In the south of Iraq lies a watery region that has been home to the Ma'dan people - the Marsh Arabs - for millennia. After an onslaught by Saddam Hussein and environmental pressures, the Iraq Marshes were almost destroyed. But last week, after more than a decade of restoration, campaign and research work, the Iraq wetlands earned UNESCO World Heritage status.
The news that the Iraq wetlands have been given the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site swept round the world last week, bringing a ray of hope in a country where war, terror and instability has already devastated treasures of human civilization, such as the cities of Nimrud and Hatra.
The home of the ancient Sumerians, the birthplace of the Biblical Abraham, and a possible site of the garden of Eden. Were the wetlands in the south of Iraq only home to a couple of crickets, they would still be considered pretty significant. But as it is, these stunningly beautiful areas have been home to the Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs) and their semi-nomadic culture, as well as unique biodiversity, for millennia. At the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the landscape has been inhabited since 5,000 BCE. It comprises wetlands and three under-explored archaeological sites. The area, which once spanned 20,000 square kilometers, contains over 200 species of birds, as well as 40 species of fish, some of which are threatened.
But after decades of mismanagement and neglect, as well as a concerted campaign by Saddam Hussein to punish the resistance of the Ma'dan to his rule, over 90% of the area was drained. It looked like the Iraq wetlands would be another casualty of the country's instability, if it weren't for an unprecedented effort that worked at all levels of society.
By the time the UNESCO application was filed in 2014, by Iraq's Ministry of Environment, ten years of cooperation had taken place between preparation teams from Iraqi regional and national institutions, ministries, universities, and NGOs, and international organizations.
According to an extensive report issued by the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARC-WH) the scale of the endeavour was so groundbreaking that it "… could form part of best practice guidelines" for future nominations. The report says that at the outset, thanks to brain drain and instability, Iraq lacked a clear authority who might lead the effort, technocratic expertise, and political will to take the project forward. The region was under-studied and ongoing security issues would affect operations on the ground. Furthermore, there was the risk that a failed UNESCO application could have negative fall-out, affecting relations between the very cooperations necessary to sustain the region in future.
Suzanne Alwash, author of Eden Again: Hope in the Marshes of Iraq, emphasizes the leading role taken by the Ma'dan in working with government agencies to re-flood the marsh from 2003 onwards. She is also a co-founder of the Eden Again project, which later evolved into Nature Iraq, the organization that has driven much of the restoration of the marshes so far.
"No outsiders came in and restored them," she said in an email. "Much of the work was accomplished by local people with simple backhoes, even picks and shovels, as soon as the former regime was gone."
Through this work, 40-60% of the place has been re-flooded. It is this that provided the backbone of the case for making a WHS nomination. A feasibility study commissioned in 2010 by the regional office for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN-ROWA) warned that if the damage were to be considered irreversible the case for World Heritage status would be weakened. However, the earlier restoration work by the Ma'dan added to the argument that the marshes could be at least partially restored.
To offer necessary skills in putting the application together, the ARC-WH report relates that training workshops were held and a study trip to Romania's Danube Delta - a usefully similar World Heritage site - was undertaken. To strengthen the collaboration politically, the emphasis switched in a subtle but important way: from working on the cooperation in the name of a UNESCO application, to working on a UNESCO application in the name of strengthening the country's ability to manage and restore the region's heritage overall. Accompanied by a public awareness campaign, the project gained traction politically.
Now that the status of World Heritage site has been attained, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Dutch-based Wetlands International were involved in preparing the nomination and have been working in the region for years. Frank Hoffmann, Technical Officer for Biodiversity and Corporate Relations, told BECAUSE by email that "Complete restoration to the original state will be very difficult and is not likely in [the] near future."
The marshes also sit cheek by jowl with the Majnoon oil fields - so named because of the 'crazy' amounts of oil stored there. Shell, who signed a 2010 agreement with the Iraq government to explore the site, have a commitment not to develop in any World Heritage status site worldwide. But according to maps drawn up by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that demarcates protected wetlands "of international importance" such as the Iraq marshes, the Majnoon oil fields sit outside of the area being protected.
According to their website, Shell have commissioned a biodiversity action plan and have cleared over 16,000 mines from the area, as well as working closely with Wetlands International to minimise the impact of their work.
Hoffmann describes other areas of concern. "The greatest challenge is water availability," he said. Agricultural work and dams upstream limit this, and international cooperation is both necessary and difficult. "A basin wide, international cooperation and coordination are essential," continues Hoffmann. "The latter, however, is very difficult given the political and unstable situations in northern Iraq, Syria and now also Turkey. Also locally, in southern Iraq, better water management structures are needed."
And on top of all this, the increased droughts brought on by climate change will have their effect. It is clear now that the same sort of cooperation that characterized the bid for World Heritage status will have to be redoubled for the marshes to thrive.
"Support and capacity building from (international) organizations can contribute positively, and should include governments, conventions, civil society and businesses," says Hoffmann.
For now, however, the people of the marshes are quietly returning to the area. Much of their traditional agriculture - including rice, reeds and water buffalo - is not practicable in the old ways, due to the pollution and salinity of the water.
"Tens of thousands of people have moved back into the marshlands — most not to the old lifestyle deep in the marshes, but mostly on the periphery of the marshlands," says Alwash. "They depend on the marshlands for their unique form of agriculture … hence their eagerness to restore them. However, there are some hundreds, perhaps a thousand, persons who do still carry out the ancient lifestyle."
Images: Hassan Janali, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library (public domain)