Wetlands in Western Asia

[reprint of a background paper prepared by the Ramsar Bureau to accompany the brochure "Conservation and wise use of wetlands in Western Asia", October 1999]

Wetlands in Western Asia

prepared by Parastu Mirabzadeh A.


1.     In this paper the Middle East and Central Asia regions are collectively referred to as Western Asia. Western Asia comprises two major floral regions: Saharo-Arabian and Irano-Turanian. The Middle East, Central Asia, a major part of Turkey and parts of North Africa can be considered as one biogeographical region. The countries included in this analysis are: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen and the territories administered by the Palestinian authority. This grouping has no official or legal status in the Convention on Wetlands and is adopted by the author to discuss the wetland issues of the countries having common ecological characteristics.

2.     Though separated by political borders, the Western Asian countries share common cultural and natural characteristics and are predominantly Muslim. The combination of nature and culture, as components of human development, have created strong bonds between the countries. Considered the gem of the arid zones of the world, Western Asia is the crossroad of numerous historical events, and the birthplace of ancient civilizations, and some of the oldest cultures in the world continue to thrive here.

3.     Dominated by desert and montane ecosystems, Western Asia consists of numerous types of fragile ecosystems, each important, and each composed of unique features and resources. "Fragile ecosystems include deserts, semi-arid lands, mountains, wetlands, small islands and certain coastal areas. Most of these ecosystems are regional in scope, transcending national boundaries" (Chapter 12 of Agenda 21).

4.     Arid zones cover 33% of the Earth’s surface. Not long ago deserts were considered errors of nature not worth conserving. In fact, they are extremely rich in biological resources. Western Asia is located within the world's main arid belt extending from the Sahara Desert in Africa to the Gobi in Asia. Although Western Asia is part of an arid zone, its extent, geographical location, and mountainous regions give rise to a rich biodiversity.

5.     Paradoxical to its arid classification, Western Asia includes numerous wetlands and important bird habitats. Millions of birds winter, breed and stage in wetland areas along the migratory flyway of Western Asia. These wetlands provide important habitats for numerous rare and endangered species. Waterbirds occur throughout the year. At certain times the huge numbers of birds can cause one to forget the arid classification of the region.

6.     The importance of wetlands in arid zones is outstanding and they play a vital role in Western Asia. People of the region may exploit the components of wetlands directly as products (water, fish, timber, wildlife), or they may benefit indirectly from wetland functions such as groundwater recharge, storm protection, flow regulation, flood alleviation, sediment and nutrient retention, and from the attributes of wetlands, such as biodiversity and aesthetic beauty. It is the use of these various characteristics that gives wetlands high economic value and supports the local people directly whilst providing goods and services to the world outside the wetland. Wetlands protect our environment, our property, our safety and the economy.

Western Asia’s Biomes

7.    The bio-geographical provinces and biomes of Western Asia illustrate the diversity of ecosystems in the region. Part of the Palearctic realm, and proximal to the Paleotropics to the South, the region supports elements common to both realms. Western Asia possesses 1 out of 8 realms, and 9 of 14 biomes of the Udvardy classification as follows:

  • Realm:

    1. Palearctic

  • Biomes:

    1. warm deserts and semi-deserts

    2. cold winter deserts and semi-deserts

    3. mixed mountain and highland system with complex zonation

    4. temperate rainforests

    5. evergreen sclerophyllous forests, woodlands or scrub

    6. temperate grassland

    7. wetlands

    8. mangroves

    9. coral reefs

Annex 1 shows the characteristics of these biomes.

8.    Arid zones are characterized by low annual rainfall (0-600 mm), usually hot temperatures (up to 47° C), and a high evaporation rate (up to 4,000 mm per year). The higher the evaporation rate the more arid the region. Considering these characteristics, arid zones include a vast range of lands from the Arabian and Iranian deserts to the arid steppes of Central Asia with cold winters.

9.    Various drought levels exist across Western Asia and the climatic extremes are enormous. The region includes steppes where the annual rainfall and evaporation are almost equal, true hot deserts, and glaciated mountain ranges. Elevation alters the air currents, temperature, rainfall, and atmospheric pressure of the basins in such a way as to mitigate the arid nature of the climate. This combination enhances the diversity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in Western Asia.

10.    An almost unbroken chain of high mountains traverses the Asian continent from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey and Alborz mountains of Iran through the mighty Hindu Kush and Himalayas. These mountain ranges create and enclose basins and terrains. Many of these basins enjoy large, permanent rivers, others consist of small or seasonal streams and rivers. However, the terrains are mainly semi-arid and desert.

11.    Western Asia is a land of contrasts and extremes:

  • The highest mountains, the Pamir peaks in Tajikistan, exceed 7,000 meters while the lowest lands of the world include the Caspian Sea coast in Gharaghieh, Kazakhstan (-132m) and the Great Valley Rift of the Dead Sea (–394 m). The Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan is the lowest body of water in the world. Because of its low elevation and its location in a deep basin, the climate of the Dead Sea area is unusual. Its very high evaporation produces a haze, yet its atmospheric humidity is low. Adjacent areas are very arid and favorable to the preservation of archaic materials like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  • In some places annual precipitation surpasses 1.5 meters, while in other areas rain does not fall for years.

