Managing Change in the Marshlands: Iraq’s Critical Challenge

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The Marshlands are of fundamental importance to Iraq, a unique eco-system providing local inhabitants with an essential source of habitat and livelihoods. Not only are the Marshlands an important national heritage and ecological area, but they have also played a vital role in the economic and social advancement of the people of Iraq.
At their peak the Marshlands were considered to be the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, and they played an important role in global ecosystems by supporting rare wildlife and rich biodiversity.

Since the 1970s and up to 2003, however, over 90% of the original Marshlands area were drained or destroyed due to systematic over-exploitation, political reprisals against the inhabitants, and a lack of coordinated management.
Some 175,000 of its people were forced to flee and relocate throughout Iraq and beyond. For those who have stayed, many live in poor conditions significantly worse than in the rest of the Southern region.

Following the 2003 change of regime in Iraq, a unique opportunity emerged to restore the Marshlands. Many communities, institutions and organizations have already begun to mobilize in support of the restoration of the Marshlands. Due to these efforts, roughly 40% of the area has been successfully rehabilitated, and dedicated work continues to restore Marshlands’ biodiversity and livelihoods. The international community is committed to supporting this work. Through the combined expertise of the United Nations Country Team for Iraq and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, the United Nations Integrated Water Task Force for Iraq has developed this report to support the continued efforts for restoration and coordinated management of the Marshlands.

The report focuses on the importance of the Marshlands ecosystem services and the social, economic, and cultural benefits they provide to the Iraqi people, and the report shows the need to intensify the work being done for Marshlands revitalization and rehabilitation. However, revitalizing the Marshlands is more than just bringing back water, people, and biodiversity to the wetlands. The Marshlands’ future depends on how successfully Iraq is able to strike a balance between national development, including the development of the oil industry infrastructure in the Marshlands area, and environmental conservation. Conservation of a unique ecosystem also needs to go hand in hand with social and economic development, ensuring sustainable livelihoods for the people of the Marshlands.

This report is intended to provide guidance to the Iraqi Marshlands stakeholders as well as the international community, to help build consensus on the desired future for the Marshlands. The report is thus intended to inspire discussion and the initiation of concrete follow-up action to effectively continue and enhance Marshlands restoration efforts. This report, in draft form, was a key input to the Marshlands Conference, 6 – 7 June 2011, hosted by the University of Basrah and the United Nations, bringing together central and local government, local stakeholders, the private sector and the international community to discuss a common vision for the Marshlands; and was endorsed by the conference participants.

Iraq is in an enviable position: it has the human and financial resources to protect and develop the Marshlands for the enjoyment and prosperity of future generations. The ultimate outcome will depend on the collective will to harness these resources and thereby secure the sustainable development of the Marshlands as a unique social, cultural and ecological system for the benefit of all Iraqis.

Ms. Christine McNab
Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq
United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator