A study by scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), drawing on historical and new satellite images, has collected the first hard evidence detailing the true extent of damage to this important habitat for people, wildlife and fisheries.
The news, which highlights the mounting pressure facing freshwater areas across the globe, was unveiled today as the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), gave UNEP a unique set of satellite images taken in 1992, the year of the Earth Summit, and the year 2000.
The images, well over half of which have never been seen or analyzed before by the scientific community, are valued at US dollars 20 million.
Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, said:" These findings on Mesopotamia have only been made possible by 'eyes-in-the sky'. 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".
UNEP is urging Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey which are those countries responsible for the marshlands and the Tigris and Euphrates, rivers that feed them, to agree to a recovery plan (see Notes To Editors). A scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin is being carried out by UNEP in collaboration with regional organizations to help demonstrate how improvements can be made.
Commenting on the gift of an estimated 16,000 images by the United States Government and NASA to UNEP, he added:" With these new data sets we hope to learn much more about the true level of environmental damage happening on Earth, from the real extent of illegal logging in South East Asia and urban sprawl in the United States, to habitat loss in sub-Saharan Africa".
Tim Foresman, Director of UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment, said: "One of UNEP's key roles is to monitor the state of the world's environment. For this we need hard facts. Satellites, some of which have been in orbit for decades, have documented the rapid shrinking of Lake Chad and the Aral Sea, the growth of the Sahara, the deadly effects of oil spills and other major environmental changes. And today they are helping us in disclosing the true extent of damage to the Mesopotamian wetlands. Their importance cannot be underestimated".
He adds that the data will also be used to pin point areas of the globe at particular risk from the effects of natural disasters and speed up UNEP's push to create an index of vulnerable locations.
"The way we misuse land plays a significant role in aggravating the impact of cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms and other natural disasters on peoples' lives, livelihoods and property. Deforestation increases the risks of landslides, and badly planned development, from the shanty towns of the world's growing cities to sprawling settlements along the coasts, and exacerbates the harm caused by severe floods and storms, " said Mr. Foresman.
"More precise information on the extent of environmental degradation, urban sprawl and the effects of phenomena such as El Niño and global warming should allow us to better predict areas of the world at greatest risk from natural calamities. In turn this should help local, regional and national governments to act before it is too late," he said.
The decision to give UNEP the first complete set of detailed, up-to-date, satellite images was announced by the United States government last year. Over the past six months NASA, working with other US agencies, has been assembling the images taken by its Landsat craft including the Landsat-7 satellite.
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UNEP News Release 01/52
Maps - click on the button to get big size map
Satellite image 1973
Satellite image 2000
Notes To Editors
Mesopotamia and The Fertile Crescent.
There have been intermittent warnings in the past few years that the Mesopotamian marshlands have been disappearing. The UNEP study graphically documents, with satellite images, the scale and speed of their disappearance.
Comprising an integral part of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, the marshlands are located at the confluence of these two rivers in southern Iraq, partially extending into Iran. The study, due to be published later in the year, shows that these vast wetlands which once covered between 15,000 and 20,000 square kilometres now cover less than 1,500 to 2,000 square kilometres.
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. In the past 40 years, the two rivers have been fragmented by the construction of more than 30 large dams, whose storage capacity is several times greater than the volume of both rivers. By turning off the tap, dams have substantially reduced the water available for downstream ecosystems and eliminated the floodwaters that nourished the marshlands.
The immediate cause of loss of marshland is, however, the massive drainage works implemented in southern Iraq in the early 1990s following the second Gulf War.
The satellite images provide hard evidence that the once extensive marshlands have dried-up and become desert with vast stretches salt encrusted. A small northern fringe of the Al-Hawizeh marsh, straddling the Iran-Iran border (known as the Hawr Al-Azim in Iran), is all that remains.
Even this last vestige is rapidly disappearing as its water supply is impounded by new dams and diverted for irrigation. The collapse of Marsh Arab society, a distinct indigenous people that has inhabited the marshlands for millennia, adds a human dimension to this environmental disaster.
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. A 5,000 year-old culture, heir to the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, is seriously in jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end.
The impact of marshland loss on the area's teeming wildlife is probably equally devastating with significant implications for global biodiversity, including migratory birds, from Siberia to southern Africa. The marshlands disappearance has placed an estimated forty species of waterfowl at risk. Mammals, such as the smooth coated otter, that exist only in the marshlands are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, which depend on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have also experienced a sharp decline.
Despite this tragic human and environmental catastrophe, UNEP believes that there is hope. Bold measures need to be taken by the custodians of this natural treasure for the conservation of the remaining transboundary Al-Hawizeh/Al-Azim marshes before it is too late. UNEP also calls on Iraq and other riparian countries, and international donors to give the Mesopotamian marshlands a new lease on life by re-evaluating the role of water engineering works and modifying them where necessary, with a long-term view to reinstating managed flooding.