  • Desert temperatures in summer go beyond 50° C, while in glaciated mountain ranges summer temperatures never exceed -20° C. Such extremes can occur at the same time in Iran between mountainous areas and the southern coast, for example.

  • Circumboreal flora of Euro-Siberian elements exist in the Hyrcanian forests in Iran, while Paleotropic mangrove and palmgrove communities occur in Oman. Iran holds both the elements of Euro-siberian and Paleotropic flora.

  • Because of the region’s high habitat diversity, Palearctic, Afro-tropical and Indomalayan fauna of very different species occur. Examples include Black Grouse and Sacred Ibis, seal, sea turtle and crocodile. Birds are an important component of faunal diversity in the region. Annex 2 shows the major habitat types in this region with their characteristic bird fauna.

Characteristics and values of wetlands in Western Asia

12.    Although an arid region, drought is not a limiting factor for the formation of a unique diversity of wetland types in Western Asia. The region hosts different kinds of saltwater, freshwater and human-made wetland areas fed by rivers and seasonal rain. Based on available information, out of the 31 types of natural wetlands categorised by the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), Western Asia has all except non-forested peatlands, forested peatlands and tundra wetlands. Western Asia, extending from the Paleotropic to Palearctic realms, has a high variety of wetlands from mountain lakes to mangroves and coral reefs, all with a high diversity of flora and fauna.

13.    Lack of information about the extent, coupled with the lack of awareness about the functions and values of these sensitive wetland ecosystems are a potential threat to their continued existence in the region. In Kyrgyzstan 1,923 lakes occupy an area of 683,600ha. Wetlands comprise 70,500ha in Tajikistan, and 1,500,000ha in Mesopotamia. Iran has more than 60 internationally-important wetlands, almost all of which are important breeding, staging or wintering areas for birds. The 700km chain of wetlands along the Caspian coast is one of the world's most important wintering areas for waterbirds.

14.    The great rivers of Western Asia have their headwaters in Asia’s mountainous back bone. Permanent rivers originate from glaciers fed by snow melt, eventually providing water to the wetlands and lakes of the region. In Kazakhstan 200,000 ha of glaciers originating in the Altai and TienShan mountains feed various rivers. For example, the Irtysh River originates from the Altai and feeds Zaysan Lake. The Amu Darya River originates from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and flows into the Aral Sea. Kyrgyzstan has 8,000 glaciers, totaling 60,000 ha, that feed the Naryn, Chu, and Talas rivers among others. Permanent snows and glaciers in the Zagros and Alborz mountains feed the rivers of northern and western Iran. Major water resources in the region are shared between countries. The two most important – and contentious – river basins are the Jordan and the Euphrates/Tigris. While the Jordan basin is entirely within the Western Asia region, the Euphrates/Tigris receive most of their flows from outside the region.

15.    Numerous saline and freshwater lakes occurring in Western Asia support important populations of flora and fauna. However, the Middle East region is considered the poorest in terms of freshwater resources. The Aral Sea, the world’s fourth largest lake, supported a rich fauna and a significant commercial fishery before undergoing critical ecological changes. The vast (480,000ha), hyper-saline (150 gr./lit) Urmieh Lake in Iran is an important breeding site for flamingo, pelican and shelduck. The Aral Sea, Balkhash, Issyk Kul, Urmieh and Caspian are among the internationally known lakes of this region. Zaysan and Alakol lakes in Kazakhstan, Chatyrkel and Sankel lakes in Kyrgyzstan, Arnasay, Shurkul and Sarigamish lakes in Uzbekistan, the brackish lakes of Dasht Nawar and Ab-i-Istada in the eastern highlands of Afghanistan, and Parishan and Bakhtegan lakes in Iran are among the most important areas for birds in Western Asia. Wetlands important for migratory birds develop at lake margins. Examples include the Ghara Gheshlaq marshes, Dorgeh Sanghi, Kobi and Gerde Gheet fringing Urmieh Lake, the paddy fields along the Caspian coast and Turgay depressions bordering the Aral Sea.

16.    Famous for their scenic beauty, the myriad mountain lakes occurring in Western Asia possess lesser known values that are often not studied. Examples are: Valasht, Gahar and Neor in Iran, Karakul and Zorkul in Tajikistan and Sankel, Chatyrkel and Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan. Issyk-kul is one of the world’s greatest mountain lakes. Located in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Issyk-kul is known for its great depth (700m) and a series of hot springs that keep the lake ice-free in winter. Supporting a rich plankton and fish fauna, the lake is of great limnological interest.

17.    In this region rivers lying in enclosed drainage basins terminate in saline wetlands. These wetlands are subject to wide fluctuations in water level, often drying out completely during periods of drought. Extensive fresh to brackish marshes occur where rivers and spring-fed streams enter these salt lakes. Examples include the wetlands of the Sistan Basin in Iran and Afghanistan, Sabkat al Jabboul in Syria and the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan.

18.    Rainfall varies greatly across Western Asia. Seasonal streams flowing into enclosed basins ultimately create temporary wetlands. These wetlands, although ephemeral, are of great significance and, albeit numerous, because of their small size are often not studied or considered for conservation. Because of their high species diversity, large numbers of birds are attracted to temporary wetlands. Harm Lake, in the Zagros Mountains in Iran, is important for wintering waterbirds, notably the common crane (Grus grus). Western Asia has many of these small, temporary wetlands that require further study of their values.

