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Calling UNESCO:
Navigating The Politics Of Water To Save Iraq’s Famed Southern Marshes

Ahmad Thamer Jihad
Iraqis are seeking protection from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee for their southern marshes. But the issue is not just environmental; it’s also about international water politics.
9.06.2016  |  Dhi Qar
Life goes on in Iraq's famed southern marshes.
Life goes on in Iraq's famed southern marshes.

When the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets this July in Istanbul, Iraqis are hoping that, at long last, their southern marshes will make it onto the World Heritage List, conferring upon them some important protections. A number of historic sites in Iraq are also up for consideration.

The World Heritage Committee meeting, which occurs annually, involves a meeting of representatives from 21 countries, who discuss finances and procedures as well as potential new world heritage sites and the state of existing ones.

Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has wanted to see the southern marshes on this UNESCO list since 2013 and has been actively lobbying members of the Committee to advance the cause. Last year a delegation came to Iraq to visit the marshes and assess them.

The marshes, estimated to cover around 20,000 square kilometres, incorporate a unique wetlands ecosystem, in the middle of a desert, lying between the southern cities of Basra, Amarah and the Suq Al Shuyoukh district.

Turkey doesn’t want the marshes protected because this means obligations around the regional water quota.

A joint committee, with representatives from all the provinces who have a stake in the marshes, has been planned. The authorities in the province of Dhi Qar have been working hard to lobby both national and international organizations, reports Hamid al-Ghazi, head of the Dhi Qar provincial council.

“The wetlands have environmental and cultural importance,” adds Hassan al-Waeli, who chairs the province’s culture committee. “They are the cradle of Mesopotamian civilization. And we think that views on their eligibility for international protection are converging,” he notes.

But there is more than just a desire to preserve Iraq’s history and eco-diversity at work here. There have also been arguments against making the marshes a world heritage site. Iran and Turkey have opposed the idea before.

Iran wants to postpone the decision until next year when it is able to pitch its own marshes and a number of historic sites – it shares some of the marshland with Iraq. And Turkey doesn’t want the marshes protected because this would mean more international obligations around the regional water quota. Iraqi analysts have already criticised Turkey’s Ilisu Dam project, which will reduce water flows coming into Iraq and damage not just the marshes, but also agricultural land.

Still Dhi Qar's governor, Yahya al-Nassiri, was optimistic about one of his neighbours, saying that recent meetings with Iran’s consul in Basra had gone well. “The Iranian side pledged to support voting in favour of listing the marshes as World Heritage Site,” he said in an official statement.

Several other countries’ representatives, including France, have also pledged to support the Iraqi bid at the meeting in Istanbul.

“The decision to list the Iraqi marshes is also a way of putting legal pressure on upstream countries [like Turkey and Iran] to provide the marshes with enough water – separate of water consumption in general,” explains local archaeologist, Abdulamir al-Hamdani. “The benefit of this is that people would be encouraged to return to their farming and fishing and it would also encourage the return of local wildlife.”

But even if the Iraqis’ efforts are successful and the marshes are listed as a World Heritage Site, it may not make that much difference to their upkeep, notes  Jassim al-Asadi, a senior member of local conservation agency, Nature Iraq, who was actually also born in the southern marshes area.

“There are four sites that are now listed as nature reserves under the Ramsar Convention, that was signed in Tehran [also known as the Wetlands Convention],” he points out. “But in reality there have been no great changes in these areas.  Government efforts in preserving these wetlands and developing them have faltered.”

“Appropriate management plans are needed and these require coordination and cooperation between all of the involved parties,” al-Asadi argues.

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