The Iraqi Marshlands had been recognized as one of the world's most significant wetland ecosystems.  Extensive ecological damage to this area during the former Iraqi regime, with the accompanying displacement of much of the indigenous population, was identified as one of the country's major environmental and humanitarian disasters. The protection of human health and livelihoods and the preservation of area's ecosystems and biodiversity have been a national priority since the post-conflict reconstruction period.  As Iraq is transitioning from the reconstruction period to the re-development phase, there is a growing need to support longer-term sustainable management planning and implementation in the marshlands area.  This project seeks to address this need.

Iraqi Marshlands

Building on the experience and outcomes of the large-scale UNEP project for Environmental Management of the Iraqi Marshlands implemented by DTIE from 2004 to 2009, this new project addresses the emerging priority needs to promote longer-term sustainable management practices of the Iraqi Marshlands that reflect the unique historical, cultural, environmental, hydrological, and socio-economic characteristics of the area, in particular utilizing the World Heritage inscription process as a tool to develop and implement a management framework. The project aims to establish a longer-term preservation and management plan of the cultural and natural heritage in this area in accordance with the World Heritage Site programme, to identify and implement some key sustainable local area development and environmental management practices on a pilot basis, as well to build capacity and raise awareness among the local population to ensure their participation for the site preservation, environmentally sound development in the rural areas, and ecosystem management.

The marshlands area continues to suffer from limited basic services, such as drinking water, sanitation, and education, and economic activities in this area tend to be limited, small-scale and local. The prevailing level of education and vocational capacity among the local population is lower than the national average, and a significant portion of the rural population maintains more traditional cultural lifestyles and practices. On the other hand, the environment and culture are two of the key vital assets for rural areas to generate income and employment opportunities, when managed properly.  Sustainable production and consumption practices, such as manufacturing with local materials, heritage arts and crafts, and tourism services have been documented to serve as engines of sustainable rural development and growth in many developing countries.  They can also be sources of support for environmental conservation, serve as economic and social justifications for protected areas, and provide a variety of skilled and unskilled work opportunities.  While the World Heritage programme's priority is preservation and management and not economic/tourism promotion, there are many developing and developed country examples where the World Heritage inscription has been a positive impetus to improve living conditions of the local population and to provide sustainable income generating opportunities. Oil exploration projects by multinational companies have commenced in the Marshland areas. While such development could be an impetus to improve socio-economic conditions of the area, the potential impacts of such large scale industrial undertakings in this sensitive ecosystem must be minimized. The World Heritage inscription process also provides a framework to develop and implement a globally acceptable and locally appropriate preservation and management plans with full involvement of the local communities, thus providing a unique platform for this project to incorporate sustainable production and consumption options.

Iraqi MarshlandsWhile persistent economic and security problems, in addition to the marshland destruction, have severely impacted tourism and other activities, the Marshlands area used to be well-known as a tourist destination with its distinct natural beauty and cultural heritage, receiving many visitors domestically as well as from nearby nations. Recognizing this fact and the need for sustainable rural development options, the Government of Iraq has identified the marshlands as an area for potential sustainable environmental tourism, to enhance support to local people economically, socially and culturally while reducing impacts of tourism on natural and cultural resources, including “protecting, fostering, and increasing protectorates.”

In 2003, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture listed the Iraqi Marshlands (Marshlands of Mesopotamia) on the national Tentative List for the World Heritage sites, along with other seven cultural sites. The uniqueness of this nomination is that the Marshlands are recognized as a mixed, natural and cultural, heritage. Among the 890 properties inscribed by the World Heritage Committee on the World Heritage List, there are only 25 mixed sites and 176 natural sites worldwide (UNESCO, 2009). In the Arab states, there are 65 World Heritage sites, of which only 1 in Algeria is a mixed site. As such, there is a heightened interest and urgency to establish and improve management practices of locations with mixed heritage in the Arab region as well as globally, which could lead towards additional mixed sites on the World Heritage List. In addition, the listing of the Marshlands on the Tentative List marks the first recognition of natural heritage importance in Iraq.

Iraq currently has three World Heritage sites, namely Hatra (1985), Ashur (Qal’at Shergat) (2003), and Samarra Archaeological City (2007), all of which are cultural sites. UNESCO has continued to provide support to Iraq for cultural management in the post-conflict period, resulting in the successful inscription of the Samarra site in 2007. While such achievements show that the capacity for cultural management is starting to be re-built inside Iraq, no such capacity exists for natural sites, and for mixed natural-cultural sites. One of the reasons is that the natural site management is under the mandate of the Ministry of Environment, which is a relatively new institution, and the country still has rather limited history of natural resource and environmental management, particularly related to the World Heritage programme. This is a gap that this project seeks to help address with UNEP’s involvement.