19.    One of the outstanding characteristics of wetlands in Western Asia is that they are surrounded by deserts and arid saline lands such as the wetlands of Jazmoorian and Gave Khoni that are surrounded by the central desert of Iran; the Aral Sea by Kyzyl Kum, Barsuki and Kara Kum deserts in Kazakhstan; Lake Balkhash by Muyun Kum and Izhikotrau sands in Kazakhstan; the Caspian Sea by the Touran and Kara Kum deserts; Azraq Oasis by Jordan’s eastern desert; and the Playa wetlands in the extremely arid interior parts of the Arabian Peninsula in northern Saudi Arabia.

20.    Large rivers rising in the mountains flow out onto plains and create vast complexes of seasonal floodplain wetlands, such as the plains of Khuzestan in Iran and the great floodplain wetlands of lower Mesopotamia in Iraq. The Arabian Peninsula lacks major natural inland wetlands but has widespread wetlands on the coast. Bordering the coastal areas of Oman, Iran, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, especially around Farazan Island in the Red Sea, various types of wetlands exist, including mangroves, mudflats and inter-tidal areas. Sheltered bays and coastal lagoons along the Persian and Oman gulfs support the westernmost extension of mangrove forests in Asia. They comprise monospecific stands of black mangrove (Avicennia marina), and scattered stands of Rhizophora mucronota. Tidal flats associated with mangroves provide important habitat for migratory birds and breeding marine fishes.

21.    In some parts of Western Asia, warm shallow coastal waters provide suitable environment for the development of coral reefs and seagrass beds. In the Red Sea, well-developed fringing reefs are largely restricted to the northern and central portions. In the Gulf, extensive areas of reef-building corals are found in the shallow waters to the southwest, around the Saudi Arabian offshore islands, around Kubbar Island in Kuwait, and around islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Reefs are also found in the coastal waters of United Arab Emirates, on the east coast of Bahrain and Qatar, and along the coasts of the Persian and Oman gulfs. Reefs, in combination with other coastal habitats, provide shelter and nutrients and serve as breeding grounds for many commercial species (e.g., spiny lobsters in Oman). Reefs are also an important resource in small-scale traditional fisheries and for the subsistence fishermen of the region.

22.    As quoted in Dugan (1993): "Countries of the Arabian Peninsula, struggling with a shortage of water resources, have constructed numerous dams and extensive water channels. As a result, a large number of artificial wetlands have come into existence. The majority are either water storage reservoirs, areas of spillage from irrigation systems, sewage treatment ponds, or artificial lagoons created by waste water from urban and industrial areas. Some of these wetlands can be surprisingly large, and many rank among the most important freshwater habitats for wildlife in the region, providing stop-over areas for a wide variety of migratory birds: Lake Norooz in Iran, Wadi Jizan and Wadi Hanifa in Saudi Arabia, and Buhirat Al Assad in Syria are some examples."

23.    Wetlands are of vital importance for Western Asia, and their importance to human populations in arid zones is outstanding. The microclimate around wetlands creates favorable conditions for life and the settlement of wetland communities. The wetland communities known as Ma’adans have lived near, and have depended for their livelihood on the wetlands of lower Iraq for over 5,000 years. The area’s reedbeds provide these people a source of income and are used for boat and house construction. The lakes are an important fishing ground and always provide them food. Other human activities include bird hunting and raising buffalos. Another example is the local community around Hamoun Lake in Iran, where the people are fully dependent on this lake for their livelihood. They are well known for their skill in constructing their houses and boats (known as Totan) from reeds. They breed a variety of cattle called Sistani that is resistant to the harsh environment of the region. These isolated communities maintain a culture and way of life little changed for hundreds of years. Their symbiosis with wetlands is remarkable.

24.    Wetlands are the foundation of the economically important fishing industry and food security in the region. Most fish depend on wetlands for their survival. Freshwater fish depend on wetlands either directly, for food, habitat, or breeding, at some point in their lifecycle; or indirectly by consuming prey which are wetland dependent. Fishes in coastal waters spawn or nurture their young in estuarine wetlands and shellfish depends on tidal flats for survival.

25.    In arid zones, wetlands are important places for conservation of the fish gene pool of the families Cyprinidae (especially Barbus) and Balitoridae. The highest diversity of Barbus in the world is found in the wetlands of arid zones and some species are endemic to Western Asia, such as B. esocinus in Horalazim and B. grypus which are mainly in the wetlands of Khuzestan.

26.    Western Asia is the principal area for the conservation and maintenance of Acipenseridae species or sturgeon fishes. These ancient fishes are now threatened by over-exploitation. The Caspian Sea is a key nursery ground for the following sturgeon species: Huso huso (Beluga), Acipenser stellatus (Stellate sturgeon), A. persicus (Persian sturgeon), A. gueldenstdaeti (Russian sturgeon).

27.    Western Asia is rich in endemic fish species that have evolved in isolated or closed basins. The study of such species is important for conservation purposes. Basins shared by two or more countries has resulted in common fish fauna in those countries; for example, fish species in Iraq are similar to those in west Iran. On the other hand, Afghanistan has some oriental species that do not occur in Iran. Saudi Arabia has no major rivers, however perennial wadis support limited fish and amphibians diversity. Wadi Hadramawt, some 240 km in length, is the largest natural permanent river in Yemen, and contains five of the nine indigenous freshwater fishes of the Arabian Peninsula, including three of the six Arabian endemics.

