Two United Nations agencies unveiled a joint bid today to list Iraq’s marshlands, considered by some to be the original Garden of Eden, as a World Heritage Site, capping efforts to restore the ecological viability of the fragile region.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said in a press statement that the joint bid – which is also being funded by the Italian Government – aims to further the conservation and protection of the marshlands.
Also known as the Fertile Crescent, the Marshlands of Mesopotamia have been spawning grounds for Persian Gulf fisheries and home to species such as the sacred ibis. They are also the site of a unique cultural heritage surrounding the indigenous population, known as the Marsh Arabs.
But the marshlands were almost totally drained by the former regime of Saddam Hussein during the 1990s and early this decade. By 2002, the original 9,000 square kilometres of permanent wetland had dwindled to 760 square kilometres, and UNEP warned that the marshlands would be completely lost within five years unless urgent action was taken.
Since then, the UNEP restoration project has led to the reclamation of much of the marshlands, thanks in part to measures such as the planting of reed banks and beds to serve as natural pollution and sewage filters.
The $14 million project began in 2004 with funding from the UN Iraq Trust Fund, Japan and Italy, and it has involved local communities in the efforts to restore the marshlands.
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said the lessons learned from the reclamation of the marshlands go beyond the borders of Iraq.
“They provide a blueprint for the restoration of the many other damaged, degraded and economically important wetland ecosystems across the world,” he said.
UNEP and UNESCO, which agreed to the bid at a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, this week, are now working with Iraqi authorities to draw up a plan to make a submission to the World Heritage Committee for the site’s inclusion on the World Heritage List. UNESCO said the marshlands could be listed as early as 2011.