Mallard ducks take flight over a marsh outside the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. Image credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command/Flickr
Iraq's marshes and wetlands are critical roosting places for the migratory birds of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East but, as the country struggles to preserve security and encourage development, these ecosystems have become more vulnerable than ever.Dr. Azzam Alwash, CEO of Nature Iraq, explained:
Iraq is, for good reasons, focused on security and development, but unless the country acts soon, many important species will simply not be here in 10 years' time.
Iraq's water scarcity, he explained, is a problem that was accelerated under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Following the First Gulf War in 1991, Hussein built a series of dams and diversions systems to drain 90 percent of what was then the world's third-largest wetland. Implemented as a punishment for the rebellious Marsh Arabs, the drainage program caused temperatures in the region to rise five degrees Celsius and stripped migratory birds of an important habitat.
Though these structures have now been removed, rehabilitating the wetlands remains a challenge. Dr. Alwash commented:
Flooding has been disrupted by the dams built in Turkey, Syria and Iraq itself...the natural flow system is not going to return until and unless the dams outside Iraq are actively managed as part of a basin-wide coordinated management of the Tigris and Euphrates. In response, Nature Iraq is currently producing a drought management plan.
Of the marshland that remains, much has been protected by new national park designations. Because the land is so vulnerable to upstream development, however, preserving these ecosystems may no longer be Iraq's responsibility alone.
The wetlands of Iraq—and the migratory birds that depend on them—are yet another urgent call for international conservation agreements.