Baghdad, 02 February 2021 – Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which aims to protect water, livelihoods and wetlands. In 2008, Iraq ratified the Convention designating four wetlands of international importance in southern Iraq: Central Marshes (Dhi Qar and Basra governorates), Hammar Marsh (Dhi Qar and Basra governorates), Hawizeh Marsh (Basra, Missan governorates and Iran) and Sawa Lake (Muthanna Governorate). Wetlands are land areas that are saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally. The Iraqi Marshlands used to be one of the largest wetland ecosystems. A rare aquatic landscape in the desert, the Iraqi marshlands were listed in 2016 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
In Iraq’s wetlands, the lives of the marsh dwellers, including a small Sabbean Mandean community, are intertwined with the natural environment: harvesting reeds; weaving mats; building reed houses; fishing; herding water buffalo; making cheese; and running small fish restaurants and boat tours for tourists. During her recent visit to the Hammar Marshes in Thi-Qar governorate in Southern Iraq, Danielle Bell, Representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq noted that: “Conservation and protection of Iraq’s magnificent marshlands not only promotes biodiversity and sustainability but is intricately linked to the realization of many human rights concerning environment, health and livelihoods.” Thus, the marshes are a critical resource of great economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value, the loss of which would be irreparable.
This year’s theme, “*Wetlands and Water*”, sheds light on the contribution of wetlands to the quantity and quality of freshwater on our planet.
Dr. Salah ElHajj Hassan, FAO Representative in Iraq highlighted the significance of the wetlands in Iraq by saying “The wetlands in Iraq has been inhabited by rural families for centuries, diverse communities have been living and practicing traditional methods of agriculture, and it is critical to address challenges faced in these areas.
FAO is committed to achieve a more resilient food system and support the efforts of the Iraqi Government to improve food security and nutrition and increase the resilient livelihoods for Iraq’s rural population in South of Iraq including the marshlands. This is achieved through improving sustainable local agricultural productivity and income generation in strategic priority value chains for the rural poor while enhancing land and water resources and biodiversity.”
The Marshlands of Mesopotamia are a rare aquatic landscape; a biodiversity hotspot for key migratory birds and once the largest wetland in the Middle East. UNEP has been supporting the Government of Iraq since 2004 in its efforts to manage key biodiversity areas in Iraq from the inscription of the Iraqi Marshlands as a World Heritage Site and the development of an Environmental Management Plan for the area. Today, UNEP is working closely with the Ministry of Health and Environment and other key stakeholders on the establishment of a network of Protected Areas in the country with the declaration of two key biodiversity areas as protected sites Dalmaj, a natural wetland rich in biodiversity, and Teeb. “The establishment of a network of Protected Areas in Iraq is a key step towards meeting obligations and targets of biodiversity conservation notwithstanding the positive impact of such a network on livelihoods and human well-being,” said Sami Dimassi, Regional Director for UNEP Regional Office for West Asia.
Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Iraq, Zena Ali Ahmad, said: “Historically, these diverse wetlands have played a key role in urban development and the emergence of societies. Preserving this rich part of Iraq's natural biodiversity and cultural history is essential to building forward better. At UNDP, we stand committed to working with local communities in the wetlands to build resilience and adapt to climate change challenges, while also creating sustainable livelihood opportunities for communities.”
With appropriate support the marshes can become a source of development of a tertiary sector based on site management, tourism and hospitality, which in the longer term will contribute to protection and sustainability of ecosystems and the landscape of the marshlands. UN-Habitat will soon be launching a two-pronged initiative: on the one hand it will closely collaborate with UNDP to build community infrastructure and facilities that will improve the accessibility of tourists to the Hawizeh and Eastern Hammar Marshes and provide basic facilities for the marketing of local goods. On the other hand, it will work with local authorities to develop a Strategic Spatial Plan for the socio-economic revitalization of communities living in the marshlands in Maysan Governorate, aimed at increasing the number of visitors to religious and nature sites located south of the city of Amarah and enhance livelihood opportunities in tourism and service sectors.
“Climate change in Iraq is expected to reduce annual rainfall and increase water salination by rising sea levels, which will lead to a surge in dust storms, a reduction in agricultural productivity, and increased water scarcity. All of these challenges will have severe implications for the preservation of the marshlands. The Iraqi marshes are of fundamental importance and their unique environmental space combined with their biodiversity, an international treasure. Without increasing efforts to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we would be at risk of losing the marshes during our lifetime.” says Resident Coordinator for Iraq, Ms. Irena Vojackova-Sollorano. She urged for more protective measures to ensure the sustainability of the marshes and increased efforts to fight the climate crisis overall.
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