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Support for Environmental Management of the Iraqi Marshlands

The Iraqi Marshlands constitute the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, with environmental and socio-cultural significance. Since the 1970s, the Marshlands have been damaged significantly, due to upstream dam construction and drainage operations by the former Iraqi regime. By the time the former Iraqi regime collapsed in 2003, these Marshlands - with their rich biodiversity and unique cultural heritage - had been almost entirely destroyed.

Extensive ecological damage to the area, with the accompanying displacement of much of the indigenous population, was identified by the United Nations environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations/World Bank Needs Assessment Initiative for the Reconstruction of Iraq as one of the country's major environmental and humanitarian disasters.

In 2001, UNEP alerted the international community to the destruction of the Marshlands when it released satellite images showing that 90 percent of the Marshlands had already been lost. Experts feared that the Marshlands ecosystem would be completely lost within three to five years unless urgent action was taken.

As the former regime ended, people began to open floodgates and break down embankments that had been built to drain the Marshlands. Re-flooding has since occurred in some, but not all areas. Satellite images and analysis by UNEP show that reflooding has continued, with seasonal fluctuations.

The area also faces water quality degradation, including contamination by sewage, high level of salinity, and pollution from other sources, such as pesticides and untreated industrial discharge from upstream. These problems are in part due to the limited flow of water through the Marshlands, as well as inadequate wastewater and water quality management practices.

A 2003 UN inter-agency assessment and a public health survey conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) indicated that safe drinking water had become the inhabitants' most critical need. Many residents have no choice but to drink untreated, unfiltered marsh water. UNEP's dialogues with the local communities and government officials confirmed that the provision of safe drinking water was the number one priority for the local population.

To protect human health and livelihoods and to preserve the area's ecosystems and biodiversity, the Iraqi authorities included water quality and Marshlands management on the priority list for reconstruction under the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) Iraq Trust Fund and made direct appeals to donor governments for assistance.

UNEP's Project to Help Iraqis Restore and Manage the Marshlands

The UNEP "support for Environmental Management of the Iraqi Marshland" commenced in August 2004, in order to respond to the Iraqi priorities in the Marshland area in an environmentally sound manner. The UNEP project aims to support the sustainable management and restoration of the Iraqi Marshlands, by facilitating strategy formulation, monitoring marsh conditions, raising capacity of Iraqi decision makers, and providing water, sanitation, and wetland management options on a pilot basis.

The first phase of the project (Phase I) has been funded through the UNDG Iraq Trust Fund in 2004, with earmarked contributions from the Government of Japan. In 2006, the project has been extended with additional bilateral funding from the Government of Italy and the Government of Japan (Phase II-A and II-B). The project has also received funding pledge from the Government of Japan, and will proceed to Phase III in 2007 and 2008.

The following illustration shows the three phases and the key activities. Detailed descriptions of the three phases can be accessed from the headings on the left side of this page.

In order to implement this project in a coordinated manner, UNEP has established close cooperation with various Iraqi ministries, including the Ministry of Environment (MOE), Ministry of Water Resources (MOWR), and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works (MMPW), as well as governorate, local, and academic institutions. UNEP also plays a coordinating role in the Marshland management activities with various UN and bilateral agencies and the Iraqi side.

The International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC), located in Japan, is carrying out the project implementation. Since its inception in 1994, IETC has supported EST promotion. It is part of UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics (UNEP DTIE).