Some people believe that Iraq’s Central Marshes, formed by the Tigris and Euphrates watersheds, are the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. A rare example of a huge wetland ecosystem in arid – even desert – conditions, the Central Marshes are a vital stopover for migratory birds, a site of unique and beautiful habitats, and, since the time of the Sumerians, home to the indigenous Ma’Dan people, known as the Marsh Arabs. In the last decades of the 20th century the marshes were drained and burned, most prominently by the regime of Saddam Hussein in an effort to destroy possible hiding places and food sources for insurgents. Dam construction in Turkey at the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters exacerbated the devastation. In 2003 the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that 93 percent of the marshlands had disappeared. Through great effort on the part of Iraqi conservationists in cooperation with international organizations, Iraq’s marshes are finally recovering.
On July 23, 2013, Iraq made a remarkable announcement: 400 square miles of the Central Marshes are now protected as Iraq’s first national park. Restoration has been ongoing for nearly a decade already, with scientists conjecturing that 70 to 75 percent of the marshes could recover.1 Thanks to the efforts of Nature Iraq, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Environment, and the National Park Committee, this ecosystem is now under legal protection as it undergoes the recovery process.
Nature Iraq has identified the locations richest in biodiversity in anticipation of increasing the amount of protected lands and waters in other regions of Iraq. The initial designation has taken almost a decade. Now, the nonprofit has a plan for 10 more national parks that will protect about 17 percent of the land. Iraq ranked last in the 2012 EPI, but has seen a slight improvement in its performance over the past decade. Efforts like these will boost biodiversity and habitat and will help the nation continue to improve its environmental performance.
1 Al Ansari, N., et. al. (2012). Restoring the Garden of Eden, Iraq. Journal of Earth Sciences and Geotechnical Engineering, 2:1, 53-88.