Iraq: Land Cover Change and Livelihoods in the Mesopotamian Marshes (September 2020)

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Until the mid-20 century, the Mesopotamian marshes represented a source of cultural richness and biodiversity. However, by 2002, the marshes were almost fully transformed into a desertscape due to conflicts, hydropower and irrigation development projects in upstream areas. This transformation was accompanied by a destruction of natural habitats for a variety of bird and fish species as well as water buffalo. Local communities who heavily relied upon the farming and trading of water buffalo and fishing soon experienced their livelihoods collapse because of this desertification. Soils became infertile and futile for agricultural activities. In 2003, drainage structures were torn down to start the rehydration and ecological recovery of the former marsh areas. The Iraq Marshlands Observation System (IMOS) project, implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2003-2005), reported a recovery of 42% of the original marshland by November 2005. REACH, in close reference to the IMOS project, conducted a follow-up long-term land cover change analysis to inform the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Cluster and other relevant stakeholders about the more recent progress and consequences of the marshland rehydration to further support the implementation of appropriate rehabilitation measures. For more details on the assessment, please see the methodology section on page 4.

Key findings

  • After an initial increase in surface water and marsh vegetation reported by UNEP from 2003 to 2005, REACH found that the rehydration progress relatively stagnated around the peak extent measured for 2007 with some variations.

  • Besides upstream water management, also climatic extremes such as drought periods in 2007/08 or years with extreme precipitation like 2018/19 appear to have had a great effect on the marshland recovery.

  • The ecological status of the restored marshland area, and particularly its effects on the current livelihood situation of the Marsh Arabs, remains unclear 17 years after restoration began; additional research into the consequences of the restoration program is necessary to foster a better understanding of the sustainability of the marshlands and local livelihoods.