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One of world's top wetlands ruined by drainage: UN environment agency

One of world's top wetlands ruined by drainage: UN environment agency

Close to 90 per cent of the Mesopotamian marshlands - better known as "the Fertile Crescent" - have been lost mainly as a result of drainage and damming, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said today.

In a new study, UNEP scientists have collected the first hard evidence detailing the true extent of damage to this important habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries, the agency said in a statement issued in Nairobi and Washington.

Due to be published later in the year, the study reveals that the wetlands, which once covered between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometres, have shrunk to one tenth of their previous size. In addition, around one fifth of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs who used to inhabit the area are now living in refugee camps in Iran. Their 5,000 year-old culture, heir to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, is in jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end, UNEP warned.

UNEP is urging Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey -- the countries responsible for the marshlands and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that feed them -- to agree to a recovery plan. A scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin is being carried out by UNEP in collaboration with regional organizations to help demonstrate how improvements can be made.

Today's news was unveiled as the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) gave UNEP an estimated 16,000 satellite images worth $20 million. Taken in 1992 - the year of the Earth Summit - and the year 2000, the images contain information that has never before been analyzed by the scientific community. "With these new data sets we hope to learn much more about the true level of environmental damage happening on Earth, from the real extent of illegal logging in South-East Asia and urban sprawl in the United States, to habitat loss in sub-Saharan Africa," Mr. Toepfer said.