Iraq and Iran plan transboundary Mesopotamian Ramsar site


Hope for the Mesopotamian Marshlands

It was a strange sight - after eight years of bloody war in the 1970s - to have the Iraq and Iran delegations sitting amicably side by side and agreeing on working together to designate the shared Hawr Al Hawizah wetland, one of the major remaining parts of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, as a transboundary Ramsar Site of International Importance. This hopeful event occurred during the 'High-level Conference on the Restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands', held in Manama (Bahrain) on 28 February and 1 March 2005, co-organised by UNEP and ROPME (Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment). The meeting was well attended by representatives of most of the governments of the region, UN agencies, the World Bank and a number of NGOs already involved with these wetlands, but not of any delegation from the indigenous Ma'dan people, the Marsh Arabs.

The great Mesopotamian Marshlands, one of the iconic wetlands of the world, were inhabited by a proud people, inheritors of the Sumerian civilisation, with a vibrant culture and a unique architecture based on the ingenuous use of reeds. They lived in balance with nature, in a vast area (of about two million hectares), fed by the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers, rich in biodiversity. In the early 1990s, the impact of large upstream dams in the countries sharing their catchment basin resulted in a dramatic reduction of freshwater inflow. The coup de grace was given by Saddam's government, which implemented just after the first Gulf war and within 2-3 years a policy of draining the Marshlands. The result was the almost total destruction of the wetland ecosystems and the flight of the inhabitants to the towns, while a large number of refugees crossed the border to Iran.

After the fall of the Saddam regime, starting in late 2003, returning Ma'dan breached some of the dikes and initiated the re-flooding of the marshes. The interim Iraqi government agreed to the restoration of the wetlands and established CRIM (Centre for the Restoration of the Iraqi Marshlands) to co-ordinate this major effort. The UN (mainly through UNEP), a number of countries (such as Canada, Italy, Japan and the US) and various organisations rallied to assist. Already a considerable number of the Ma'dan have returned to their wetland villages, and, in spite of a variety of difficulties, the outcome for the future may be considered as positive.

Ramsar participated in the meeting through Thymio Papayannis, MedWet Senior Advisor, who represented the Secretary General and intervened with a joint presentation with the title 'Wetlands and human wellbeing: The case of the Mesopotamian sites'. The designation of Al Hawizah as a Ramsar site presupposes the accession of Iraq to the Convention on Wetlands. The Iraqi delegation expressed its willingness to complete rapidly the necessary procedure, with the advice of the Ramsar Secretariat, and to take part in COP9 with an observer status. All in all, the potential contribution of the Ramsar Convention to the rehabilitation of the Mesopotamian Marshlands was highly appreciated by the participants, who would welcome a more active role by this international body. In a broader context, the need of a regional wetland initiative was felt by many of the participants, and Iran suggested it would consider playing a catalytic role for its launch.

Thymio Papayannis
MedWet Senior Advisor
Convention on Wetlands
Athens, Greece

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