Ancient Fertile Crescent Almost Gone, Satellite Images Show

National Geographic News
May 18, 2001

The rich Mesopotamian marshlands known for centuries as the Fertile Crescent have almost completely disappeared, with only 10 percent of the important ecosystem still remaining, according to a study based on satellite images of the region.

The Fertile Crescent lies at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in southern Iraq and extends into Iran. Analyzing historical data and new images from NASA's Landsat satellites, scientists at the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) found that the marshy area has almost completely dried up over the past three decades and is now mainly desert with large salt-encrusted patches. A small northern fringe of marsh that straddles the Iraq-Iran border is all that remains.

The researchers say the damage is a result of extensive damming of the two rivers and heavy draining of the river basin in recent decades.

There have been warnings in recent years that the Mesopotamian marshlands were disappearing. But the UNEP report offers the first hard evidence of how dramatically the marshlands have shrunk.

According to the UNEP study, due to be published later this year, the marshlands previously totaled an area of 15,000 to 20,000 square kilometers (5,800 to 7,700 square miles) but now cover less than 1,500 to 2,000 square kilometers (580 to 770 square miles).

Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of UNEP, said scientists did not have a full understanding of the situation until recently because conditions in Iraq over the past decade limited access to the area and hindered monitoring of the environmental changes.

"These findings on Mesopotamia have only been made possible by 'eyes in the sky,'" said Toepfer.

The UNEP is urging Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, which are dependent on the marshlands and the rivers that feed them, to undertake a recovery plan. The UNEP and regional organizations are doing a scientific assessment of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin to determine what improvements are needed.

Dams and Drainage Projects

The UNEP report highlights the mounting pressure being put on freshwater areas around the world, which is radically altering the way of life for people in the affected regions and threatening native wildlife.

According to the UNEP, an indigenous group of people known as Marsh Arabs—who trace their culture to ancient Sumerians and Babylonians—has been displaced by the loss of the marshlands. About a fifth of the group's estimated population of half a million reportedly have settled in refugee camps in Iran, while the rest live in Iraq.

Scientists say the major ecological changes have put an estimated 40 species of waterfowl at risk, while mammals unique to the region, such as the smooth-coated otter, are now considered extinct. Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, which depend on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have experienced a sharp decline. Migratory birds from Siberia to southern Africa may also be seriously affected.

The UNEP attributes the relatively rapid loss of the Mesopotamia marshlands to extensive damming upstream and drainage schemes implemented since the 1970s. More recently, a major factor contributing to the problem is a massive drainage works program installed in southern Iraq in the early 1990s.

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