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UN report warns that dams are drying out precious Mesopotamian marshlands

UN report warns that dams are drying out precious Mesopotamian marshlands

Around 85 per cent of the Mesopotamian marshlands - the largest wetland in the Middle East and one of the most outstanding freshwater ecosystems in the world - have been lost mainly as a result of drainage and damming, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that documents the scale and speed of their disappearance.

"There is no doubt that the disappearance of these great wetlands of the Tigris-Euphrates river delta represents a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity's worst engineered disasters," UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said today on the release of the report at the Eleventh Stockholm Water Symposium.

"Environmental degradation on such a scale and at such speed dramatically reveals how we are thoughtlessly imperilling our fragile blue planet," he said. "These actions are undercutting our own livelihoods and will haunt future generations for years to come."

Comprising an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, the marshlands are located at the confluence of the two rivers in southern Iraq, and partially extend into Iran. The UNEP study, drawing on historical and new satellite imagery, shows that these vast wetlands, which once covered between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometres, now cover less than 1,300 square kilometres.

The report, entitled "The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem," blames the immediate cause of marshland loss on the massive drainage works implemented in southern Iraq in the early 1990s, following the second Persian Gulf war. UNEP said that some of the engineering works were expanded into "a full-fledged scheme to drain the marshlands."

In releasing the report, UNEP called on Iraq and other countries along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to give the Mesopotamian marshlands "a new lease on life by re-evaluating the role of water engineering works and modifying them where necessary, with a long-term view to reinstating managed flooding."