28.    The presence of wetlands in arid zones increases ecosystem diversity, supports species dependent on wetlands and provides for wetland and terrestrial food chains. Wetlands are important for the protection of populations of some small mammals. In Western Asia major populations of some mammals are only found in wetland areas e.g., Lutra lutra (otter), Felis chaus (wild cat) and Dugong dugon (dugong). Otter and dugong are under threat in many regions of the world and the wetlands of Western Asia are one of their main habitats.

29.    Wetlands support high populations of insects, a food source for warblers, swallows and martins. Wetlands are the main habitats for amphibians and reptiles such as true frogs (genus Hyla and Rana) and Colubridae snakes. The sandy beaches of the Persian Gulf are important nesting areas for green turtle (Chelonia mydas), a globally threatened species.

30.    As quoted in Dugan (1993): "Ten waterbirds closely associated with the Middle East are believed to have evolved around the shores of the ancient Sarmatic Sea. About three million years ago this vast inland, saline sea extended as a continuation of the present eastern Mediterranean, through the Black and Caspian seas to the Aral Sea and beyond. As this sea became fragmented into a chain of smaller inland seas and salt lakes, the population of waterbirds associated with it similarly became fragmented, and most of these species are now extremely scarce."

31.    Western Asia is host to millions of migratory birds from Siberia which use its wetlands as wintering, breeding or staging areas. High populations of numerous species including ducks, grebes, cormorants, cranes, coots and swallows occur throughout the region. The wetlands of Mesopotamia and those of the Caspian coast harbour a diversity of duck and goose species, while mudflats along the Persian Gulf and coast of Saudi Arabia are important for terns, gulls and waders.

32.    Two out of three Western Asian flyway populations of Siberian cranes (Grus leucogeranus) depend on the region’s wetlands for passage and wintering. From their breeding ground in Siberia one flock migrates to northern India through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to winter and the other flock migrates to Iran at the Caspian coast in Iran (Fereidoon Kenar marsh) through Kazakhstan.

33.    The wetlands of Western Asia are among the main habitats of globally threatened waterbird species such as pygmy cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmeus), Dalmation pelican (Pelicanus crispus), northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus), red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis), marbled teal (Anas angustirostris), white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala), Siberian crane (Grus leucogeranus), slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris), white-eyed gull (Larus leucophthalmus), Audouin’s gull (Larus audouinii), great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus).

34.    Wetlands in arid zones are not only important for migratory birds but also for Accipitridae such as harriers and eagles. The wetlands of Western Asia provide important habitat, wintering and breeding areas for four species of harriers and threatened species of eagle such as greater spotted eagle (Aquila clanga), Pallas’s sea-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca).

35.    There is an immense difference in the level of biodiversity between an arid area with a wetland and one without. Wetlands also moderate the arid environment and are well known for their aesthetic values. These elements contribute to the recreational, eco-tourism and educational values of wetlands in Western Asia.

Conservation and Wise Use of Wetlands in Western Asia

Present Status

36.    In a statement issued for World Water Day 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated, "The consequences of the increasing global water scarcity will largely be felt in the arid and semi-arid areas, in rapidly growing coastal regions and in the megacities of the developing world." The key conservation issue for most wetlands in the arid zones of the world is the supply of water. Some wetlands contribute to the drinking water supply by collecting and releasing water to groundwater systems and surface water reservoirs. During the dry season ground water-fed wetlands offset the effects of droughts and water shortage. Wetlands are also natural water filters. The degradation and loss of wetlands can impact water supplies and, in some cases, result in water shortages. It is important to bear in mind that wetlands are vital elements of water systems, and that in addressing freshwater management problems, integrated water resources management has to be built upon protecting and maintaining "healthy" wetland ecosystems. Population increase and a corresponding increase in demand for water for development purposes has created an urgent need for effective management approaches to balance conservation and development in wetland areas.

37.    An analysis of the National Reports submitted by the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention in Western Asia for the 7th Conference of the Contracting Parties revealed the following:

  • None of the countries have a national wetland policy, strategy or action plan in place, but all have other national environmental or conservation planning initiatives that take into account the conservation and wise use of wetlands;

  • Actions have been taken to review legislation and practices that impact on wetlands;

  • Efforts have been made to have wetlands considered in integrated land, water and coastal zone planning and management processes;

  • Actions have been taken to incorporate economic valuation techniques into natural resource planning and assessment actions for wetlands;

  • In all countries, Environmental Impact Assessment is required under legislation for actions potentially impacting wetlands;

  • Wetland restoration and rehabilitation is receiving increasing attention in countries of the region;

  • Actions have been taken to encourage the active and informed participation of local communities, including indigenous people, particularly women, in the conservation and wise use of wetlands;

  • Government-run programs exist for education and public awareness that include wetlands. Various actions have been taken to enhance education and public awareness through the involvement and contribution of NGOs;

  • In all the member countries mechanisms are in place, or being introduced, to increase cooperation between the institutions responsible for actions impacting on the conservation and wise use of wetlands;

  • The National Reports revealed that the pertinent countries are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. Most countries have mechanisms in place to assist regular dialogue and cooperation between personnel responsible for the implementation of the above conventions and the Ramsar Administrative Authority.

