A French delegation visited the Mesopotamian Marshes at the end of March 2018, following the invitation of the Iraqi Green Climate Organisation.
The vast South Iraqi Marshes, formerly covering a geographical area of between 9,000 and 20,000 sq. km, depending on the season, and the cradle of Sumerian civilization, used to be a major world wetland, both culturally and environmentally. During the 1990’s, Saddam Hussein’s regime resulted in massive drainage for political reasons, which led to disappearance of more than 90% of the surface of the marshes. This has been one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th century and has had major impacts on the socio-economy of the area.
Fifteen years ago, a restoration campaign of the marshes was initiated, and connection to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were recreated. Furthermore, several international recognitions of the exceptional value of the site were given: in 2007, Iraq signed the Ramsar Convention and designated several RAMSAR sites within the marshes complex; in 2016 the site was designated as both a natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Thanks to this restoration, the marshes currently cover approximately 40% of their initial surface, and the Iraqi Government aims to make this 75% by 2035. This will require the allocation of 5.25 billion sq. meters of freshwater every year. However, ever increasing dam building on the courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, essentially in Turkey, together with the effects of climate change, greatly jeopardize this objective and has even led to a significant decline of the water surface levels in recent years.
It is in this context that a French Delegation visited the Mesopotamian Marshes, following an invitation from the Iraqi Green Climate Organisation. This NGO is very much committed to the safeguarding of these marshes and they did everything in their power to make this visit a success, especially due to the fact that no French official has set foot in the Iraqi Marshes since 2003, soldiers and diplomats excepted. A team of six people formed this delegation: the presidents of Ramsar France, Climate Chance and France’s Nature Reserves, the vice-president of LPO (Birdlife France) and his female companion who initiated the project and Tour du Valat Foundation’s general director. The team aimed to measure the challenges that lay ahead. Through an overview of the three main marshes of the Mesopotamian complex (Central Marsh, West and East Hammar Marsh) they were able to see the great ecological value of the site, both in regards to the abundance and diversity of species, as well as the number of endemics.
The delegation also observed that, because of the shortage in freshwater, a section of the marshes has recently become strongly saline, leading to a massive loss of biodiversity and negative impacts on the surrounding irrigated agriculture, and on the different economic practices (fishing, hunting, water buffalo grazing) which are key components of the Arabic Marshes Culture. Ilsu Dam in Turkey, which has just been finished, is about to be filled, and should reduce the Tigris river flow by 40%. In addition to that, a severe drought (60 mm precipitation in 2017 instead if the average 100-200 mm) is plaguing the area and adds to the pressures and wounds of successive wars since 1991.
It is clear that the essential determinant to the sustainability of the marshes lies within the management of river flows at the scale of the whole Tigris-Euphrates watershed, in particular, upstream in Turkish territory. This delicate geopolitical issue is out of reach of the members of this French delegation. However, several encounters with the Vice-minister for Environment, the Governor of Thi-Qar Province, the French Ambassador in Iraq and several local stakeholders, still make it possible to consider courses of action aimed at significantly improving the environmental characteristics of the site as well as the living conditions of the resident population through a greater collaboration between French and Iraqi stakeholders.