Iraq creates first National Park
Iraq's Council of Ministers has approved the designation of the country's first national park, in the Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq.
Once the third largest wetland in the world, the Mesopotamian Marshes are widely thought to be the original 'Garden of Eden'. However, they were nearly destroyed during the Gulf War in the 1990s, when Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, drained the area and reduced the marshland to less than ten percent of its original extent.
Since Saddam's downfall in 2003, efforts have been made to re-flood and restore the marshes, with surprising success. The new designation as a national park will hopefully help to protect this vital habitat into the future.
The Mesopotamian Marshes are of great importance to Iraq's wildlife, providing a source of fresh water and essential habitat in a region surrounded by deserts. Despite most of the marshes being destroyed, the region's wildlife managed to survive and is now making a remarkable comeback.
"They had hung on in small spots. When the water spread again, so did the birds," said Richard Porter, BirdLife International's Middle East Advisor. "It shows how resilient nature can be, and gives hope that other lost wetlands can be restored."
Unfortunately, although many parts of the marshland have recovered, others have not. One of the main threats to the wetland is the region's water politics, with countries upstream of Iraq increasingly restricting the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
To counter this threat, Nature Iraq, the NGO which led the campaign for the designation of the national park, has persuaded the Iraq government to build an embankment to allow water to be diverted into the marshes in spring.
"Declaring a park isn't just a bit of paper," said Azzam Alwash, founder of Nature Iraq. "It will mean we can reserve a percentage of the water from the rivers for the marshes."
A further threat to the marshes comes from Iraq's increasing urbanisation and development. The building of roads, infrastructure and water systems could all threaten the country's natural habitats if not properly regulated.
"I see areas that have been the same way for thousands of years being obstructed by roads. Development is encroaching into the wildlife's area and taking away habitats," said Alwash, adding that, "I want progress, but I don't want development to overtake the Iraqi tradition of living in harmony with nature."
Long-term protection of Iraq's marshes will depend on international agreements on water-sharing, as well as the availability of money, which could one day come from tourism.
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Iraq map image via Shutterstock.