38.    Wetlands in Western Asia are subject to various threats and negative impacts resulting from human activities. The impacts of human activities on wetlands surrounded by desert or those set in internal basins are severe. In arid regions, the degradation of wetlands and therefore changes in the microclimate extend the harsh climate, contribute to desertification and adversely affect human communities in the area. The most widespread threats to wetlands in Western Asia are explained in the following paragraphs.

39.     Pollution: Non-point source pollution is generally caused by agricultural runoff. Inputs of fertilizer, sewage, and industrial effluent have caused adverse changes in the ecological character of wetlands. Anzali Mordab and Gave Khoni wetlands in Iran are good examples. Industrial pollution carried by the Zayande Rud River to the Gave Khoni wetland is presently, a serious problem. Eutrophication and associated pollution seriously threaten the coastal wetland Dhabbiyah in the United Arab Emirates.

40.    Oil pollution: Oil pollution is a constant threat to coastal wetlands along the Persian Gulf. For example, Tubli Bay in Bahrain is under heavy pressure from various human activities and oil pollution. The Khor Al-Musfateh system in Kuwait was badly affected by oil pollution during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. A survey in May 1991 revealed that oil had been deposited in a 2-3 meter-wide band along 0.5 km of the bank of the main creek in the area.

41.    Drainage and in-fill: Wetlands have been drained and in-filled for agriculture, industry and urban development. By the beginning of the 1900s, the majority of freshwater wetlands had already been drained for agriculture in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Major changes in the ecological character of Azraq Oasis in Jordan are due to massive extraction of groundwater from aquifers, for irrigation and to supply water to Amman. In Iraq, Haur Abu Ajul was completely drained for agriculture and Haur Chmuqa was greatly reduced in size by an embankment.

42.   Water diversion: In a region where water is a scarce resource nearly everywhere, wetlands are under particularly severe pressure. The increasing draw down of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for irrigation in Turkey, Syria and upper Iraq has resulted in significant losses of wetlands in Mesopotamia. In the Jordan Valley the level of the Dead Sea has fallen dramatically as a result of water diversions from the Jordan River, for irrigation. Withdrawals in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Yemen have already exceeded renewable supplies, while Israel and Jordan are essentially at the limit. Water diversion for agriculture alters the balance between inflow to, and evaporation from, the Aral Sea. Levels of water withdrawals above 2,000 cubic meters per person per year in some Central Asian republics, primarily for irrigation of crops like cotton, has caused the dramatic shrinkage of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea lost 40% of its surface area between 1960 and 1990, amounting to 28,000 km2. The desiccation of the Aral Sea is not only an ecological disaster, but also a serious threat to the region and its population of 35 million people. Unless the Aral Sea can be restored to its former size, the Barsuki, Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum sands are likely to spread and fill the entire area.

43.    Dam construction: Dam construction reduces the inflow of water to wetlands. Kamal Khan Dam, on the Hirmand River in Afghanistan, will affect the ecological character of Lake Hamoun in Iran. The dam presently under construction on the Kor River in Iran will affect Lake Bakhtegan.

44.    Exotic species: The introducion of exotic species to Western Asian wetlands is an increasingly serious threat. Often justified because of beneficial primary returns, and usually carried out without feasibility studies, this practice has negative impacts on the native species. In the long run, the introduction of exotic species in wetlands causes irreparable damage. These impacts have become increasingly understood in recent years. Hamoun Lake in Iran is impacted by the introduction of exotic fish, and the Anzali Marshes by the introduction of azolla (A. filiculoides), an exotic fern. The introduction of the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) is an ecological disturbance to Bahrat Homs, in Syria.

45.    Over-hunting: The principal threat of over-hunting comes from outsiders and those who hunt with firearms, and not so much from local people who practice traditional hunting methods. The impact of illegal hunting is evident in the declining faunal population in Kuwait's Al Jahara Pool Nature Reserve.

46.    Over-grazing: Increasing human populations and the associated increase in local herd sizes results in over-grazing, especially around wetlands. Today, land is continually grazed or cultivated where previously vegetation was intermittently allowed to recover. Examples of over-grazing are evident in the Karoon Marshes and the Dez and Karkheh wetlands in Iran. Over-grazing in Wadi Turabah in Saudi Arabia is a severe threat and a huge number of livestock continue to denude increasingly barren slopes. For thousands of years people in marginal lands, including deserts and mountains (the two dominant ecosystems in Western Asia), which are common in vulnerability and climatic limitations, have developed nomadism that was in balance with nature. Today, nomads with large herds of livestock are a threat to the rangelands around the wetlands in some parts of Western Asia.

47.    Over-harvesting of mangroves: The over-harvesting of mangrove forests (for livestock feed and timber) is a serious threat all over the world. The degradation of mangrove ecosystems has direct impacts on fish using these wetlands as nursery grounds. Several places in Oman and Iran are adversely affected by mangrove over-harvesting.

48.     Fragmentation of wetlands: Road construction results in the fragmentation of wetlands and threatens their sustainability. Miankaleh Peninsula, Shadegan Marshes and the Nayband Mangroves in Iran are examples of wetlands threatened by fragmentation due to road construction.

