destroying the dykes which hold back the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. This has produced mixed results as some areas have had a successful regeneration while others have turned into highly saline lakes. It is clear that a more scientific approach to re-flooding is needed for the overall success of this restoration project. Never the less there are some signs of ecological recovery in parts of the re-flooded marshlands as indicated by the return of some of its endemic plant and animal varieties such as the fish species Barbus Sharpeyi. All of the three rivers (the Euphrates, Tigris and Karkheh) that feed the marshlands originate from neighboring countries and all of these countries have extensive plans for dam building and the expansion of their irrigated agriculture. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have already signed many agreements and treaties pertaining to the use of water recourses from these shared rivers but many more issues remain unresolved and are likely to become sources of political and strategic conflict in the future as more dams are completed upstream on these rivers, especially in Turkey. However recent gestures by Iraq's neighbors, such as the decision by Syria to increase the flow of the Euphrates into Iraq, or a similar decision by Iran to release water from its dam on the Karkheh into the marshes, show that sufficient political good-will does currently exist for the restoration project to proceed if peace return to the region. Another challenge to this restoration project is the need to balance the social, economic and cultural requirements of the local population with the environmental requirements for the successful ecological regeneration of the marshlands. Many Marsh Arabs have established successful agricultural practices on their lands and they have resisted attempts to re-flood these lands and many have no desire to return. The task ahead is highly complex and likely to be a very expensive and lengthy process, but success is possible.
Water and food security-Rivers in a global contest