23 July 2004


Press Release


(Reissued as received.)

NAIROBI/PARIS, 23 July (UNEP) -- A multi-million dollar project to restore the environment and provide clean drinking water in the Marshlands of Mesopotamia was announced today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The project, funded by the Government of Japan, will support the sustainable development and restoration of the Iraqi Marshlands through implementation of environmentally sounds technologies.  Drinking water and sanitation systems will be installed in key communities and pilot wetlands restoration undertaken for the benefit of people and wildlife.

The Marshlands, considered by some to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden, were massively damaged in the late twentieth century, partly as a result of new dams on the Tigris and Euphrates river systems and partly as a result of massive drainage operations by the previous Iraqi regime.

In 2001, UNEP alerted the world to their plight when it released satellite images showing that 90 per cent of these fabled wetlands, home to rare and unique species like the Sacred Ibis and African darter, and a spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, had been lost.

Further studies, released in 2003, showed that an additional 3 per cent or 325 square kilometres had gone.  Experts feared that the entire wetlands, home to a 5,000-year-old civilization who are the heirs of the Babylonians and Sumerians, could disappear entirely by 2008.

With the collapse of the former Iraqi regime in mid-2003, local residents began opening floodgates and breaching embankments in order to bring water back into the marshlands.

Satellite images indicate that, by April this year, around a fifth or some 3,000 square kilometres of the marshes had been reflooded.

The challenge now is to restore the environment and provide clean water and sanitation services to the up to 85,000 people living there.

A recent United Nations inter-agency assessment and public health survey found that most of the Marsh Arabs are collecting water directly from the marshlands.

Many of the settlements in the area lack basic sanitation services with waste water draining into the street or nearest stream.  As a result, water-borne diseases have become commonplace.

The $11 million project, approved in the framework of the UN Iraq Trust Fund, will initially target around a dozen settlements with small-scale water treatment systems, some of which are likely to be solar powered.

Reed beds and other marshland habitats, which act as natural, water-filtration systems, will be restored which will benefit not only local residents but also provide new habitats for birds and other key wildlife.

Other activities will include the setting up of a Marshland Information Network, an Internet-based system that will allow those with an interest in the region to share their ideas and strategies.

Satellite images, documenting how restoration work is faring and chronicling changes in vegetation and the progress of reflooding, will be posted on the site almost daily.

Some of the funds will support public-awareness schemes, both locally and internationally.

The project will also help train the Iraqi authorities, both at national government and local levels.  It will train experts in wetland management and restoration, remote-sensing analysis and community-based resource management.

Several other governments and non-governmental organizations are involved in the Iraqi Marshlands.  The UNEP project aims to strengthen the coordination of these various efforts to ensure maximum benefit for the people and wildlife there.  It is envisaged that this coordinated approach will be applied to the future development of a wider Marshlands strategy in the region.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said:  "The Marshlands of Mesopotamia constitute the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia.  They are also culturally significant.  The UNEP has taken a keen interest in their fate, documenting their destruction and alerting the world to their demise."

"I am, therefore, delighted that the Japanese Government has stepped in to support a new beginning for the Marshlands and the Marsh Arabs.  Half the world's wetlands have been lost in the past 100 years.  I am sure that the lessons learnt during this project will provide important clues on how to resuscitate other lost and degraded wetlands elsewhere on the globe", he said.

Monique Barbut, Director of UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, which will be carrying out the project, said:  "We will be putting together, in close cooperation with the relevant Iraqi ministries, a 10-person team of local and international experts.  The project starts today and we hope to begin field studies and pilot water treatment projects towards the end of the year."

"Nobody fully knows how much of the Marshlands can be recovered", she said.  "The future of the Iraqi Marshlands will be tied to the eventual development of a master plan covering regional cooperation with those countries upstream and downstream in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin", she said.

Notes to Editors

For previous press releases, reports and satellite images on the Marshlands of Mesopotamia please go to

For more information on UNEP's post-conflict assessment work, see

For more information, please contact:  Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, in Nairobi, on tel: +254-2-623084, mobile: +254-733-632755; e-mail:, or Robert Bisset, UNEP Spokesperson for Europe, in Paris, on tel: +33-1-4437-7613, mobile: +33-6-2272-5842, e-mail:

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For information media. Not an official record.