Future Steps

49.    The emerging paradigm of sustainable development seeks to develop strategies and tools to respond to five broad requirements:

  • Integrating conservation and development;

  • Satisfying basic human needs;

  • Achieving equity and social justice;

  • Providing for social self determination and cultural diversity, and

  • Maintaining ecological integrity.

These strongly interrelated challenges are each a goal in itself and a prerequisite to the achievement of the others.

50.    Humanity must live within the carrying capacity of the Earth. There is no other rational option in the long term. Unless we use the resources of the earth sustainably and prudently, we deny people their future. "Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living" (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991) defines broad lines of advance towards a world that lives sustainably within the natural limits of the planet. The principles for sustainable living include: respect and care for the community of life; improving the quality of human life; conserving the earth’s vitality and diversity; minimising the depletion of non-renewable resources; living within the earth’s carrying capacity; changing personal attitudes and practices; and enabling communities to care for their own environments. Following the discussions on sustainable development, the Earth Summit (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 1992) endeavored to spell out how to achieve sustainable development. Agenda 21, the road map to sustainable development and a guide to the next century, expresses the idea that only global partnerships will ensure a safer and more prosperous life for all nations.

51.    Around the world, people are recognizing that economic growth and environmental protection must go hand in hand. One of the implications of the concept of sustainable development in wetland management is the sustainable utilization of wetlands for human benefit. This development should be compatible with maintaining the natural properties of the ecosystem. The need for integrating conservation and development is enshrined in the Ramsar Convention’s concept of wise use. The book "Towards the Wise Use of Wetlands", published by the Ramsar Convention Bureau, was the first attempt to promote the wise use of wetlands by providing case studies of important initiatives and guidelines based on these for applying the concept.

52.    One of the important reasons for the limited attention paid to wetlands in Western Asia is the lack of awareness of wetland values. In the last twenty years, governments, scientists and local communities have devoted increasing attention to wetlands. This has led to a greater understanding of the biological importance of wetlands and a heightened awareness of their social, economic and cultural functions. In the past wetlands have been undervalued because many of the ecological services, biological resources, and amenity values they provide are not bought and sold, and hence are difficult to value. A useful book; Economic Valuation of Wetlands: A Guide for Policy Makers and Planners, was published by the Ramsar Convention Bureau in 1997. The book sets out to provide guidance to policy makers and planners on the potential for economic valuation of wetlands and how valuation studies can be undertaken. Since it is not expected that policy makers undertake the valuation work themselves, guidance on planning a study and outlining the terms of reference for technical consultants is provided. This book also illustrates various techniques and examples of wetland valuation studies.

53.    Future steps for the conservation and wise use of Western Asian wetlands should take into account the following:

National level:

  • As the UN warns, the world is approaching a water crisis in several regions, notably the Middle East. Water will be one of the scarcest and most valuable resources in the 21st century. However, wetland conservation and water supply issues, which are closely related subjects, are often treated as totally unrelated sectors. Special attention should be given to the role of wetlands in the context of land use planning, especially in coastal zone planning and river basin management.

  • Wise use of wetlands requires a coordinated approach at a national scale. This necessitates planning which can be in the framework of various policies including wetland, conservation, environmental, as well as legal policies;

  • Review legislation that impacts on wetlands, use economic valuation in decision-making, and increase efforts to consider wetlands specifically in water management policies or plans;

  • Develop and implement mechanisms and tools promoting the wise use of wetlands;

  • Promote and apply wise use, through inventory (including information on total area of wetlands and rates of loss or conversion), research, monitoring and training activities;

  • Promote training for decision-makers and politicians of Western Asia in conservation and sustainable use. Emphasize that biodiversity conservation is not possible without protecting wetlands. Because the negative impacts of wetland loss are more pronounced in arid zones than other regions, governments should be prepared to pay more to compensate the damage and be more concerned about losing the resources;

  • Acquire adequate knowledge of wetland values and functions: greater public support for wetland conservation and wise use should be sought through more intensive efforts to raise awareness of their values and functions. A natural corollary of this approach is to reinforce the capacity of institutions through training programs.

  • Develop the concept of biosphere reserves in wetland areas. Zoning in biosphere reserves is consistent with integrated wetland management plans promoted as part of the wise use of wetlands;

  • Complete the network of protected areas (at least 10% of the land in each country) including wetlands as sensitive areas;

  • Include Ramsar sites, registered in the List of the Wetlands of International Importance, in protected area management categories or establish wetlands as nature reserves to provide more support for their conservation and wardening; and

  • Increase the legislative support for wetland protection to avoid more loss and fragmentation.

Regional level:

  • Extend regional cooperation, especially for management planning in transboundary wetlands, and between countries that share river basins;

  • Recognize the flyway concept for the conservation of migratory bird species. Migratory waterbirds often have a special significance, since many appear at traditional sites at almost precisely the same time year after year, and during migration usually move through a number of countries. Thus, the conservation of migratory species is the responsibility of more than one nation and requires cooperation at regional and international levels;

  • Adopt a coordinated approach to training needs and explore the feasibility of sharing training resources and expertise on a bilateral or multilateral basis;

  • Establish coastal and marine protected areas as a component of coastal management strategies, for the protection of species and their habitats. Cooperate with regional organizations such as the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME) and through existing agreements and frameworks such as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

International Level:

  • Participate in global plans for wetland protection via international support by addressing national issues while contributing to international causes ("Think Globally, Act Locally").