Finally, UNEP proposes an integrated river basin approach involving the three main riparian countries (Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well as Iran for the Tigris tributaries) to manage decreasing water resources sustainably and reverse negative environmental trends in the region. To continue in present ways would spell the wholesale ecological demise of lower Mesopotamia, and ultimately undermine the foundation of life for future generations.
UNEP therefore urges riparian countries to re-initiate dialogue and adopt an international agreement on sharing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for the benefit of people and
nature, and to ensure an adequate water supply to the marshes. To help stimulate and better advise this process, UNEP in collaboration with regional organizations is carrying out a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which should provide the scientific underpinnings for the improved management of the twin rivers.
Other Uses Envisaged by UNEP For the New NASA Data Sets.
Prioritizing Urgent Environmental Work
Tim Foresman, Director of UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment, says the gift of US dollars 20 million of images taken in 1992 and 2000 will help identify priority areas around the globe where limited conservation funds urgently need to be spent.
The images, which will show how the planet's land and coastlines have changed over the past decade, will mean that governments can no longer be "economical with the truth," he says.
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.
Improving The Role Of Environmental Agreements
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.
Mr. Foresman says: "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. 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. We will have a God's eye view," he says.
Monitoring The Effectiveness of UN Agency Work
The satellite information will also act as a kind of space-based, eco-auditor. Organizations, governments and green groups will be 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.
"We should be able to properly assess the damage of a development programme and the success or failure of an environmental project such as a tree planting scheme,' says Mr. Foresman.
Empowering Grassroots Activisim
Meanwhile the images should transform the way local government, green groups and protestors operate. People will be able to download images relating to their local environment. These should help them better assess whether projects such as new road, housing or port development have been environmentally damaging to habitats and wildlife.
Mr. Foresman says:" We are planning to link the images with a registry of local experts, able to interpret the satellite data. 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".
UNEP plans to make the satellite information available through the UNEP/GRID Sioux Falls centre which is co-located at the United States Geological Survey's Data Center in Sioux Falls.
The imagery will also be regionally available through UNEP centres based in places such as Nairobi, Kenya; Geneva, Switzerland; Bangkok, Thailand; the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, UK and Grid Arendal in Norway.
Mr. Foresman says UNEP will be working with sister UN bodies, universities, research institutes and other interested parties to analyse the Landsat images.
Pin Pointing Regional Hot Spots
Some of the first fruits 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.
The images will also be used in the forthcoming Millenniun Ecosystem Assessment being orchestrated by the World Resources Institute in co-operation with an international network of scientists and organizations such as UNEP.
The four-year Assessment hopes to plug some of the significant gaps in knowledge on the state of the world's ecosystems from forests, mangrove swamps and coral reefs to mudflats, salt marshes and flower-rich meadows.
The imagery is to be used to improve the scientific validity of UNEP's third and fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports.
Additional Notes To Editors: The Landsat programme, originally named the Earth Resources Technology Satellite programme, was NASA's first step at properly studying land features from space. Seven craft have been launched, the last of which was Landsat-7. It was put into orbit from 1998 to 1999. It can "see" features down to a resolution of 30 metres.
Landsat craft use sensors, able to detect light reflected from Earth, in the visible wavelengths and in the infrared. Different wavelengths or spectral frequencies indicate different features on the ground. Vegetation typically reflects more green light than red and is very reflective or bright in the infrared. Many dry soils reflect more light in the green and moderately more in the infrared
Landsat data can be used for a variety of observations including detecting different crops and tree types; whether vegetation is healthy or suffering from say pests or drought; soil conditions; forest and grassland fire damage; areas of wetlands, forest and other habitats; road and rail networks; buildings and the extent of urban areas; different rock types and minerals; ice and snow cover; flood plains; sedimentation in rivers; ocean circulation; waves; fish shoals; areas of mining activity and pollution.
Some Applications To Date: Landsat imagery of circulation and sedimentation patterns along coasts has been used by the State of Delaware to devise a strategy for deploying equipment to contain oil spills.
Information about faults and fracture zones derived from Landsat imagery has been used in the United States and abroad to select locations for new power plants. Japan has used the images to monitor pollution in Osaka Bay.
Landsat sensors, aimed at Antractica, have revealed previously unknown groups of mountains in southern Victoria Land and at the head of Lambert Glacier.
When monitoring water quality in two Virginia reservoirs, Landsat revealed small lakes that were not depicted on maps.
Landsat data has also been used as courtroom evidence in reaching agreement on land development, shown how air pollution can affect weather and to boost planning for control of forest fires.