On 23rd July 2013, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved the designation of the Central Marshes of Iraq as the country’s first National Park. The efforts to declare this unique landscape a park and protected area began in 2006 through a joint effort by Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Environment, and Ministry of Municipalities with support from Nature Iraq, an Iraqi environmental conservation organization, and other national and international institutions. Financial support for the effort came from the Italian Ministry of Environment, Land & Sea.
The Mesopotamian Marshlands of southern Iraq were once the 3rd largest wetlands in the world, originally extending between twelve and fifteen thousand square kilometers and partially covering the three southern governorates of Iraq (Missan, Thi Qar & Basrah). They were a vital resource for regional fisheries, reeds, and other natural resources; the home of the indigenous Ma’dan Marsh Arab culture, which is directly linked to ancient Sumeria; and a globally important area for large numbers of migrant and wintering birds, and the native habitat of endemic birds and other valuable wildlife. In the 1990s, the Saddam regime conducted a campaign to completely drain the marshlands, reducing their footprint by nearly 93%. The United Nations Environmental Programme called this action the worst environmental disaster of the last century. But after 2003, local people and the government took action to restore the waters, and the southern marshlands, though greatly changed, have returned, as have the birds, fish, water buffalo and the Ma’dan, and remain a vital economic and ecological resource.
Azzam Alwash, founder and President of the Board of Directors of Nature Iraq said of the recent declaration: “With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilization. It is now the duty of the world to help Iraq maintain these wetlands for the future generations by helping Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran to reach an equitable agreement on the sharing of the waters in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates.”
Nature Iraq particularly applauds the difficult work done by the staff of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Environment, and the National Park Committee to make the Park a reality. Much work remains to be done to make the park a reality on the ground. Soon, the park, if properly implemented and managed, can provide both a refuge for Iraq’s marshland biodiversity and a sustainable boost to the local economy through park-related tourism and related socio-economic development projects.