  • Promote membership of environment-related treaties and agreements among non- member states.

  • Cooperate with conventions and organizations and establish international wetland networks with significant ecological or hydrological links.

  • Chapter 18, section C (Protection of water resources, water quality and aquatic ecosystems) of Agenda 21, encourages states to adopt an integrated approach to environmentally sustainable management of water resources, including the protection of aquatic ecosystems and freshwater living resources, and to participate, as appropriate, in international water-quality monitoring and management programs, including the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention).

Global Response

54.    The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Ramsar Convention are cooperating closely on a wide range of issues under the Joint Work Plan adopted by their Conferences of the Contracting Parties and the Memorandum of Cooperation in place between the secretariats. Under the Joint Work Plan, Ramsar is taking the lead role in encouraging the implementation of appropriate actions for wetland ecosystems. Similarly, the Ramsar Convention has signed a Memorandam of Cooperation with the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and the World Heritage Convention and is presently pursuing collaborative activities with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Ramsar is a natural partner with these conventions and is seeking to ensure that efforts are not duplicated and to reduce the administrative burden on signatory states.

55.    The Conventions on Biological Diversity, Wetlands (Ramsar Convention), and Desertification are complementary and support each others’ work at the international level. This same support and cooperation should occur at the national level. This could be achieved through the establishment of mechanisms to enhance cooperation between the national focal points of the above conventions to improve their functions and avoid duplication of efforts.

56.    Joining the Ramsar Convention is the most effective way for countries to promote conservation and wise use of their wetlands, while enjoying international support. As with all the conventions, the Ramsar Convention is dependent upon the will of the member countries. The Ramsar Convention Bureau is responsible for providing necessary support services to the Contracting Parties. It is noteworthy that the Bureau is an advisory and support body with no executive power.

57.    Ramsar member countries meet every three years to assess the progress of the Convention and wetland conservation to date, share knowledge and experience on technical issues, and plan their own and the Bureau's work for the next triennium. The 7th Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP7), held in Costa Rica in May 1999, adopted 30 resolutions and their annexed guidelines and four recommendations that cover a wide range of wetland issues. The Ramsar Bureau has prepared an integrated "toolkit" of handbooks that fall under the three main themes of the Convention: Wise Use, Ramsar Sites, and International Cooperation. The "Ramsar handbooks for the wise use of wetlands" which reflect the newly adopted guidelines, are listed in annex 3.

58.    Joining the Convention on Wetlands has the following advantages for Contracting Parties:

  • Membership in Ramsar gives countries a focal point and direction for the actions necessary to ensure that wetlands, as critical elements of the total environment, are protected and managed sustainably.

  • Membership in Ramsar brings with it increased opportunities for seeking expert assistance and support. Ramsar has four official international NGO partner organizations: BirdLife International, The World Conservation Union (IUCN), Wetlands International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Through the extended networks provided by these organizations, the Contracting Parties have access to a large global community of experts on wetland conservation and wise use. Increasingly the donor community and private/commercial sectors are providing support to Ramsar signatories for the conservation and improved management of wetlands.

  • The Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention are well placed to advise the global community about their special environmental concerns and needs. These needs are brought to the world's attention and considered in global environmental planning and support programs.

  • As more and more countries of the same eco-region join the Ramsar Convention, the Bureau is more likely to develop support tools for their particular wetland ecosystems and problems. It would be to the benefit of all the countries of Western Asia to join the Ramsar Convention, thereby completing the network of international wetlands in this region. However, true arid-zone states and the Central Asian republics are still not represented in the Convention.

Annex 1: Characteristics of Western Asia Biomes based on Udvardy’s Classification.

Biome Type Characteristics Main Occurrence in the region
Warm Deserts and Semi-deserts Areas of low biodiversity with traditional nomadic peoples, becoming increasingly sedentarized. Subject to extensive wood cutting and overgrazing, salinization and desertification. Most of Saudi Arabia, South Iran
Cold Winter Deserts and Semi-deserts Relatively high biological diversity given the harsh living conditions. Often used for grazing and are home to traditional nomadic people. Central Iran, most parts of Central Asia mainly Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan
Mixed Mountain and Highland Systems A range of vegetation zones, varying with altitude, usually going forms forested areas in lower slopes to Alpine meadows and permanent snow on the summits. Increasing pressure for tourism in developed countries and high population pressure in tropical countries. North and west Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Oman
Temperate Rain Forests Cooler temperature than tropics, with all year humidity. Often from condensing fog. Lush vegetation with many ferns and mosses. Subject to large-scale commercial clearance. Hyrcanian forest in North Iran
Evergreen Sclerophyllous Forests, Woodlands or Scrub This Mediterranean type of ecosystem is resistant to summer drought. Increase in human-caused fires and overgrazing has degraded many areas. Trans Zagros, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel
Temperate Grasslands Usually occur where rainfall is insufficient for forest vegetation. Populations of associated herbivores have been greatly reduced or exterminated by hunting. Often used for cereal cropping. Jordan, Syria, Iran
Wetlands Wetlands are highly productive and provide essential breeding grounds for birds, marine and freshwater fish, and other animals. Can filter and recycle chemical waste but are often subject to eutrophication. Vast distribution in all Western Asian countries
Mangroves Trees and shrubs adapted for life in shallow sea water in tropical and subtropical coastal areas. Essential nurseries for many fish. Extensively cut for making charcoal and conversion for aquaculture. Stretches in coastal zones of Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf.
Coral Reefs Some of the world most complex and productive environments. They contain many species, which are affected by man, directly through collection for food and construction materials, and indirectly through pollution. Coral reefs of Oman Sea, Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Annex 2: Eight major habitat types in Western Asia and their characteristic bird fauna. (Scott,D.A.,1990)

1. True deserts and semi deserts:

Chlamydotis undulata, Cursorius cursor, Pterocles senegallus, Pterocles coronatus, Ammomanes deserti, A.cincturus, Alacmon alaudipes, Sylvia nana, Oenanthe deserti, Oenanthe monacha, Rhodopechys gilhaginea, Podoces pleski.

