UNEP says that the $20 million new and historical NASA satellite images show the first hard evidence detailing the true extent of damage to this important habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries. “These findings on Mesopotamia have only been made possible by ‘eyes-in-the sky,’ said Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP. “Iraq’s difficult situation in the past decade has limited access to, and hindered monitoring of, events in the area. As a result, this major ecological disaster, comparable to the drying up of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of Amazonia, has gone virtually unreported until now.”

The satellite images provide hard evidence that the once extensive marshlands, comprising an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system in southern Iraq and partially extending into Iran, have dried-up and become desert with vast stretches becoming salt encrusted. The wetlands, which only 25 years ago, covered up to 20,000 square kilometres (7,800 square miles), now cover as little as 1,500 square kilometres (600 square miles), situated on the Iran-Iraq border. Even this last vestige is rapidly disappearing as its water supply is impounded by new dams and diverted for irrigation, UNEP says.

The cause of the decline is mainly as a result of damming upstream as well as drainage schemes since the 1970s. The Tigris and the Euphrates are amongst the most intensively dammed rivers in the world, with more than 30 large dams constructed in the past 40 years. The storage capacity of these dams is several times greater than the volume of both rivers, meaning that the floodwaters that nourished the marshlands have been eliminated. However, the immediate cause of loss of marshland is the massive drainage works implemented in southern Iraq in the early 1990s following the second Gulf War.

The loss of the marshland has lead to the extinction of mammals such as the smooth coated otter, caused significant disturbance to the patterns of migratory birds from Siberia to southern Africa and placed 40 species of waterfowl at risk. Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, which depend on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have also experienced a sharp decline. In addition to the loss of biodiversity, there has been a collapse of the Marsh Arab society, a distinct indigenous people that has inhabited the area for some 5,000 years. Around one fifth of the estimated half-million Marsh Arabs are now living in refugee camps in Iran with the rest internally displaced within Iraq.

UNEP is urging Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, the countries responsible for the marshlands and their water supply, involving a re-initiation of dialogue between virtual enemies and the adoption of an international agreement on sharing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for the benefit of people and nature, and is conducting a scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin to help demonstrate how improvements can be made. It is urging Iran and Iraq to take ‘bold measures’ to conserve the remaining Al-Hawizeh/Al-Azim marshes, to re-evaluate the role of water engineering works and modify them where necessary, with a long-term view to reinstate managed flooding.

In addition to uncovering the Mesopotamian devastation, the new NASA data sets from the Landsat satellite, which can portray features down to a resolution of 30 metres, will help identify priority areas around the globe where limited conservation funds urgently need to be spent. Impacts of industrial, agricultural and development policies on meadows, mountain ranges, mangrove swamps, national parks and World Heritage Sites will become public knowledge available to scientists, pressure groups and individuals for the first time. The imagery will also help in tracking the effectiveness of over 500 international and regional environmental conventions, treaties and agreements covering everything from the protection of wetlands to those aimed at helping migratory birds.

“At the moment, assessing the extent of illegal logging or the drainage of wetlands in many countries is based to a great extent on conjecture, goodwill and the differing abilities of governments to gather the information in the field,” said Tim Foresman, Director of UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment. “For developing countries with limited resources, equipment and staff the task can be especially difficult. Once these images – giving us wall to wall coverage of Earth – are studied we will be able to say for the first time, with a great deal of precision, if the government figures are sound.”

UNEP says that the satellite information will also act as a kind of space-based, eco-auditor, with organisations, governments and green groups able to evaluate with scientific certainty the environmental impacts of programmes carried out by bodies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and UN agencies. It will also enable local government and green groups to better assess whether projects such as new road, housing or port development have been environmentally damaging to habitats and wildlife.

“We are planning to link the images with a registry of local experts, able to interpret the satellite data,” says Foresman. “This will give interested parties, who may be considering filing a lawsuit or an objection, the accurate and relevant information they need. We hope to have this part of the service up and running in two to three years time”

Some of the first fruits of the new imagery will be from studies of more than 100 ‘hot spots’ of environmental degradation, identified in six regional areas of the globe, where existing knowledge is sparse or incomplete. Other potential sites include the Masai Mara in Kenya, the Venice lagoon in Venice, Italy and the North West rainforests of the United States.

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