2. Semi-arid steppe of the desert rim and foothill:

But rufinus, Falco tinnunculus, Pterocles orientalis, Coracias garrulus, Merops apiaster, Galerida cristata, Oceanthe isabdlina, Emberzia melanocehpala

3. High mountains (Palomontane Fauna):

Aquila chrysaeto, Cypaetus barbatus, Apus melba, Hirunda rupestris, Eremophila alpestris, Pyrrhocorax graculus, Prunella collaris, Monticola saxatilis, Phoenicurus ochruros, Tichodroma muraria, Montifringilla nivalis, Tetraogalus caspius.

4. Forests and woodlands (Western Palearctic and Eastern European species):

Columba palumbus, Picus viridis, Dendrocopos major, Anthus trivialis, Lanius collurio, Garrulus glandarius, Troglodytes troglodytes, Prunella dularis, Sylvia atricapilla, Hippoais icterina, Erithacus rubecula, Luscinia mehynchos, Turdus sp., Parus sp.(several species), Fringilla coeles, Dendrocop syriacus, Lanius lugubris, Emberzia cineracea, Irania gutturalis, Phylloscopus neglectus, Lanius isabellinus, Sylvia (curruca) althea, Lanius vittatus , Turdus merula, Serinus pusillus, Mycerobas carpirus.

5. Pseudo savanas (the hot southern lowlands):

Afrotropical and Indomalaya species:

Streptopelia senegalensis, Coracias bengalensia, Merops orientalis, Pycnontus leucotis, Prinia gracilis, Turdoides caudatus, Nectarinia asiatic, Petronia xanthocollis, Calandrella raytal, Acridotheres tristis, Passer pyrrhono, Butastur tessa, Francolinus pondicerianus, Dendrocopos asimilis, Hypocolius ampelinus, Turdoides altirostris, Passer moabiticus

6. The wetlands (sandy shorelines, freshwater lakes, marshes, brackish lagoons, saline lakes, floodplains):

Ducks, geese, swans, coots, pelicans, greater flamingos, grebes, herons, egrets and shorebirds such as Charadriidae, Scolopacidae, Laridae, cormorants, spoonbill, glossy ibis, storks, sacred ibis,….

7. Coastal Habitats (tidal mudflats, mangroves, sandy beaches, rocky shores, sea cliffs,…):

These habitats support a variety of breeding and wintering waterbirds and seabirds:

a. Breeding species include: Dromas ardeola, Esacus recurrvirostris, Ardeola grayii, Egreta gularis, Ardea goliath.

b. wintering species include : Pelicanus crispus, Platalea leucorodia, Pandion haliaetus, Haliaeetus albicilla, Haematopus astralegus, Limosa lapponica, Numenius arquata.

8. Offshore islands and Coral reefs :

These habitats provide ideal breeding grounds for large colonies of seabirds: Sterna bergii, S. bengalensis, S. repressa, S. anaethetus, Phaethon aethereu, Phalacrocorax nigrogularis, Sterna saundersi, …

Sandy beaches of these habitats provide ideal nesting grounds for sea turtles (Chelonia mydas and Eretmochelys imbricata)

Annex 3: The Ramsar Convention ‘toolkit’ for Contracting Parties.

I. Wise use of wetlands II. Wetlands of International Importance - designation and management III. International cooperation

Handbook 1

Wise use of wetlands

Handbook 2

Developing and implementing national wetland policies

Handbook 3

Reviewing laws and institutions to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands

Handbook 4

Integrating wetlands conservation and wise use into river basin management

Handbook 5

Establishing and strengthening local communities’ and indigenous people’s participation in the management of wetlands

Handbook 6

Promoting the conservation and wise use of wetlands through communication, education and public awareness - The Outreach Programme of the Convention on Wetlands

Handbook 7

Strategic framework and guidelines for the future development of the List of Wetlands of International Importance

Handbook 8

Frameworks for managing Wetlands of International Importance and other wetlands - including:

i. Guidelines on management planning for Ramsar sites and other wetlands,

ii. Guidelines for describing and maintaining the ecological character of Listed sites

iii. Framework for designing a wetland monitoring programme

iv. Guidelines for operation of the Montreux Record (of sites where changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring, or likely to occur)

v. Wetland Risk Assessment Framework

Handbook 9

Guidelines for international cooperation under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands – which covers:

i. Management of shared wetlands and river basins;

ii. Management of shared wetland-dependent species;

iii. Partnerships between Conventions and agencies

iv. Sharing knowledge and expertise;

v. Development assistance;

vi. Foreign investment and business sector codes of conduct


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